Ape Language; Signs Indicate Simians May Use Humanlike Methods

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 11, 2006 | Go to article overview

Ape Language; Signs Indicate Simians May Use Humanlike Methods


Byline: Christian Toto, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

A growing group of animal experts say apes say the darndest things - courtesy of sign language. Researchers began teaching apes to use sign language in the 1960s, and many are convinced the creatures are capable of reaching out in crude but recognizable ways, courtesy of hand gesturing.

Not everyone believes simians can handle true language. Some in the linguist community say they're merely aping signs taught to them without any sense of syntax or originality, signs that would indicate genuine language. Others, particularly those who work closely with apes, disagree.

Dr. Michael Cranfield, the director of animal health, research and conservation with the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, says all apes communicate in some way, although their methods vary from ape to ape.

Male chimpanzees "try to make the loudest noises to impress the rest of the group to be submissive," Dr. Cranfield says. Pygmy chimps, by contrast, "settle all their disputes with sex," he adds.

Gorillas communicate in ways that resemble human methods more than any other ape, Dr. Cranfield says. They may grunt or scream to express their feelings, or use eye contact, or the lack thereof, to tell fellow apes how they're feeling.

Some communications tend to be brisk.

"If they're annoyed at one of the younger [apes], they'll shove them out of the way," he says.

Ape communication is akin to child development, he says.

"It begins with the mother fostering it .. there's a tremendous bond there," he says.

Dr. Cranfield, who is director of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, which cares for endangered apes in Rwanda, Uganda and Congo, hasn't specifically studied apes using sign language. However, he says he believes apes possess enough raw ability for simple communication.

The National Zoo said through a spokesperson that it does not have someone to comment on apes using sign language.

Deborah H. Fouts is a true believer in apes' ability to talk via signs.

"Chimpanzees have been acquiring signs for the last 40 years," says Ms. Fouts, director of the Chimpanzee & Human Communication Institute at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Wash.

"Chimpanzees do use .. American Sign Language in socially appropriate ways. They talk to each other and humans," Ms. Fouts says. "It's not like someone just sat down and said, 'I think this is what they're doing.' "

Ms. Fouts says current ape research is focused on conversational repair, in which the creatures encounter out-of-context communication and must process it and return to the original conversation.

Not all apes are able to use signs.

"Orangutans are a more of a solitary critter, but chimpanzees are really social, so it's a natural extension," she says.

Like humans, apes pick up communication clues from their environment, particularly their fellow apes - or humans under some research plans.

Philip Lieberman, a professor with the department of cognitive and linguistic sciences at Brown University in Providence, R.I., cites a study in which chimpanzees were raised like children to see how much information they picked up by contact. …

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