Term Paper: Ape Language Experiments

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Ape Speech

Research has been conducted for a long time on questions about the origin of language and how human beings first learned to speak. More recently, research has shifted to various primate studies as to whether or not other primates have what can be considered a language and in some cases whether apes can be taught to understand language and even to speak. Some of the early experiments in this area were seen as promising by some and as self-delusion by others, but the research continued and has produced a number of interesting results that may bring us closer to understanding the genesis of language and how widespread language is in the animal kingdom. Some animals are known to imitate human language without understanding it, such as parrots. For apes to have true language, they have to understand what is said and use the language to signify, not merely to imitate.

The question has been raised as to whether or not apes can use language, and researchers have developed ways of testing this idea. Efforts to teach language to chimpanzees were undertaken because chimpanzees have many characteristics in common with human beings, but in site of this, chimpanzees do not learn to speak when given the same experiences children have when they learn to speak. A researcher in Moscow raised a chimpanzee in her home from 1913 to 1916 but could not get it to imitate human voice or learn a word of Russian, and other accounts have had similar outcomes. At the most, one chimpanzee was able to learn three words. In spite of these failures, people remained interested in seeing of animals could be taught to talk, and one set managed to teach a chimpanzee American Sign Language with much greater success, suggesting that effort to teach chimpanzees to talk might fail because the chimpanzee could not learn with an inappropriate response medium, meaning vocalization. Animals might learn to talk using a more appropriate response medium. Other efforts were conducted with a gorilla, dolphins, sea lions, and a parrot, either using the same method or alternative procedures, with varying results suggesting that nonverbal communication is more widespread than verbal for animals..

Research at Georgia State University, for instance, made use of lexigrams, simple designs of various shapes and colors to represent words so that the chimpanzee subject can select a word by pointing or by pressing the corresponding lexigram on the board. Lana was the first chimpanzee taught in this manner and could talk and make various request in this fashion, with a computer program to reply with lexigrams presented on a display console. Two other chimpanzees followed. Kanzi, a great ape, has shown the most sophisticated ability to use language to date. This is a bonobo ape, more similar to human beings than are chimpanzees, and the great ape Kanzi learned without formal language training after his mother had been taught using standard procedures. Kanzi observed but did not participate, an he learned spontaneously. This shows that the capability is inherent in some degree and that the situation may allow the ape to learn language and interact with humans on his own. Researchers made use of this fact and allowed Kanzi to continue to learn language skills by listening and observing. Both spoken and lexical language were part of Kanzi's daily activities, from which he learned mor in the manner that a human child does, with no explicit language sessions conducted and without specific reinforcement with food. It was thought, however, that reinforcement contingencies inherent in social interactions played an important role, just as they do in learning human speech and in learning many other behaviors.

Research procedures in these situations must be carefully designed to eliminate the possibility that the researcher might give hints or prompts or might give the animal "the benefit of the doubt" and ascribe more intelligent behavior to the animal than is warranted. One experiment showed that the ape involved often imitated signs made by the trainer, which was a poor sign of language skill. Experimental observations must be designed so as to assure objective independent observations. Decisions have to be made as to what constitutes linguistic competence, such as learning a vocabulary and showing signs of grammar, as well as showing language comprehension as well as language production behaviors. Such decisions enable the researcher to make proper determinations about what is observed and about what it may indeed mean.

The rationale for such studies is not only to find out if apes can use language but to discover some of the ways human beings may have acquired the ability in the first place:

Research concerning the ability of primates to acquire language has profound implications for the understanding of the evolution of the human species. The acquisition of language in primates may shed light on the development of language in early humans. In this sense, research of primate language and primate tool use offer similar insight into our early ancestors (Kosseff, 2006, para. 1).

Studies continuing this theme begin with the idea that human speech is usually thought to be the dividing line between humans and the animal world, and language is thought to have paved the way for many special human abilities, such as self-awareness, higher emotion, and personal memories (McCrone, 1991, p. 48).

Knowing how humans acquire language can inform studies of animals to se if they can do the same thing. One approach is offered by Skinner (1974). Skinner discusses the issue of language acquisition in his overall context of behaviorist psychology. He notes that language was acquired relatively late in the development of the human species, and this involved a remarkable change as the species' vocal musculature came under operant control. This extended the range of the human social environment. Skinner draws a distinction between "language" and "verbal behavior." He notes that psychologists speak of the "acquisition of language" in the child and notes how language is structured out of words and sentences that express meanings, desires, needs, ideas, emotions, and propositions. For Skinner, language is behavior that has a special characteristics only because it is reinforced by its effects on people, first on other people, and then on the speaker him or herself.

For Skinner, then, the acquisition of language is a matter of operant conditioning, just as is all learning. language acquisition is the result of exposure to a speaking community, but learning is not merely a matter of imitation. It is rather a matter of operant conditioning as certain behaviors are reinforced by community acceptance, by the understanding shown of what is being communicated. For Skinner, the human being first of all makes sounds just as do other animals: "Like other species, it had up to that point displayed warning cries, threatening shouts, and other innate responses, but vocal operant behavior made a great difference because it extended the scope of the social environment" (Skinner, 1974, p. 88).

Skinner explains the reinforcing nature of language and the way it relates to operant conditioning and learning in general by giving the example of opening a door. He sees verbal behavior as behavior first of all, as noted, and because of its special character by being reinforced through its effects on people, it is free of the spatial, temporal, and mechanical relations which prevail between operant behavior and nonsocial consequences: "If the opening of a door will be reinforcing, a person may grasp the knob, turn it, and push or pull it in a given way; but if, instead, he says, 'Please open the door,' and a listener responds appropriately, the same reinforcing consequence follows" (Skinner, 1974, p. 89). Skinner says that the contingencies are different and that they generate many important differences in the behavior which have long been obscured by mentalistic explanations.

Skinner further notes that the way a speaker depends upon the practices of the verbal community of which he or she is a member, which determines whether a verbal repertoire is rudimentary or displays an elaborate topography under many subtle kinds of stimulus control: "Different verbal communities shape and maintain different languages in the same speaker, who then possesses different repertoires having similar effects upon different listeners" (89).

Skinner's approach has several good points: 1) it explains the acquisition of different types of linguistic skills and levels; 2) it applies in all societies and at all times; and 3) it makes a direct link between the verbal behavior that predates language and language acquisition. Skinner's approach also has a number of bad aspects: 1) it necessitates accepting the premises of operant conditioning, which are only sketchily given here but which have a number of ramifications of particular concern to those who see it as a deterministic psychology proscribing free will; 2) it presupposes links between specific verbal behaviors and social conditioning that seems to make language acquisition a matter of social and cultural conditioning while also stating that the social environment was shaped by the development of language in the first… [END OF PREVIEW]

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