Can Apes Learn Language?

A significant issue within the academic world of linguistics and anthropology concerns whether the members of the great apes branch can learn a defined language, or more specifically, whether they possess the necessary language acquisition device within the brain necessary for the full learning and comprehension needed for communicating with a structured language. According to the nature of the debate, it becomes clear that the crux of the dispute revolves around the definition of language itself and what the required checklist is for demonstrating that language has been learned. Some professional researchers, such as psychologist and primate specialist E.S. Savage-Rumbaugh, defend a view that, “although apes are not capable of learning human language, they demonstrate a genuine ability to create new symbolic patterns that are similar to very rudimentary symbolic activity.” (170) In other words, Savage-Rumbaugh asserts that though apes cannot vocalize human sounds and therefore cannot verbalize words, they are capable of grasping the concepts, rules, and meanings of symbolic language and even of adding to that symbolic language on their own. In contrast, the anthropological linguist Joel Wallman suggests that all documented attempts at teaching members of the ape family sign language and symbolic systems show apes to be highly intelligent animals, but do not prove that apes possess an “innate capacity for language.” (171). In other words, while Wallman admits that chimps and other apes have been able to learn symbolic systems and sign language taught to them by humans, these actions have not demonstrated that apes have an ability to create their own language without outside influence. When looking at the question from the perspective of both readings, however, I believe that there does exist an innate ability of language acquisition in at least one member of the ape family, the bonobo, or pygmy chimpanzee. Savage-Rumbaugh cites the ability of a young bonobo chimp named Kanzi to learn signs and symbols for objects without the use of “moulding” and to understand directions and requests from spoken human word when no symbols or sign language is used. Furthermore, Kanzi is documented as being able to carry out actions humans are verbally discussing without sign language or the use of a symbolic system the first time he hears them. If we hold to the concept of a required language acquisition device being present for this level of understanding to occur, then the explanation for Kanzi’s actions must be that Kanzi possesses an innate ability for language acquisition. And if Kanzi has it, I would venture to state it follows that all pygmy chimps possess a language acquisition device, and I believe it is likely other members of the ape family do as well.