Primates that “speak”

Primates that “speak”

Continuing the article Can we talk to animals? we will now give some examples of chimpanzees and gorillas have managed to learn a system of communication with humans. We can not even say it is a complete language but reveals some important linguistic abilities to learn as learning a language, also works in humans.

Gua and Viki

In 1933, Kelllogg and Kellog raised a chimpanzee named Gua with his own son through joint education. Despite this, Gua was only able to understand a few words and never produced any word understandable.

In 1951, Hayes raised another chimpanzee named Viki as a human and tried to teach him to speak. After 6 years, Viki, knew only play 4 words and slurred: mom, dad, top and glass. They were grunting and his family understood only with a lot more work managed to understand more words and combine some of them.

These two cases are just introductory since their failure is only because chimpanzees do not have vocal tracts physiologically appropriate so that the results are inconclusive.


After previous failures, he began to teach apes sign language, or manipulation of signs artificially created to prevent the physiological problem of the vocal tract of chimpanzees.

In the mid-1960s, is famous Washoe case, this chimpanzee was also raised as a human child. He learned to eating, toileting, play and other normal social activities for young children. The most important was that he taught and learned, the American Sign Language (ASL) with its syntax and words. His parents, Allen and Beatrix Gardner, the educated as if it were a deaf girl. In four years he included 250 words and was able to play 85 signs autonomously. Later he managed to play up to 200 signs existed between nouns, adjectives, negatives, verbs and even pronouns.

He was able to create new compounds names and rename other objects, such as referring to the refrigerator, categorized as “cold box” went on to call the combination of words “food and drink open”. It’s amazing how his adopted son Loulis, inherited the ability to sign after watching her mother, like other chimpanzees that ASL was taught at an early age.

Washoe was able to combine up to 5 words ( “please open door fast”) and was able to answer questions from the 5W (in English, where, who, when, what, which) and proved to be sensitive to the placement of the words. It is not the same as saying “I tickle you,” “you tickle me”.


A few years later, Premack, taught a chimpanzee named Sarah to manipulate different plastic symbols tale shape, texture or size. These symbols could be ordered in different ways and through rules resulted in a language called premackés. This system required less memory capacity by chimpanzees. Sarah was capz to produce some simple lexical concepts as “Randy gives an apple to Sarah”. He also produced some complex sentences so metalingüista showed some awareness (reflexivity) as it was able to talk about the language system itself. But studies had not excessive evidence of the intent to create syntactic units.


Another chimpanzee was Nim learned a language, taught to use American Sign Language (ASL) learning about 125 signs and being capable of producing up to 20,000 expressions in just two years. Despite this, only 10% of its expressions arose spontaneously and most were the result of interacting with it through answers or instructions. 40% of the expressions made reference to signs that the experimenters had just made. It seemed the context influenced to generate conversation.

Koko, the gorilla

Dr. Penny Patterson has investigated the gorilla Koko since 1972, which has today 44 years old (turns 45 on July 4, 2016). This famous gorilla inspired the novel by Michael Crichton, Congo, the protagonist was a gorilla able to communicate with humans called Amy. There was even an Internet chat in which Koko said his favorite food was “apple drink” in 1998. It has been able to try to teach her sign language (ASL) their cats (yes, it is able to take care of pets), other gorillas peers and even tried with stuffed animals. 2000 words comprises human spoken language (English) and is capable of performing over 1000 signs. It certainly is a clear example of a non-human animal with management skills of language.


This pygmy chimpanzee, with a broad social life and a priori more communicative repertoire was able to learn 46 symbols and 800 combinations. He was exposed to the language since childhood, like other chimpanzees, so the hypothesis of critical learning period is postulated. He was able to score higher than children 2 years and comprehension tasks could express spontaneously up to 80% of the time.

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Language differences between apes and humans (children)


APES: just make reference to this.
CHILDREN: may involve temporary displacement.

Syntactical structure

APES: does not exist
CHILDREN: cohrente structured way.

Syntactical relations

APES: poor understanding between syntactic units.
CHILDREN: are able to identify them.


APES: training must be explicit to learn to use the system of symbols.
CHILDREN: they learn not explicitly.

Rejection errors

APES: Not capacedes to reject malformed phrases.
CHILDREN: are able to reject a phrase that is misshapen. They may reject malformed sentences


APES: few questions.
CHILDREN: constantly ask.


APES: they tend to not use symbols spontaneously.
CHILDREN: they used as symbols spontaneously


Only humans are able to represent so sophisticated meaning through a complete language. Only humans are able to use recurring syntactical rules which makes us conclude that the apes were only able to purchase a proto-language, at least for now.

The evolution marked with the passage of time developing the language skills of the animals. Meanwhile, all continue to talk with our pets waiting to start a conversation.

Iván Pico

Director y creador de Psicólogo Colegiado G-5480 entre otras cosas. Diplomado en Ciencias Empresariales y Máster en Orientación Profesional. Máster en Psicología del Trabajo y Organizaciones. Posgrado en Psicología del Deporte entre otras cosas. Visita la sección "Sobre mí" para saber más. ¿Quieres una consulta personalizada? ¡Escríbeme!

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