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Do Gorilla's have their own language?

koko.jpgSome of you will be familiar with Koko, at The Gorilla Foundation, who was taught ASL along with Michael (who has now passed away). Koko's participation began in the early 1970s, and now knows more than over 1000 signs, and understands over 2000 words of spoken English. More information can be read here.

For those who are interested in language acquisition specifically with gorillas, a research paper has been recently published which focuses on Do Gorilla's have their Own Language? and can be found here: The Development of Spontaneous Gestures in Zoo-living Gorillas and Sign-taught Gorillas: From Action and Location to Object Representation [PDF]

What can we learn about the origins of language by comparing the gestures of zoo gorillas to those created spontaneously by Koko, a gorilla who has learned sign language? Drs. Penny Patterson and Joanne Tanner address this question in their latest scientific publication based on a multi-year study.

Update: See the comments for this post. Chimp Language Studies [PDF] and Primates and Language. Thanks, Janis!

Update 2: See article, Apes my lead to the origin of language. Thanks, Tony B!

Comments (8)

Hm, I'd heard that the "Koko learned sign language" thing was sort of disproven a while back. Apparently she picked up some gestures and realized that they were important to the other primates :-) around her, but she definitely did not "learn sign language."

Janis - do you know where to find this research? Where this is disproved?

My concern is whilst the Gorilla Foundation provides insight into gorillas etc, it kind of devalues ASL as a comprehensive language, and kind of lowers its status a bit in terms of usage by ASL users.

Which reminds me that I have been a supporting member of Koko's following for many, many years. I thought they were moving her to Maui, so I was all excited and ordered t-shirts to help the cause, etc. etc. I used to get a newsletter several times a year, too. What has happened to all of that?

Lantana's Latitude

Alison, I need to get home and dig around a bit (at work currently), but I definitely know that the researchers who taught her "sign language" were all hearing.

I remember a story of one researcher who was fluent in ASL (CODA, I think, but possibly Deaf) who took part in an observation of her. She said that she and the other students were given pads of paper and pencils to write down all Koko's signs.

She reports that the hearing, non-fluuent ASL students turned in sheaves of sign lists, and she wrote down nothing. I remember distinctly one quote that discussed when Kok scratched her lip -- the hearing students all ruched to write it down as a sign, saying, "Look! That's EXACTLY the sign for water!" and it wasn't.

Again, I'll dig around for more specific information when I get home.

Koko ASL reference paper:

http://www.bsos.umd.edu/hesp/newman/ newman_classes/newman400/chimplang.pdf

Looking for more as well.

Whoops, sorry:


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