Can Other Animals Acquire Language?
From: Freedman, Introductory Psychology, 1978

1. Animals other than humans have not developed communication comparable
to human language. But is it possible that other animals have the capacity
to learn a language if they are adequately taught? Obviously, this is a
fascinating notion. The idea of communicating directly with another species
has long been part of human folklore and children's fantasies. But on a
scientific level, the question of whether animals can learn a language is
important primarily because it relates to the controversy between the
cognitive and learning approaches to language. If language is dependent on
and is actually an outgrowth of the intellectual structure of the human
mind, there is the strong supposition that only humans are capable of using

2. On the other hand, the question of whether other animals can learn a
language is fascinating in its own right, aside from its value as a test of
the two theories of language development. Accordingly, whatever one's
position on the theoretical dispute, we must consider training an animal to
use language a dramatic accomplishment.

The Case of Gua

3. For many years it appeared that other animals simply could not master
a language. A number of attempts were made to teach chimpanzees (probably
the brightest other species with the possible exception of the porpoise and
gorilla), but these attempts always ended in failure. The Kelloggs (1933)
raised a female chimpanzee, Gua, along with their own child, Donald. Gua
was treated very much as one of the family and presumably was exposed to
many of the same experiences as Donald. Though Gua learned to recognize and
respond to about seventy words, she never spoke a word herself, while
Donald developed a normal mastery of English. Other similar attempts
produced about the same results. The chimps recognized a fairly large
number of utterances from their masters, but did not use language
themselves. Clearly dogs, cats, horses, and many other animals can respond
to verbal commands, and well-trained elephants know more than twenty
different words. Therefore, up to this point the chimpanzees had
accomplished only slightly more than other species, and certainly had not
demonstrated true knowledge of language.

The Achievement of Washoe

4. However, the status of animal language was changed dramatically by
the accomplishments of Allen and Beatrice Gardner (1971) and their
chimpanzee, Washoe. The Gardners decided that trying to teach chimpanzees
to talk was hopeless because chimpanzees have great difficulty in the
instrumental use of their voices. Instead, they began to teach Washoe
American Sign Language, developed for use by deaf-mutes, which clearly was
within a chimpanzee's manipulative capacities. American Sign Language uses
complex hand gestures that stand for words, and has its own grammar that is
similar to but distinguishable from English.

5. Over several years Washoe learned at least 130 signs that she both
understands and uses herself. This has been demonstrated in controlled
tests, in which objects or pictures of objects are shown to Washoe and she
makes the appropriate sign. Although she is not perfect, she typically gets
about fifty right out of one hundred and her errors are usually mistaking
one animal for another or one object for one that is quite similar to it.
If she were responding by chance, she would only get one or two right out
of a hundred since many different items are shown and she knows so many
different signs. But it is important to remember that this accomplishment
is only quantitatively superior from that of many other animals who learn
the meaning of words or signals. The critical difference is that Washoe not
only understands but uses these signs.

6. However, the truly significant achievement is that Washoe
spontaneously produces combinations of signs that she has never "heard"
before. Since the construction of sentences is the essence of language,
this is a great step forward in animal language. Washoe knows how to say
"open," "door," and "window." Sometimes, entirely on her own, she will make
the sign phrase for open-window and open-door. The Gardners have counted
294 different two-sign combinations that Washoe uses, and she probably has
made others. Some of these she may have learned directly from the Gardners,
but they assure us that many of them were produced by Washoe on her own.
Thus, this chimpanzee has mastered 130 meaningful signs and uses them in
sentences of two or more signs in order to communicate. Moreover, as she
has gotten older and more experienced, Washoe has begun producing longer
sign combinations. And other chimps have also learned many signs.

7. Whether this constitutes complete mastery of language