Man as a primate has a close relationship with the other non human primates. This relationship has been used for many years by researchers to understand the nature of man and purposely how he has evolved over time. Studying language acquisition in primates has great importance as far as understanding the evolution of human species is concerned. It sheds light on the development of human language during the early times. Through studying language acquisition in primates, linguists will be in a position to have an insight into our ancestors as it is believed that the primates are our closest relatives as most of their physiological composition is somehow similar to that of man.
It has been argued that through studying the primates behaviors man is actually trying to understand himself since he is a member of the primate order. Human lineage has been discovered to exhibit extra ordinary diverse array of social systems and behaviors which are characteristic in other non human primates. According to the evolutionary theories man is believed to be a close relative of the other primates more so the orangutans and chimpanzee, therefore through learning how these animals acquire their language man has been in a better position to understand how language has evolved to be what it is today and the changes that might be expected in future as languages develop. (Kellogg, W.1933 78)
In the quest to understand this complex issue several studies have been carried out to shed more light and develop a clear understanding on this subject. One study involved a chimpanzee named Washoe where the Central Washington University researchers trained this chimpanzee on how to use the American Sign Language as a way of communication. The primate was able to sign single words as well as meaningful combination of sign language words. Through such training the chimpanzee was able to learn and transfer signs without being given specific instructions. One word which she learned was “more” in relation to the tickling but it was observed that the animal was able to apply the vocabulary. One main significant accomplishment of this chimpanzee was the ability to learn the sign which were more than ten. This accomplishment was equated to the situation where children are able to connect words forming a sentence .By the end of it all Washoe demonstrated that she could reliably use more than two hundred and forty signs. A foster chimpanzee child who lived with Washoe was able to learn signs through observing what Washoe and other chimpanzee that had been trained communicated. It was observed that in the case of the small chimpanzee there was very little teaching and training form the adult chimpanzee but she was able to copy and learn what they were doing. Language acquisition on this chimpanzee reflects the way through which the human children come to acquire a language, they observe and learn form their adults. (Bowerman, M and Levinson, S 2004 345)
One researcher by name Sue Savage strongly believes in the primates ability to use language. One of her observation involved a chimpanzee whose name was Kanzi.She tried for some time to train this Kanzi mother on how to use keyboard symbols to no avail. Savage Rumbaugh was surprised one day to discover that the small chimpanzee has been listening to the training between her and the mother and she had learned several vocabularies in the course of the lessons. The researcher did not give Kanzi structured lessons as it was done to her mother but was taught while they were walking through the forests with the trainers. By the time this little chimpanzee was six years old it had acquired more than two hundred vocabularies and was even in a position to construct sentences through combining word with signs or using other words. One of the most notable accomplishments for the little primate was captured on a video where she was instructed to give a jab to the dog. She proceeded to do exactly that to the amazement of the researcher as she had not expected the animal to have reached that level as far as language acquisition was concerned.
In her research Dr Savage argues that the small chimpanzee language was at first dependent upon contextual cues but when he mastered the words and the vocabulary he was in a very good position to respond to the commands form a speaker who did not reveal himself to the animal. The small chimpanzee was noted to have accurately responded to the commands to a tune of seventy percent. There has been arguments from the critics of the study that the accomplishment of this animal is not a proof of the primate language use and acquisition but just an important element in primate language production which has nothing to do with the comprehension. When he is compared with the other chimpanzee Kanzi had striking utterances but were far from the human abilities in speech. The research found out that the primate was better in responding to simple commands which were vocal .The critics of this study saw nothing surprising from this research and its finding arguing that the animal had been programmed to respond to certain situation without understanding what it was doing. To them this was just a routine and had nothing to do with language acquisition. (Masayuki, T 2003 156)
Dr Savage stressed that her experiments where she used words indicated that the animals were not responding to the sounds as a result of being conditioned. She accepts what the critics had raised concerning the initial training of the primate but continues to argue that once the chimpanzee mastered the words he was able to respond to almost seventy percent of the sentences which were spoken by the trainer who usually hid her face. Linguists were not persuaded by the research arguments as they believe that for any language the ability to use the grammar to come up with comprehensive sentences is the most important element. The chimpanzee were not in a position to generate sentences but were only able to respond to certain situations. Therefore to them this can not actually be referred to as language acquisition as far as the animals were concerned.
The most intriguing aspect of the primate language study is the assumption that these animals will understand the human vocabulary as expected. The critics had referred to this situation as conditioning but in actual sense when the research repeated using a different method the same results were noted. This was not just a memorization task as it happens to pigeons nor was it an attempt by the chimps to please the trainer so that it can be rewarded. The study forms a very important aspect in learning about how the human language evolved. The primates present the best case as they are close relatives to the human. They have in a certain way helped to understand how the human language came about and how it has been passed from one generation to the other. Through studying the primate language acquisition man has been in a good position to learn how the modern languages which are widely used as a means of communication have evolved.
Masayuki, T Primate Psychology, Havard University Press, Cambridge (2003)
Kellogg, W. The ape and the child: New York: Hafner (1933)
Bowerman, M and Levinson, S Language Acquisition and Conceptual Development, Cambridge University Press (2004)