• Question: Is it possible to teach apes to talk?

    Asked by Hanna to Colin, John, Kevin, Shikha, Triona on 15 Nov 2014.
    • Photo: Kevin Motherway

      Kevin Motherway answered on 15 Nov 2014:

      Great and complex question and I’ll have to try tease it out. What do we mean by “talk”? Animals can certainly communicate from apes all the way down to bees all sorts of animals and insects can communicate simple messages. “Nectar this way”, “tired”, “danger, run”, “mine!” These statements are a bit like a Toddler in that they can communicate but you wouldn’t class it a higher language and you certainly couldn’t sustain a conversation. Apes and Bonobos have been “taught” to use sign language cue cards or even sign some words, and can even then teach other the new method of communication to say the usual “food!”, “danger” etc. but would you class that as talking?

      I would class it as communication of simple information and needs but I don’t think most people would class it as talking. Given the ability of scientists to break codes, if there was complex language going on then we probably would have decoded it by now for these animals that have been studied so intently. You have to remember that humans have the highest brain size to body ratio of any animal so maybe it s not surprising we’re the only ones who have developed higher language or the ability to talk.

    • Photo: Shikha Sharma

      Shikha Sharma answered on 16 Nov 2014:

      Hi Hanna,
      That’s an interesting question. I believe its quite difficult for apes to talk like human as a lot of research has already been done where the scientists have kept both a human baby and a newly born ape together. They provided them with similar kind of environment and observed that during their development ape was really quick in jumping and other physical activities in comparison to human baby. Human baby learned how to speak but ape wasn’t able to speak even with the same care and training.

      Interestingly, you know scientists trained two animals, a pygmy chimp and an orangutan, to hold conversations with humans. The chimp, called Panbanisha, had a vocabulary of 3,000 words and talks through a computer that produces a synthetic voice as she presses symbols on a keyboard. She used to speak constantly, constructing sentences ranging from, “Please can I have an iced coffee” to discussing videos she has watched with the scientists who look after her at Georgia State University’s language research center in Atlanta.The 20-year-old orangutan, called Chantek, is a few miles away at Atlanta zoo where he also learned to use a voice synthesizer and he had a 2,000-word vocabulary in sign language. These animals used a specially designed keypad with about 400 keys, each bearing a symbol.

      This shows they might not be able to speak like us as their voice boxes could not produce the range of sounds used by humans but they can definitely be trained to have conversation with us.