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The research findings of Savage-Rumbaugh on non-human primates provide a challenging starting point for linguists to question to what extent language can be classified as uniquely human. Even though Savage-Rumbaugh answered the strict linguist's question 'do apes have language?' 'The answer to this question, of course, is that they don't', however she recommends that 'the detection of elements of language' be acknowledged as indicative of some sense of continuity (Savage-Rumbaugh p. 157, 164).
When linguists have addressed the challenge of identifying the comparisons between human and animal communication, their results have served to sharpen their analytical focus. Pinker finds fault with the continuity theory because the human-chimp ancestor evolved and became extinct (Pinker p. 343).
Dobrovolsky reiterates Savage-Rumbaugh's stance (p. 163) that 'what we call language reflects a cognitive difference in degree and not in kind between humans and animals' and adds that future research will reveal 'what is truly unique about human linguistic ability' (Dobrovolsky p. 655).
The human physiology is unique in enabling the acquisition of language. In contrast, the physiology of non-human primates has the capacity and ability to acquire communicative attributes and behaviour unique to them. .
Although non-human primates can produce vocal calls, they are physiologically ill-equipped to produce and use human speech sounds in human ways (Pinker p. 334-35). However, they use bodily behaviour as a form of communication both in the in their natural habitat and in captivity. Studies by Savage-Rumbaugh, for example, have documented that non-human primates can use their hands and their feet to undertake communicative tasks set by researchers (Dobrovolsky p. 648; Pinker p. 340).
Learning a language implies firstly that the active language skills of speaking and writing are neither fully developed at birth nor does the initial ability to use a language suddenly emerge later all at once. Some linguists imagine a physiological and cognitive natural inclination in humans to acquire language (Pinker p. 334).
Pinker is generally consistent throughout his discussion when he describes the acquisition process in animals as training or conditioning and not as educational. By watching long enough, of course, one is bound to find random combinations in the chimps' gesturing that can be given sensible interpretation. Within the scope of protolanguage, the animals in the studies have been reported to have 'learned' to use rules in combinations of signs to distinguish between subject and object relations in basic forms of syntax, such that they are said to be at par with a two-year-old child on the syntax acquisition period (Pinker p. 339).
Yet, research in animal studies and linguists both agree that non-human primates' language learning potential is halted at that stage. In contrast to non-human primates, toddlers are unique in being able to develop their language potential when they can begin to explore the world on their own terms as they enter the change between protolanguage and language. The learning of vocabulary is the most noticeable feature of the early months of language acquisition. From the point when a child's 'first word' is identified, there is a steady lexical growth in both production and comprehension (Crystal p. 244). The findings of Crystal are a clear indication of why there is a clear distinction in comparing non-human primates and children in the language acquisition process.
In animal studies, the sequencing patterns of acquired symbolic behaviour observed in (Savage-Rumbaugh p. 158-59) drew the attention of linguists to comparisons with the use of grammar among humans. After careful assessment on the use of protogrammar in animal studies, linguists concluded that the differences outweighed the similarities. According to Pinker the non-human primates disclose 'next to nil' grammar, no use of inflection (p.339), and their animal behaviour, which would entail syntax behaviour, if any, is in Wilson's words ' "repetitious to the point of inanity" ' (Pinker p. 340).
Non-human primates have been trained to use a set of between 'two and three hundred signs' and gestures and to use them in a number of communicative tasks, the aim of which was using 'productive rules' (Pinker p. 335, Dobrovolsky p. 654, Savage-Rumbaugh p. 159) however, that seems to be their limit. Monitoring children at around the age of two as they develop and differentiate their command of syntactic patterns has also shown that toddlers learn to progress through degrees of complexity that rule out fair comparisons with non-human primates (Pinker p. 339).
To describe language as a uniquely human attribute, as Dobrovolsky and Chomsky conclude, involves investigating degrees of differences. Although many people can neither produce nor perceive speech sounds, it is, nonetheless, unique that human speech sounds cannot be produced in human ways by higher primates primarily because they lack the necessary physiological conditions. Attempts at comparing non-human primates with children have shown how rapidly the pace of language acquisition among the latter quickens.
The rate of development among children is not an attribute that is shared with the non-human primates. The complexity of gestures in sign languages as well as the complexity of syntactic structures signifies the most linguistically relevant aspect of yet another distinguishing feature. And it is possible to state that the introduction of animal research has contributed to proving the persistent linguistic awareness that language is a uniquely human attribute.
To conclude, even putting aside vocabulary, phonology, morphology and syntax, what impresses one the most about chimpanzee signing is that fundamentally, deep down, chimps just don't "get it" (Pinker p. 340).