Humans are the only species that has evolved an advanced system of communication between individuals. Whereas other species communicate through ritualized and repetitious songs, calls, or gestures, humans have developed linguistic systems that can express a literally infinite variety of separate and distinct thoughts both vocally as well as written. This incredible evolutionary leap is what distinguished humans from all other organisms on earth. But it can't, however, go unmentioned the incredible communication systems animals, more specifically primates have created. Animals are among us in many shapes and sizes, with many different communicative abilities. Whether it is cries, grunts, gestures or mating calls, these communication tools are only understood by members of the same species; we can analyze these communication tools through linguistic ethology, as mentioned in lectures by using a comparative approach is good because it sets a standard by which communication systems can be evaluated. Throughout this course of study, the concept of language as the separation between animals and humans has prevailed. We as humans can both produce and comprehend communication through language, where the question arises on how well animals can do this. Further, as we have seen in readings and other sources, many claim that it is through language that our "consciousness" and "cognitive" skills are developed. While most consider animals to be creatures of habit, I plan to take a different outlook on this; that is to consider how bonobos, more specifically Kanzi, a bonobo ape acquired linguistic competency. Kanzi was a bonobo who did this after accompanying his mother to sessions where she was taught language through keyboard lexigrams, but showed little interest in the lessons. It was a great surprise to researchers then when one day, while Matata was away, Kanzi began competently using the lexigrams, becoming not only the first observed ape to have learned aspects of language naturalistically rather than through direct training, but also the first observed bonobo to appear to use some elements of language at all. With all that set in mind, I plan to further investigate the claims about Kanzi's linguistic abilities from a research perspective and distinguish between Kanzi's Language production and comprehension performance. By looking at factors such as environment, behaviour and attitude, I hope to bring together all of my research, thoughts and critical reviews on great ape language.
Language is a way for humans to communicate and produce thoughts, emotions and reactions to just about everything in daily routines. However, while language is an asset which enables people to conceptualize their world, it is by no means a necessity. This is demonstrated by the ability of physically handicapped persons (e.g., the deaf) and mentally handicapped persons (e.g., victims of cerebral palsy) to communicate using symbols. Symbols are a unique tool, a way for not just handicapped persons to utilize but also other species, such as primates. Lexigrams which are “arbitrary symbols that represent a word are used with Researchers and bonobos to communicate with three computer-monitored lexigrams panels containing 384 symbols and words. Similar keyboards have helped children and adults with language deficits” ( SOURCE). Though the symbols are not visual representations of the actual word being used, it is still a way of illustrating comprehension between humans and bonobos that are able to acquire linguistic competency. Kanzi developed this acquisition very early in his years simply by exposure to the lexigrams system. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, Kanzi's trainer began by differentiating language production from comprehension, emphasising that the crucial precursor of language competence is the understanding of non spoken referential symbols. She focused on the meaning that the apes derived from words rather than how they produced them. Savage-Rumbaugh saw comprehension as "the route into language" (Johnson, 1995) since it is simpler to translate an idea in one's mind into a grammatical sequence of words than to decode a sentence spoken by another, whose intentions are unknown. With regards to Kanzi, this lead to a shift away from intensive training sessions to an approach in which Kanzi was treated as a "developing human infant" (Johnson, 1995). The findings of this project, in which Kanzi learnt to appreciate word order and other syntactical cues, led Savage-Rumbaugh to conclude that bonobos possess "rudimentary syntactical ability." (Johnson, 1995) This apparent success of research with Kanzi was attributed to her exposure to language early in her life and tutoring instigated by the animal's curiosity (Johnson, 1995).
Critics responded that animals associating vocal sounds with objects was far from revolutionary (Johnson, 1995). However Savage-Rumbaugh argued that trials with words in "novel contexts" (Johnson, 1995) revealed that the chimpanzees' responses were not reflexive.
Savage-Rumbaugh reported that her chimpanzees "demonstrate the rudimentary comprehension skills of two and a half year old children," understanding complex sentences and spontaneously using symbolic language in their communication.
However for many linguists, the hallmark of language is not comprehension but performance, the ability to generate increasingly complex sentences within the confines of grammar (Johnson, 1995).
The view that mental experiences are not comparably shared between humans and nonhuman primates is prevalent among linguists (Mitani, 1995) and has been enforced by Noam Chomsky's arguments that conscious thought is only made possible by the innate mechanism to decode the syntactical structure of language (Mitani, 1995). He adheres to the view that the grammar, present in all languages, has its origins in the neural connections, unique to human brains.
Chimp raised from birth in an environment where spoken words and the language board (arbitrary symbols to which one can point to convey an object or action) were spontaneously used to communicate with him