Can Chimpanzees Learn a Phonemic Language?

  • Alice F. Healy
Part of the Topics in Contemporary Semiotics book series (TICSE)


The claim that language is a uniquely human accomplishment has been challenged recently by the work of the Gardners (1969) and Premack (1970a), who have obtained quite promising results from their attempts to teach a form of human language to chimpanzees. Earlier attempts (e.g., Hayes 1951) had been largely unsuccessful. One explanation offered frequently for the greater success obtained in the recent studies has been phrased in terms of the difference in the mode of communication employed. The earlier experimenters attempted to teach chimpanzees using the auditory and vocal modes employed in normal human communication. However, both the Gardners (1969) and Premack (1970a) made use of visual and manual modes of communication; a sign language was employed in the former case and a language of plastic tokens in the latter. Thus, it is generally argued that since visual and manual modes of communication are natural to the chimpanzee, a chimpanzee would find it easier to associate ideas or meanings with visual and manual sensations than with auditory and vocal sensations, in accordance with the phenomenon of selective learning (e.g., Dobrzecka, Szwejkowska, & Konorski 1966; Garcia, McGowan, Ervin, & Koelling 1968). In addition, there is evidence (Lieberman 1968; Lieberman, Klatt, & Wilson 1969) that the chimpanzee’s vocal apparatus is more limited than the human’s so that a chimpanzee is physically unable to produce the full range of human speech.


Sign Language Manual Mode American Sign Language Human Speech Manual Sensation 
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Copyright information

© Plenum Press, New York 1980

Authors and Affiliations

  • Alice F. Healy
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyYale UniversityNew HavenUSA

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