During the past century, a series of optimistic researchers set out to teach language to apes. This could have been no more than a queer expression of human naiveté… if it wasn’t for the fact that one of them succeeded.
Who succeeded? The one who avoided teaching the apes!
Why did the one who avoided teaching succeed?
I believe the answer lies dormant in an insightful objection to ape language research (ALR). The objection is that language is not like a strange property of human beings. It is not like a rare skill that we can loosen from our humanity and then empirically test if it can be transferred to nonhumans.
We must not confuse this insightful objection with its sophistic variant.
- The sophistic objection says that ALR is a contradiction in terms. The question whether “nonhumans” can have “language” cannot even be raised, because language is so profoundly entrenched in what we are as humans. The philosophical task with regard to ALR can only be this critical one: to illuminate the difference between all purported examples of “ape language” and our human language.
- The interesting objection says that ape language research cannot consist merely in teaching apes demarcated skills. The question is not whether apes can be taught language. The question is if we can help them become beings in whom language is as deeply entrenched as it is in us.
“Becoming someone” is more profound than “learning something.”
The secret behind success, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh discovered, was to initiate apes into a cultural environment with meaningful others who already were speakers (i.e., humans). And then wait and see. Wait and see if the apes would respond to this cultural environment as human children do… by spontaneously becoming speakers.
Every parent experiences that language isn’t taught to children but somehow grows within them, as if they were pregnant with language.
Sue had the same experience with Kanzi, Panbanisha and Nyota. They spontaneously developed comprehension of her spoken English, and they began to speak to her by (among other things) pointing to word symbols on a portable keyboard.
Culture transformed the apes’ way of being apes. Culture made them pregnant with language. Language began to “grow” in them.
Apes in the entertainment industry are specially trained to do apparently human things. These apes strike us as comical because they are not the kind of beings that can “carry” human skills.
In successful ALR the emphasis is not on training but on stimulating apes to become beings that genuinely “carry” human traits. Kanzi, Panbanisha and Nyota are not aping us. They have become sufficiently like us to be our co-inhabitants in language.
A short history of ape language research can be found on the Great Ape Trust website. Why training must be avoided in ALR is investigated in Kanzi’s Primal Language.