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The Aquisition of Language in Primates

Updated on January 4, 2013

For years scientists have been comparing nonhuman primates and humans.The study of language amongst the two seems to be one of primary focus. When comparing human infants to nonhuman primates, it appears that primates have similar cognitive abilities as humans. The following discussion will attempt to answer the purpose of studying language in primates. It will also outline some of the studies that have taken place, and what researchers have learned from their experiments. The study of language is important. Lets find out why.

It is important to study primates' ability to attain language because, this research brings forth much needed information on the development of early humans. Better understanding of the earlier human race allows us to develop more efficient teaching tools for each generation to come. Children acquire language in the same capacity as nonhuman primates. Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh discovered some notable observations. In her research she used a chimpanzee named Kanzi. Originally the study was to see if Kanzi's mother could be trained to use a keyboard of symbols. Much to the Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh's surprise it was Kanzi that learned the vocabulary. It appeared she had been paying attention during the training sessions with her mother. After this discovery researchers continued to work with Kanzi. By the age of 6, Kanzi was able to use his 200 word vocabulary to construct sentences by combining words with gestures or other words. He could respond to commands from a concealed speaker with a 70 percent accuracy level. Critics argued that Kanzi's accomplishments are not proof of nonhuman primates having a language acquiring ability. They say that the crucial element in language development is production not comprehension.

Robert Yerkes, an American psychologist(1943/1971), originated one of the first systematic studies of the psychological methods in nonhuman primates. He argued that nonhuman primates may serve as an “informational window into human psychology.” In Yerkes own words, “the study of other primates may prove the most direct and economical route to profitable knowledge of ourselves, because, in them, basic mechanisms are less obscured by cultural influence.” ( In other words, by observing our close kin like primates without the influences of our man made society, the study of basic language linguistics is made simple. This gateway of knowledge has opened many doors to vast accomplishments in the examination of language. ( In other words, by observing our close kin like primates without the influences of our man made society, the study of basic language linguistics is made simple. This gateway of knowledge has opened many doors to vast accomplishments in the examination of language.

Weiss and Santos elaborated on these great achievement studies. They discussed the theory of core knowledge. The idea of core knowledge is the conclusion that human cognition develops in part though a series of a restricted set of suggestions. (see Carey & Gelman, 1991; Hirschfeld & Gelman, 1994; Keil, 1989) An important part of the idea of core knowledge is that infants’ early learning capacities are not by chance. Instead they should reflect solutions that are useful for solving certain problems faced during our recent evolutionary past. Hence it would be imperative to pay close attention to the problems facing our past living primate relatives that can provide important information in identifying core learning structures in human infants.(Hauser & Spelke, 2004; Spelke, 2000).

The study of primate language is interesting to me in the fact that an animal species is capable of such vast understanding. Humans are not the only species that can communicate. Animals are not mindless, and we can learn a great deal from them. In today's society it could be said the humans are not as intelligent as we claim to be. We may be able to speak with fluency, gain more knowledge, communicate with all types of devices, and yet we are destroying our own habitat. In my opinion, animals have worthier instincts and understanding in comparison. The human race can truly learn from them. Primates are not the only species that can understand language. Many studies have proven that each species posses the ability to communicate amongst themselves and have a small understanding of human language. In theory humans learn from other species. Humans seem to have a more advanced brain development to take language and comprehension to the next level.

The study of language acquisition in nonhuman primates has helped humans to gain great knowledge of ourselves. It has taught us about our own genetic make-up and our early ancestors. Studies have shown that the DNA of Neanderthals and humans are 99.5% identical. In studying the biological and genetic make-up of nonhuman primates, a door has been opened for scientists to learn about genetic diseases and ways to treat said diseases.

Studies of group sociality, behavior, and grooming in nonhuman primates has also given us insight into human abilities to coexist in finding ways to achieve levels of peace and understanding in our own human “group” size. We have also learned about tool use origins, stem cell technology, cultural transmission, and about human nature in general.( an amazing discovery to know we can save stem cells to help our offspring to survive when in need. In turn its a great possibility we can help other primate species to survive in the same sense.

Our children are the future. The more studies that we can learn from will benefit each generation of children to come. We can acquire more learning tools to teach them. This is of great importance. Its not only about why we act or speak a certain way but, when, how and where we develop such knowledge.

Regardless of whether primates learn through production, comprehension, pictures, or sign language, the point is they are capable of attaining language through a process, as do humans. Hence, researchers have learned that we can teach primates human language understanding, and in turn learn from them to teach our own species. These studies have given us great insight into human behavior. They also address the extent of human cognitive accomplishments that other species cannot attain. Comparative primate studies has and will continue to provide great insight into the language development of humans.


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