Can monkeys learn to speak?

language acquisition linguistics May 04, 2021

Have you heard of 'the chimp wars'? Whether or not humans and apes share some of the same language-learning mechanisms is a hotly debated topic.

A researcher called Savage-Rumbaugh and colleagues published several papers in the 1990s about Kanzi the bonobo who showed the ability to learn word-object associations and produce two- or three-word utterances to get his point across.

Unlike human language, ape grammar gets quite repetitive as sentences get longer, rather than increasingly complex.

Other species have some language-like skills including bees, who demonstrate 'displacement' as they can tell other bees where unseen food sources are; chimpanzees, who have 100+ hand gestures to communicate about feeding, fighting and reproduction; and Bengalese finches, whose strings of motifs are sometimes compared to human grammars.

It's a fascinating debate and serves to show just how incredibly lucky humans are to have our fully-fledged capacity for language, which involves all sorts of skills (some of which animals share, but not all of them at once).