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Background/ Other species - part 2

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Kanzi the Bonobo

Bonobos, sometimes also called pygmy chimps, have been shown to be more adept at learning communicative skills than normal chimps.  The interesting thing with Kanzi is the way he was taught.  Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and her team devised a keyboard with arbitrary symbols that chimps, lacking the vocal apparatus necessary to talk English, can press, and in that way use as a substitute for words.  They had been working on Matata, Kanzi’s foster mother, for quite some time without much success, while Kanzi as a baby had been with her, hanging out on her back.  To the researchers’ big surprise, they one day found out that Kanzi had acquired the symbolic communication scheme all by himself, and was quickly surpassing his mother’s abilities both in comprehension and production.

They decided to abandon the structured training approach, and let Kanzi, not an experimenter, decide which words were acquired.  While still using the keyboard as a communicational device, the trainers would also speak in English the whole time.  To their amazement it started to look as if Kanzi also was acquiring an understanding of spoken English.  Subsequent tests confirmed their suspicions.  In Sue Savage-Rumbaugh’s opinion, Kanzi’s linguistic abilities (comprehension) are on level with a two-and-a-half year old child.  He can interpret sentences he has never heard before, like “Kanzi, go to the office and bring back the red ball”.

In the presentation that Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh gave at the TED conference in 2004, she explains her approach and philosophy to induce language learning in Kanzi.  Like human children, Kanzi learned by watching.  “Parents really don't know how they teach their children language,” Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh said.  “Why should I have to know how I teach Kanzi language?  I just act normal around him, and he learns it.”  Dolcotec believes that this approach is the key to achieve human-dolphin communication as well.

NEXT: Koko the Gorilla