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An old article I wrote about language

September 7, 2013 Leave a comment

This blog has been in a coma for sometime, and I dont have any hope of writing anything new, in the near future. As I was listening to this podcast episode where Noam Chomsky was being interviewed about his work in linguistics, I was reminded about an article I had written a couple of years back for Science Reporter, a government run science magazine. It does not have a website where you can read the article online, but I have a scanned copy with me.

It is my longest article ever (and therefore the one with the maximum goof ups too, I guess), but given the drought on this blog, I thought I could inflict this upon you, just so you dont start raising your hopes of seeing the death of this blog. Not so soon, people, not so soon!

Here you go.

Categories: Biology, Writing Tags: ,

Kanzi, the bonobo

March 13, 2012 Leave a comment

Who does not like apes? They are so adorable. Watching them do things like we do gives us a lot of pleasure. One of the greatest morale boosters for me, is to sit down and mull over the fact that we and all the animals are literally related, right from an ant, to a plant to a fish. So it is only natural to wonder which other organisms are as intelligent as us. Self-awareness appears to us to be a fundamental aspect of being intelligent. After all, if we don’t even know we exist, how can we call ourselves intelligent. To know if an organism is aware or not, we can do a mirror test. Apes have, of course, passed the test. Some dolphins have, too. I read somewhere that pigs too are self-aware.

Considering all that, it is only natural to wonder if any of these animals are capable of our levels of intelligence. Though not the only means through which intelligence can be expressed, language does indeed feel to play a very important role. When I was walking out of my workplace yesterday, the thought that we are all apes came to my mind, and for a minute, I saw all the people around me through that perspective. It was fun, but the fact that they keep talking to each other quite a lot (or over phone), is what seems to set them apart from other apes. Of course, we have built buildings, computers etc, but at a fundamental level, it is tough to imagine how all this technology could have come about without language.

I am currently reading this book Apes, Language and the Human Mind (courtesy Connemara) by Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and two other authors. The author is a well known name in ape language research, and has done language research on bonobos, especially Kanzi, who is popular in his own right. In the first part of the book, the author talks about her experiences while training Kanzi. Kanzi is capable of recognising lexigrams and can communicate his intent to the trainers. That includes not just the food he wants, but where he wants to go, what game he wants to play and so on. You can see him using the lexigrams in the video below.

But lexigrams are only symbols for words. That alone does not mean apes have language. To understand language is to understand the grammatical structure behind sentence formation. At least the rudimentary ones. In this respect too, Kanzi seems to be doing well. Here are some examples from the book that Kanzi understood.

  • Let’s go to the trailer and make a water balloon
  • Would you give Panbanisha an onion?

Kanzi responsed to this with doing exactly what was intended. Can you imagine the excitement they would have had while carrying out these tests? But one might, quite rightly, suspect that Kanzi probably did not understand the sentence as a whole, but it heard “trailer”, “water” and “balloon” and made a connection without bothering about the sentence. Similarly, it could have heard just “Panbanisha” (another bonobo) and “onion” and did what was expected. Just to be sure that Kanzi did understand sentences as they are and not because of the context, they tried instructions with objects which are not natural. Like..

  • Tickle Liz with the umbrella.
  • Stab the ball with the sparklers.

Here too, Kanzi succeeded. Moreover, they also successfully tried ambiguous sentences like

  • Pour the coke in the lemonade.
  • Pour the lemonade in the coke.

Kanzi even understood somewhat complicated sentences like “Put on the monster mask and scare Linda”. But the problem with such experiments have always been that unconscious verbal or physical cues might have given the necessary suggestion to Kanzi as to what was expected. But that too was scrupulously avoided, by keeping Kanzi in a glass room (through which trainers from the outside can see Kanzi, but Kanzi cannot see the trainers) and giving instructions from outside.

There does not seem to be a complete consensus on whether apes do really understand language. The fact that the apes are not physically capable of making the different kinds of sounds that we make while talking, impairs its ability to speak (though they can hear what we say). As the author says “just because apes lack the requisite anatomical equipment to speak, it does not necessarily follow that they also lack the intelligence to use language”. She does seem to make a strong case for it.

Here you can see Kanzi following the given instructions.