The Mother Tongue

Andrew Sullivan —  Aug 14 2012 @ 1:37pm


by Zoë Pollock

Benjamin Hale interviewed Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, an influential figure in the study of bonobos and language. She claims that her apes are better linguists because of how they were raised:

The cultural transmission that has happened here goes far beyond anything that has happened in other ape projects. This is because of the “for real” inclusion of apes into the human world and the human familial system. Language is a way of being and living, and their lives here are based on human values, morals, and family. We do not have “subjects,” we have “relatives.” They eat, sleep, and live with us. Even the Gardners, who prided themselves on their method of “sign immersion,” put Washoe in a cage at night. Teco sleeps with me. I am there as much for him as any mother is there for her child, and in many cases more. This is the critical variable; this method fosters the identification required with others for rapid self-learning of language. 

Hale's essay on the history of ape language research is paywalled at Harper's.

(Photo: An orphan bonobo with its surrogate mother. By Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images)