Sunday, August 17, 2008

Can Apes Learn ASL?

Beginning in the late 1960s, several famous projects claimed to have taught language to baby chimpanzees. These claims quickly captured the public’s imagination and were played up in popular science books and magazines and television programs. Most of the trainers were schooled in the behaviorism tradition of B.F. Skinner and are ignorant of the study of language; they latched don tot the most tenuous resemblance between chimp and child and proclaimed that their abilities fare fundamentally the same.

The apes did not “learn American Sign Language”. This preposterous claim is based on the myth that ASL is a crude system of pantomimes and gestures rather than a full language with complex phonology, morphology, and syntax. In fact the apes had not learned any true ASL signs.

Steven Pinker
The Language Instinct