This Chimpanzee Could Speak In Sign Language

Chuck Banner | January 16th, 2017

Have you ever wished that you could speak with animals? Language is a unique human trait that connects us to each other and simultaneously separates us from others species. But we all know that some animals seem to understand language- so can any animals communicate with it ? In 1967 two scientists set out to explore language acquisition with our closet non-human relative: a chimpanzee. Their project would go on to revolutionize our understanding of language forever.

In 1965, the US Air Force was focused on obtaining chimpanzees for their space program.  A young female chimpanzee was captured in Africa and brought to the United States. Instead of working with the space program, the chimpanzee was adopted by Allen and Beatrix Gardner, professors at the University of Nevada. They named the young chimpanzee after the country they resided in: Washoe. And Washoe would go on to change how we understand language in chimpanzees and humans forever.


The Gardners were interested in language and if non-humans were able to acquire and use it.. With the hope of exploring the acquisition of language in chimpanzees, they established Project Washoe with the goal of teaching Washoe sign language by raising her as a human child (chimpanzees do not have the vocal anatomy to produce spoken language in the same capacity as humans). Just like a typical American child of the time, Washoe had a daily schedule, wore clothing, owned a variety of toys and learned the appropriate etiquette to sit at the dinner table and share a family meal.  She was a chimpanzee who thought she was a human, and through the help of the Gardners and multiple assistants, learned 350 words of sign language.

As Washoe grew older, her caretakers continued the study by introducing new chimpanzee family members, all of whom learned various levels of sign language Washoe was even able to adopt a young male chimpanzee name Loulis, whom she taught sign language to as well. She recognized herself in a mirror and was able to generate novel combinations to describe items that she did not know (calling a swan, a creature she had never seen before, a “water bird”).

Washoe moved from Nevada to Oklahoma, and eventually to Washington where she lived for the rest of her life with her chimpanzee family. She remains the first non-human to acquire and speak sign language, as well as the first non-human to teach sign language to her adopted son, Loulis.

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