This Chimpanzee Could Speak In Sign Language

Laura Heggs | 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.

Next Article
  • Is It Opposite Day Or Do I Have Situs Inversus

    If you happen to suffer from Situs Inversus then you may believe you are constantly looking in a mirror or that opposite day is actually a real and true reality. But that would of course not be true, your organs are simply placed in a mirror image of what is the norm. An extremely rare...

    Read More
  • Prehistoric Armadillo The Size Of A Car

    When it comes to prehistoric times it really is as if every animal was bigger than its modern counterpart. Mammoths were bigger than elephants and sloths were even taller than elephants! Some researchers have even found alligators and crocodiles that grew to the size of a city bus. And this holds true for the armadillo...

    Read More
  • People Turning Into Real Living Statues

    For most people if you fall down or have a minor injury it is not usually a big deal, maybe a little a painful and that's all but this is not the case for everyone. Some individuals live in real fear of a small injury, this is known as Stone Man Syndrome. Every little injury...

    Read More
  • The Tuna Fish Is So Strong It Can Cook Itself

    There is one fish in the ocean that you may not want to come across on a day of ocean fishing. If you happen to be out on a boating trip with some deep sea fishing in the Atlantic then you could come across the warm-blooded Atlantic bluefin tuna. This happens to be one of...

    Read More
  • Radium Girls The Terrible Time Of Using Radioactive Paint

    Just about a century ago the rage was, of course, to have a glow in the dark watch, nobody could resist them. It was a novelty that was being marketed heavily and making watch companies millions, it was like any of the hot social media trends of modern times. They did not need to charge...

    Read More
  • The Terrifying Titanoboa

    In the dusty outback of Northern Colombia, deep in the Cerrejon about just 60 miles from the Caribbean coast, you will find one of the largest coal operations in operation. It covers an area larger than Washington D.C. and estimates advise there are regularly over 10,000 workers employed. The company that operates the mining, Carbones...

    Read More
  • Man Lands A Plane In Manhattan Street Twice

    Surprise airplane landings tend to always make headlines, especially in the streets of a major US city. I doubt anyone can forget Capt Chesley Sullenberger landing on the Hudson River in 2009? There was a long island man who once landed on Rockaway Beach in 2011 and a pilot who landed on a small Suffolk...

    Read More
  • Escaping Prison To See The Dentist

    In terms of great escapes, this is definitely an odd one, one would think if you were to escape prison it would be to retrieve your freedom and just to keep on running. But for one inmate in Sweden the stakes were much different: in fact, it had to do with a toothache and nothing...

    Read More