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Essay On Human Language And Animal Communication Videos

Kanzi, a bonobo chimpanzee, has become quite famous. He has appeared on television and been on the cover of many magazines because of his ability to communicate. This article about him was written by Paul Raffaele for Smithsonian magazine in 2006. Raffaele is a journalist who has covered much of the world for the Smithsonian Museum and Reader's Digest. He has written two books about his adventures: The Last Tribes on Earth: Journeys Among the World's Most Threatened Cultures and Among the Cannibals: Adventures on the Trail of Man's Darkest Ritual


I traveled to Iowa, to meet Kanzi, a 26-year-old male bonobo reputedly able to converse with humans. When Kanzi was an infant, American psychologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh tried to teach his mother to communicate using a keyboard labeled with geometric symbols. Kanzi's mother never really got the hang of it, but Kanzi picked up the language.


First Kanzi used 6 symbols, then 18, finally 348. The symbols refer to familiar objects (yogurt, key, tummy, bowl), favored activities (chase, tickle), and even some concepts considered fairly abstract (now, bad). Kanzi learned to combine these symbols in regular ways. Once, Savage-Rumbaugh said, on a trip to the woods Kanzi touched the symbols for marshmallow and fire. Given matches and marshmallows, Kanzi snapped twigs for a fire, lit them with the matches, and toasted the marshmallows on a stick.


Savage-Rumbaugh claims that Kanzi knows the meaning of up to 3,000 spoken English words. She says Kanzi also understands words that aren't a part of his keyboard vocabulary; she says he can respond appropriately to commands such as "put the soap in the water" or "carry the TV outdoors."


About a year ago, Kanzi and his sister, mother, nephew, and four other bonobos moved into a $10 million, 18-room house and laboratory complex at the Great Ape Trust near Des Moines. Kanzi and the other bonobos spend evenings sprawled on the floor, snacking on M&M's, blueberries, onions, and celery, as they choose DVDs to watch. Their favorites DVDs star apes and other creatures friendly with humans.


Savage-Rumbaugh has been testing the bonobos' ability to express their thoughts vocally. In one experiment, she placed Kanzi and his sister in separate rooms where they could hear but not see each other. Savage-Rumbaugh explained to Kanzi that he would be given yogurt. He was then asked to communicate this information to his sister. Kanzi vocalized, then his sister vocalized in return and selected "yogurt" on the keyboard in front of her.


With these and other ape-language experiments, says Savage-Rumbaugh, the mythology of human uniqueness is coming under challenge. If apes can learn language, which we once thought unique to humans, then it suggests that ability is not innate in just us.


But many people argue that these bonobos are simply very skilled at getting what they want and their abilities do not constitute language. "I do not believe that there has ever been an example anywhere of a nonhuman expressing an opinion, or asking a question. Not ever," says Geoffrey Pullum, a language specialist at the University of California at Santa Cruz. "It would be wonderful if animals could say things about the world, as opposed to just signaling a direct emotional state or need. But they just don't."

Photo credit: Clipart.com


All animal species have some capacity for communication but communication abilities range from very simple to extremely complex, depending upon the species. Communication is influenced by a species' genetic makeup, its environment, and the numerous ways by which animals and humans respond to and adapt to their surroundings. You'll learn more about this topic by doing the activities on this E-Sheet.


Go to the Orangutan U Science Update. Listen to the audio file and then read the accompanying research. Think about the answers to the questions posed in the article. You will discuss these with your class.

Now go to and read All Animals Communicate. When you are finished, answer these questions:

  • Are humans constantly communicating? How about other animals?
  • Are there any special areas in human brains that make us distinct from other animals?
  • Which animals have communication abilities that are close to humans?
  • Do scientists believe that chimps have a language like humans?
  • What are some examples of ways that humans can communicate that are different from other animals?

Read these articles:

When you are finished, answer these questions:

  • Is the ability to communicate the exclusive possession of human beings?
  • List some of the ways that animals express themselves
  • Who do you think will have greater communication abilities: a dog that lives in a regular home or a dog that lives in a circus. Why?

Knowledge Check

Write a brief essay explaining this statement:

Although all species have some capacity for communication, there is a range of abilities among species.

Be sure to provide examples from the resources you have explored in this lesson.

If you'd like, you can visit these websites to learn more about animal communication.

This esheet is a part of the Animal Communication lesson.

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