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Language Learning in Nonhuman Primates

  • By: Kristen Gillespie-Lynch, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh & Heidi Lyn
  • In: Encyclopedia of Language Development
  • Edited by: Patricia J. Brooks & Vera Kempe
  • Subject:Language Development, Language & Communication

Language learning in nonhuman primates has been studied with vocal, gestural, and visual symbol systems, in addition to assessments of speech comprehension. Early researchers focused on teaching apes to produce language but noted that comprehension exceeded production. Later research demonstrated the importance of receptive language for productive development. Techniques used to teach apes language vary along a continuum from operant conditioning to enculturation. Apes raised in language-enriched environments (enculturation) learn language more quickly, use it more flexibly, and exhibit greater speech comprehension than apes trained with conditioning.

While the rate of language learning remains much slower for apes than humans, vocabularies reported across studies of enculturated apes may underestimate competence due to reliance on caregiver diaries and testing. Apes raised in language-enriched environments learn many skills ...

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