Can Gorillas Learn Language?

Fact of the day: there are approximately 7.3 billion people living on Earth, about 27,000 types of ethnic groups, and 6,500 different variations of human language and dialect. If you think those are staggering numbers, get this: there are 950,000 species of insects ALONE in the world and humans have become out-populated by chickens…so, if you think about it, we are technically a minority. We have been surrounded by animals for hundreds of thousands of years; yet, we have not found a way to effectively communicate with them. Are animals capable of learning human language? Does each species of animal have their own form of language? These are some of the mind-probing questions that scientists have been investigating for years; however, in the 1990’s, a breakthrough was made by American Researcher, Francine Patterson.

Take a look at the very beginning of this PBS Documentary and you will find yourself awestruck; Dr. Patterson managed to cross the language barrier between man and animal by teaching Koko, a female western lowland gorilla, sign language. Koko’s ability to translate and communicate in sign language indicates that gorillas are more intelligent than most animals…but the question remains: is Koko’s learning ability unique to her as an individual or is it possible for other animals to learn interspecies communication, as well?

It is known that dogs can learn commands, parrots mimic human words, elephants mourn for the dead, and that horses can do math, but no other species of animal has the ability to purposefully communicate with humans by forming words in a specific language. Confused and looking for an answer? The secret lies within the anatomy of the human and animal brain. There is a region of the brain called Broca’s area which in charge of interpreting language and formulating words. Scientists have discovered a region of the primate’s brain that is “uncannily similar” to the one linked with speech in humans. According to Claudio Cantalupo and William D. Hopkins’ article, “Asymmetric Broca’s area in great apes” the Broca’s area in some apes have been found to “show a human-like asymmetry not only in posterior (such as the planum temporale) but also in frontal regions, indicates that the origin of asymmetry in language-related areas of the human brain should be interpreted in evolutionary terms rather than being confined to the human species.”

It’s physically evident that apes are similar to humans anatomically; however, now we know that they have similar brain structures, as well. Thanks to researchers like Dr. Patterson and breakthrough research in psychology, we have uncovered the unbounded potential to communicate with gorillas, chimpanzees, and apes. Who knows what the future holds…maybe one day the fable of Dr. Dolittle will become a reality; however, for now we must keep looking to science for answers to the questions that still remain a mystery.

1 thought on “Can Gorillas Learn Language?

  1. Cassidy Paige Heiserman

    Personally, I have always loved animals and found them extremely intriguing. When going to the zoo and looking at the gorillas, it is mind boggling how similar they are to humans. While clearly more primitive, gorillas share similar features and mannerisms to those of humans. I have always been curious about animal communication, and how exactly they communicate with each other. I also always wondered how awesome life would be if my dog understood anything I said besides the word “treat.” The beginning of the video you shared is amazing! If someone was able to do that with one gorilla, it is likely that other gorillas are capable of learning this as well. And who knows, maybe someday we will have other species that can communicate with us also!

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