Hanging from the Language Tree

In a famous experiment over 30 years ago, psychology professor Herb Terrace hoped to prove that chimpanzees could acquire speech. Today, as director of the Primate Cognition Laboratory at Columbia, he’s searching for the missing link to cognition.

by Cindy Rodríguez Published Fall 2009
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On a nippy day in December 1973, a doctoral student named Stephanie LaFarge climbed the steps to her five-bedroom Upper West Side brownstone carrying a newborn sucking on a pacifier. The baby was not hers, or even of her species. The hairy, saucer-eyed infant was a male chimpanzee. LaFarge ’85GSAS, ’87TC planned to raise him as her own, under the guidance of her former professor Herbert S. Terrace, as part of an elaborate experiment to see if chimps could acquire language.

Terrace, a young Columbia psychologist who already had established himself as an expert in animal cognition, believed apes could learn to communicate, even think aloud, through sign language. All they needed, he thought, was a nurturing human- family environment.

At the time, the ape language wars were raging in academia. In one corner were the Chomskians, those who agreed with MIT linguist Noam Chomsky that only humans have innate syntactical ability. In the other were Skinnerians like Terrace who sided with Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner, who believed that language is learned, and therefore could be taught to nonhuman primates.

Terrace based his beliefs on his groundbreaking Harvard dissertation, in which he proved he could teach pigeons in less than an hour how to distinguish red from green and horizontal from vertical lines. Skinner later told New York magazine, “Herb was one of the best graduate students I ever had, if not the best.”

When he joined the faculty at Columbia University in 1961, Terrace already had a national reputation for his work with birds. Having heard of the successes of researchers who communicated with chimpanzees, Terrace was convinced he’d get better results by immersing the chimp in a humanlike environment.

With bravado, he named the baby Nim Chimpsky. For the next four years, Nim, dressed in clothes made for toddlers, lived a life of privilege and fame. His face was splashed on magazine covers; he appeared on the David Susskind Show, 60 Minutes, and Sesame Street. Novelist Kurt Vonnegut visited him. Tutors worked with him for hours, teaching him to sign. He seemed to be catching on, stringing together signed words to make such declarations as “banana me eat banana.”

After three years of tutoring, Nim had learned 125 signs, an impressive number. But the chimp wasn’t forming sentences. Unlike children, who string words together to create sentences that become more complex as they get older, Nim’s language abilities remained, in Terrace’s words, “flat.” So in 1977, four years after he picked up the infant chimp, Terrace ended the project and returned Nim to the Institute for Primate Studies in Norman, Oklahoma.

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