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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Herb Terrace / Photo: Tanit Sakakini

Terrace’s work with Nim allowed him to witness the remarkable adaptive behavior and intelligence of chimps. Nim easily learned how to wash dishes, use a toilet, and fish (with his hands). He was also cunning: the chimp could trick people into giving him things he craved — pizza, ice cream, beer.

“It was clear that the chimp was very smart and was thinking, but, contrary to Descartes, he was thinking without language,” Terrace says.

(Several other researchers insist that their apes do understand language and can communicate using signs and vocalizations. Terrace’s response: knowing the words for objects is not the same as using words in different combinations to form new thoughts, which is the hallmark of language acquisition.)

Terrace has a theory of how language developed in humans, and it has much to do with early intimate socialization. Those who don’t get it — as was the case for thousands of Eastern European children orphaned during World War II — struggle to speak. The longer children are deprived of human interaction, the harder it is for them to talk. Terrace asks the question: if a baby were left on a deserted island with food and shelter, would it eventually on its own utter a word? The evidence suggests he wouldn’t.

This is the same problem autistic children face. Infants acquire language by watching their parents mouth sounds. Babies begin uttering monosyllabic words by the time they are about a year old. By 18 months, a child can point to an object, and name it — something he learns by following the eyes of his parent. Humans have a white sclera surrounding a dark iris, unlike all other animals, making it easy for babies to see where adults are looking. One of the early symptoms of autism is the inability of a baby to see where someone is pointing; instead, they often look at the gesturing hand.

Terrace’s work with monkeys helps us have a better understanding of how we process information in the absence of language, which is the foundation that we built upon when we learned to speak.

As Terrace moves forward, people continue to resurrect the past. Just last year the book Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human came out. James Marsh, the director of the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire, is currently working on a piece about Project Nim for the BBC.

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