Saturday, April 16, 2011

On "Animal Bodies, Human Minds," by W. A. Hillix and Duane Rumbaugh ****

This book serves as a fascinating introduction to animal language acquisition. It discusses various attempts by human beings to teach animals human languages, focusing most on primates but also including chapters on dolphins and parrots. No doubt, the focus is on primates because that's where most of the research has taken place.

Whereas Stephen Pinker was dismissive of the ability of animals to learn language, Hillix and Rumbaugh are believers. Pinker comes up in this book at least once, in the second to last chapter, where the authors try to answer the objections of the various scholars who disagree with them. I found Pinker's statements to be somewhat misleading, if I am to believe these authors, for Pinker had noted that all researchers had given up on the idea of animals learning languages--including some of those included in this book--save for Rumbaugh himself. In fact, this book, written after Pinker's own, features some of those same linguists, who are still working with animals and still making various claims about those animals' linguistic abilities.

But what are the objections? Animals who have language skills may be exhibiting only behaviors that look like language but that aren't truly language. They might be picking up on subtle gestures when a human is talking and then taking those as commands. They might be learning words but failing to really understand those words other than as a means to receive some kind of reward. They might be able to use words but can't use syntax (the authors seem to go back and forth on whether primates have syntactic abilities), and if syntax seems possible, it might only be that the animal is learning strings of words rather than words alone. And on and on the problems go. After all, we're talking to some other animal. We can't get into this animal's head to know what is actually going on, just as we can't get into someone else's head to know what's going on in it.

So to what extent are even these things that some critics claim are actually going on not in themselves language? What is language? Is it not simply communication? And so, if we manage to communicate to another creature to pick up a Frisbee, are we not using language that the creature recognizes? Does a bee dance constitute language, since it communicates with other bees?

Or does language have to be something that we can use in unique ways (placing, for example, the word honey into a context not heard before and having the other creature understand, like--"touch the honey with your toe")? Does it have to qualify as more than just requests? What language is is the subject of the second chapter of the book, and it is something that the authors fail to satisfactorily answer, and that is because there is no satisfactory answer.

After that, we're introduced to the various animals and their trainers. We learn of chimpanzees and bonobos and orangutans and apes that have all been trained to use language. Some animals master close to two hundreds words, we're told; some have possibly used at one time or another up to one thousand words. Tests are recounted, including some that are supposed to guard against things like the Clever Hans effect (where a gesture acts as a command to a linguistic cue). Some are meant to test just what the creature is understanding: Can the creature separate like items from unlike items? Can the creature make a new sentence?

The authors also explore how the various creatures learn to talk. Some are taught sign language, some use plastic symbols, some use "lexigrams" (computer based images). Some are talked to with verbal language; some are only talked to in the nonverbal language chosen. But why not just use a verbal language? Some have tried, but apparently primates don't like to use their voice or may not be capable of uttering real words with the voice. One primate, for example, eventually did learn to say verbally Mama, Papa, and Cup, but never anything more. Another possibility is that voice in a monkey is too tied to emotion to be used for language (there are essentially six vocal uses among certain primates).

Techniques used vary. They include tutoring with operant-response procedures (I require you to say "I want a cookie" and reward you accordingly when you do--but this technique, as one might guess, tends to have limited value for getting a creature to use language spontaneously). They also include a more interesting (and recent) technique, wherein language is demonstrated to an animal. Two subjects talk with one another, requesting items and receiving them, in the presence of the primate, who is given the option of joining in the conversation but not directly. In this way, the primate sees how language works.

The interesting thing about this system is that it sort of mirrors the way in which one of the most successful cases of a primate learning language--the case of Kanzi. Kanzi's mother was taught to use lexigrams, but she barely got to fifty words and seemed to have little interest. But Kanzi, the child, who was present at each of these sessions picked up on these things, and when finally separated from the mom as an adult, rapidly progressed to more complex linguistic skills. Some of the creatures among this group have even begun using language with their own children, and one scientist thinks that the creatures are creating a kind of creole of English and monkey speak.

I was, coming into the text, most interested in dolphins, seals, and parrots, since I was least familiar with these language experiments. I found myself, however, less interested in these chapters than I thought I would be when I got to them. The fact that these creatures are so far away from humans anatomically means that language training with them is in some ways less interesting--one is forced to used odd systems in the case of dolphins, since there's really no means to "talk" otherwise. And the parrot, while perhaps having mastered some words in the human tongue, seems focused, at least in the discussions on the text, on requests (gimme a grape . . .), which in turn doesn't lend to much thinking on the readers part about the nature of the mind of the creature.

The discourse with primates, however, can be interesting to learn about. Unfortunately, discussions are fairly rudimentary, as one might expect. Still, there seem to be indications that conversations sometimes go beyond expressing needs and desires. And more than that, though, the techniques used with primates have been adopted for use with language-handicapped children, such that some of these children have then been able to begin speaking, although not necessarily with their mouths. Just how much animals know, to what extent they think like humans--these are fascinating questions to explore, and because we are locked into the bodies in which we have, they are questions that are not easily answered. Helix and Rumbaugh and the researchers they discuss take a stab at it.

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