Experimental Conversations: Sign Language Studies with Chimpanzees

  • Mary Lee JensvoldEmail author
Part of the Interdisciplinary Evolution Research book series (IDER, volume 1)


Sign language studies of chimpanzees are a tool for studying the continuity between human behavior and behavior of other animals and between verbal behavior and other intelligent behavior. Cross-fostered chimpanzees paralleled children in their acquisition and use of signs and phrases. These procedures occurred under rigorous and systematic record keeping and experimental paradigms. The study of Wh-questions and the use of remote videotaping (RVT) are examples of experimental procedures. These revealed chimpanzee-to-chimpanzee signing and private signing. Face-to-face interactions between the chimpanzees and an interlocutor who presented various systematic probes is another experimental procedure. The chimpanzees adjusted to the interlocutor with revisions, new signs, or no response when appropriate. The hallmark of the sign language studies is that caregivers treated the chimpanzees as conversational partners socially motivated rather than experimental subjects bribed or forced into participation. These findings confirm continuity with differences of degree among species.


Sign language experiments Project Washoe Chimpanzees Immersion learning 


  1. Abbeduto L, Hesketh LJ (1997) Pragmatic development in individuals with mental retardation: learning to use language in social interactions. Ment Retard Dev Disabil Res Revs 3:323–333CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Anselmi D, Tomasello M, Acunzo M (1986) Young children’s responses to neutral and specific contingent queries. J Child Lang 13:135–144PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bates E, Benigni L, Bretherton I, Camaioni L, Volterra V (1979) The emergence of symbols. Academic Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  4. Benus S, Gravano A, Hirschberg J (2012) Pragmatic aspects of temporal accommodation in turn-taking. Linguist Lang Speech 43:3001–3027Google Scholar
  5. Bloom L, Rocissano L, Hood L (1976) Adult-child discourse: developmental interaction between information processing and linguistic knowledge. Cogn Psychol 8:521–552CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bodamer MD (1987) Chimpanzees signing to themselves. Thesis, Central Washington UniversityGoogle Scholar
  7. Bodamer MD, Gardner RA (2002) How cross-fostered chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) initiate and maintain conversations. J Comp Psych 116:12–26CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bodamer MD, Fouts RS, Fouts DH, Jensvold MLA (1994) Private signing in chimpanzees. Hum Evol 9:281–296CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Brinton B, Fujiki M (1991) Responses to requests for conversational repair by adults with mental retardation. J Speech Hear Res 34:1087–1095PubMedGoogle Scholar
  10. Brinton B, Fujiki M, Loeb DF, Winkler E (1986a) Development of conversational repair strategies in response to requests for clarification. J Speech Hear Res 29:75–81PubMedGoogle Scholar
  11. Brinton B, Fujiki M, Winkler E, Loeb D (1986b) Responses to requests for clarification in linguistically normal and language-impaired children. J Speech Hear Disord 51:370–378PubMedGoogle Scholar
  12. Brown R (1973) Development of the first language in the human species. Am Psychol 28:97–106CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Chalcraft VJ, Gardner RA (2005) Cross-fostered chimpanzees modulate signs of American Sign Language. Gesture 5:107–131CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Ciocci SR, Baran JA (1998) The use of conversational repair strategies by children who are deaf. Am Ann Deaf 143:235–245PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Duncan J (2000) Conversational skills of children with hearing loss and children with normal hearing in an integrated setting. Volta Rev 101:193–211Google Scholar
  16. Ferguson A (1998) Conversational turn-taking and repair in fluent aphasia. Aphasiology 12:1007–1031CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Fouts D (1994a) The use of remote video recordings to study the use of American Sign Language by chimpanzees when no humans are present. In: Gardner RA, Gardner BT, Chiarelli B, Plooij FX (eds) The ethological roots of culture. Kluwer, The NetherlandsGoogle Scholar
  18. Fouts R (1994b) Transmission of human gestural language in a chimpanzee mother-infant relationship. In: Gardner RA, Gardner BT, Chiarelli B, Plooij FX (eds) The ethological roots of culture. Kluwer, The NetherlandsGoogle Scholar
  19. Fouts RS, Hirsch AD, Fouts DH (1982) Cultural transmission of a human language in a chimpanzee mother-infant relationship. In: Fitzgerald HE, Mullins JA, Page P (eds) Psychobiological perspectives: child nurturance, vol 3. Plenum Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  20. Fouts RS, Abshire ML, Bodamer M, Fouts DH (1989a) Signs of enrichment: toward the psychological well-being of chimpanzees. In: Segal EF (ed) Housing care and psychological wellbeing of captive and laboratory primates. Noyes, Park RidgeGoogle Scholar
  21. Fouts RS, Fouts DH, Van Cantfort TE (1989b) The infant Loulis learns signs from cross-fostered chimpanzees. In: Gardner RA, Gardner BT, Van Cantfort T (eds) Teaching sign language to chimpanzees. SUNY Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  22. Fouts RS, Jensvold MLA, Fouts DH (2002) Chimpanzee signing: Darwinian realities and Cartesian delusions. In: Bekoff M, Allen C, Burghardt G (eds) The cognitive animal: empirical and theoretical perspectives in animal cognition. MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  23. Furrow D (1984) Social and private speech at two years. Child Dev 55:355–362CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Gallagher TM (1977) Revision behaviors in the speech of normal children developing language. J Speech Hear Res 20:293–302Google Scholar
  25. Galski T, Tompkins C, Johnston MV (1998) Competence in discourse as a measure of social integration and quality of life in persons with traumatic brain injury. Brain Inj 12:769–782PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Gardner RA (2002) The proper study of chimpkind. Behav Brain Sci 25:624–625CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Gardner RA, Gardner BT (1969) Teaching sign language to a chimpanzee. Science 165:664–672. doi: 10.1126/science.165.3894.664 PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Gardner BT, Gardner RA (1971) Two-way communication with an infant chimpanzee. In: Schrier AM, Stollnitz HD (eds) Behavior of nonhuman primates, vol 4. Academic Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  29. Gardner RA, Gardner, BT (1973) Teaching sign language to the chimpanzee, Washoe (Film). Available from Psychological Cinema Register, State College, PAGoogle Scholar
  30. Gardner BT, Gardner RA (1974) Comparing the early utterances of child and chimpanzee. In: Pick A (ed) Minnesota symposium on child psychology, vol 8. University of Minnesota Press, MinneapolisGoogle Scholar
  31. Gardner BT, Gardner RA (1975) Evidence for sentence constituents in the early utterances of child and chimpanzee. J Exp Psychol 104:244–267CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Gardner RA, Gardner BT (1978) Comparative psychology and language acquisition. Ann NY Acad Sci 309:37–76PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Gardner RA, Gardner BT (1984) A vocabulary test for chimpanzees. J Comp Psych 98:381–404CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Gardner RA, Gardner BT (1989) A cross-fostering laboratory. In: Gardner RA, Gardner BT, Van Cantfort TE (eds) Teaching sign language to chimpanzees. SUNY Press, AlbanyGoogle Scholar
  35. Gardner BT, Gardner RA (1994) Development of phrases in the utterances of children and cross-fostered chimpanzees. In: Gardner RA, Gardner BT, Chiarelli B, Plooij FX (eds) The ethological roots of culture. Kluwer, The NetherlandsCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Gardner RA, Gardner BT (1998) The structure of learning. Lawrence Erlbaum, MahwahGoogle Scholar
  37. Gardner BT, Gardner RA, Nichols SG (1989a) The shapes and uses of signs in a cross-fostering laboratory. In: Gardner RA, Gardner BT, Van Cantfort T (eds) Teaching sign language to chimpanzees. SUNY Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  38. Gardner RA, Gardner BT, Drumm P (1989b) Voiced and signed responses in cross-fostered chimpanzees. In: Gardner RA, Gardner BT, Van Cantfort T (eds) Teaching sign language to chimpanzees. SUNY Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  39. Gardner RA, Van Cantfort TE, Gardner BT (1992) Categorical replies to categorical questions by cross-fostered chimpanzees. Am J Psychol 105:27–57PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Gardner RA, Scheel MH, Shaw HL (2011) Pygmalion in the laboratory. Am J Psychol 124:455–461PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Garvey C (1977) Contingent queries and their relations in discourse. In: Ochs E, Schieffelin B (eds) Developmental pragmatics. Academic Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  42. Golinkoff RM (1986) I beg your pardon? The preverbal negotiation of failed messages. J Child Lang 13:455–476PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Golinkoff RM (1993) When is communication a meeting of minds? J Child Lang 20:199–207PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Goodall J (1986) The chimpanzees of Gombe. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  45. Halle J, Brady N, Drasgow K (2004) Enhancing socially adaptive communicative repairs of beginning communicators with disabilities. Am J Speech-Lang Pathol 13:43–54. doi: 10.1044/1058-0360(2004/006 PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Hayes KJ, Hayes C (1951) The intellectual development of a home-raised chimpanzee. Proc Am Philos Soc 95:105–109Google Scholar
  47. Jensvold MLA, Fouts RS (1993) Imaginary play in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). Hum Evol 8:217–227CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Jensvold MLA, Gardner RA (2000) Interactive use of sign language by cross-fostered chimpanzees. J Comp Psychol 114:335–346PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Jensvold ML, Wilding L, Schulze SM (2014) Signs of communication in chimpanzees. In: Witzany G (ed) Biocommunication in animals. Springer, DorderechtGoogle Scholar
  50. Keenan EO (1977) Making it last: repetition in children’s discourse. In: Ervin-Tripp S, Mitchell-Kernan C (eds) Child discourse. Academic Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  51. Keenan E, Klein E (1975) Coherency in children’s discourse. J Psycholinguist Res 4:365–380CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Kellogg WN, Kellogg LA (1933) The ape and the child. Whittlesey House, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  53. King JM, Gallegos-Santillan P (1999) Strategy use by speakers with dysarthria and both familiar and unfamiliar conversational partners. J Med Speech-Lang Pathol 7:13–116Google Scholar
  54. Lane H, Pillard R (1978) The wild boy of Burundi. Random House, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  55. Leitten L, Jensvold ML, Fouts R, Wallin J (2012) Contingency in requests of signing chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). Interact Stud 13:147–164CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Lepper MR, Greene D, Nisbett RE (1973) Undermining children’s intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward: a test of the overjustification hypothesis. J Pers Soc Psychol 2:129–137CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Maestas Y, Moores J (1980) Early linguistic environment: interactions of deaf parents with their infants. Sign Lang Stud 26:1–13Google Scholar
  58. Marcos H (1991) Reformulating requests at 18 months: gestures, vocalizations and words. First Lang 11:361–375. doi: 10.1177/014272379101103304 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Marcos H, Bernicot J (1994) Addressee co-operation and request reformulation in young children. J Child Lang 21:677–692PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Marcos H, Kornhaber-le Chanu M (1992) Learning how to insist and clarify in the second year: reformulation of requests in different contexts. Int J Behav Dev 15:359–376. doi: 10.1177/016502549201500305 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Marschark M (1993) Psychological development of deaf children. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  62. Matthews WS (1977) Modes of transformation in the initiation of fantasy play. Dev Psychol 13:212–216CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Mol L, Krahmer E, Maes A, Swerts M (2012) Adaptation in gesture: converging hands or converging minds? J Mem Lang 66:249–264CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Most T (2003) The use of repair strategies by children with and without hearing impairment. Lang Speech Hear Serv Schools 33:112–123. doi: 10.1044/0161-1461(2002/009 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. O’Sullivan CO, Yeager CP (1989) Communicative context and linguistic competence: the effects of social setting on a chimpanzee’s conversational skill. In: Gardner RA, Gardner BT, Van Cantfort TE (eds) Teaching sign language to chimpanzees. SUNY Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  66. Pickering MJ, Garrod S (2004) Toward a mechanistic psychology of dialogue. Behav Brain Sci 27:169–225PubMedGoogle Scholar
  67. Rimpau JB, Gardner RA, Gardner BT (1989) Expression of person, place, and instrument in ASL utterances of children and chimpanzees. In: Gardner RA, Gardner BT, Van Cantfort TE (eds) Teaching sign language to chimpanzees. SUNY Press, AlbanyGoogle Scholar
  68. Ripich DN, Carpenter BD, Ziol EW (2000) Conversational cohesion patterns in men and women with Alzheimer’s disease: a longitudinal study. Intl J Lang Commun Dis 35:49–64CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Ruvolo M (1994) Molecular evolutionary processes and conflicting gene trees: the hominoid case. Am J Phys Anthropol 94:89–113. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.1330940108 PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Ryckebusch C, Marcos H (2004) Speech acts, social context and parent-toddler play between the ages of 1; 5 and 2; 3. J Pragmat 36:883–897CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Schlesinger HS, Meadow KP (1972) Sound and sign: Childhood deafness and mental health. University of California Press, BerkeleyGoogle Scholar
  72. Sibley CG, Ahlquist TE (1984) The phylogeny of the hominoid primates indicated by DNA-DNA hybridization. J Mol Evol 20:2–15. doi: 10.1007/BF02101980 PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Singh JAL, Zingg RM (1942) Wolf children and feral man. Shoe String Press, Hamden. Reprinted in 1966 by Harper & RowGoogle Scholar
  74. Slater PJB, Williams JM (1994) Bird song learning: a model of cultural transmission? In: Gardner RA, Gardner BT, Chiarelli B, Plooij FX (eds) The ethological roots of culture. Kluwer, The NetherlandsGoogle Scholar
  75. Stamps J (2003) Behavioral processes affecting development: Tinbergen’s fourth question comes of age. Anim Behav 66:1–13. doi: 10.1006/anbe.2003.2180 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Stanyon R, Chiarelli B, Gottlieb D, Patton WH (1986) The phylogenetic and taxonomic status of Pan paniscus: a chromosomal perspective. Am J Phys Anthropol 69:489–498CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Terrace H (1979) Nim. Knopf, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  78. The Chimpanzee Sequencing and Analysis Consortium (2005) Initial sequence of the chimpanzee genome and comparison with the human genome. Science 437:69–87. doi: 10.1038/nature04072 Google Scholar
  79. Van Cantfort TE, Gardner BT, Gardner RA (1989) Developmental trends in replies to Wh-questions by children and chimpanzees. In: Gardner RA, Gardner BT, Van Cantfort T (eds) Teaching sign language to chimpanzees. SUNY Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  80. West MJ, King AP, Freeberg TM (1997) Building a social agenda for the study of bird song. In: Snowdon CT, Hausberger M (eds) Social influences on vocal development. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  81. Wilbur RB, Petitto LA (1981) How to know a conversation when you see one: discourse structure in American Sign Language conversations. J Natl Stud Speech-Lang-Hear Assoc 9:66–81Google Scholar
  82. Wilcox MJ, Webster EJ (1980) Early discourse behavior: an analysis of children’s responses to listener feedback. Child Dev 51:1120–1125CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Wootton AJ (1994) Object transfer, intersubjectivity and third position repair: early developmental observations of one child. Child Lang 21:543–564. doi: 10.1017/S0305000900009454 CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Anthropology and Museum StudiesCentral Washington UniversityEllensburgUSA

Personalised recommendations