Kanzi Learns Language

Merlin Donald tells the story of Kanzi, a bonobo who learned language:

Some chimpanzees and bonobos (a distinct species of pygmy chimpanzee) have learned to use symbols intelligently, and some can even understand spoken English. The best-known example of this is Kanzi, a bonobo raised by Duane Rumbaugh and Sue Savage-Rumbaugh in a quasi-naturalistic reserve just outside Atlanta, Georgia … Reared in a hybrid bonobo-human culture, Kanzi is their star. He has mastered a vocabulary of several hundred symbols and can understand a significant amount of spoken English. He has been tested with rigorous control procedures to guarantee that he does not receive any inadvertent cues from the experimenter. These controls involve some fairly exotic measures, such as having the speaker wear a welder’s mask, to conceal any facial expressions or eye movements that might hint at what the correct response might be, or having Kanzi wear earphones, so that he can listen to someone reading word lists in another room. Even under these conditions, Kanzi has been able to respond appropriately. He can identify photographs, point at objects, and understand completely novel sentences, spoken at normal rate such as: ‘Take the vacuum cleaner outdoors’, or ‘Give Pinky some water’. Kanzi … has difficulty with elaborate constructions such as sentences with embedded clauses that separate the verb from its object. But he performs correctly with reversible sentences, in which meaning depends on word order. This shows not only that he can segment speech stream … but that he can also comprehend the grammatical relationships between some of the words in a sentence …

However, despite his linguistic achievements, it is questionable whether Kanzi’s awareness has been fundamentally altered by his remarkable skill with symbols. He is the member of a species that has not produced any symbolic invention in the wild. He has learned to use human symbols in very clever ways, but on current evidence, even after intensive enculturation into human society, he still cannot invent symbols … Kanzi’s mind lacks the fundamental defining capacities that make human language happen. One of those capacities is a certain kind of self-awareness that provides the motive to describe one’s mental states. Kanzi has never tried to describe his own experiences or feelings, using symbols … Kanzi has never tried this kind of self-description, despite his considerable symbolic and grammatical skills. He does not say ‘I think’ or ‘I feel’ or ‘I want’ … He seem to have no natural state that would motivate him to construct such self-referential expressions …

In effective pedagogy, one person consciously regulates the learning process of another, while the learner tracks the teacher’s intent … There is no evidence of for systematic instruction for apes in the wild. However … Kanzi and Panbanisha … the Rumbaugh’s … most highly enculturated apes, both have tried to show their wild-reared cousins how to do things, on many occasions, usually without success.


Donald, Merlin. 2001. A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness. New York: W.W. Norton. pp. 120–121, 144. || Amazon || WorldCat

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