Hanging from the language tree

A recent issue of the Columbia Magazine has an article on Columbia professor Herb Terrace and his work on communication and cognition in chimpanzees. Terrace is best known for his role in the Nim Chimpsky experiments, which sought to settle the question of whether chimps could acquire human language.

From the article:

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.

Originally excited by the way that Nim Chimpsky (cheekily named after a certain venerable linguist) seemed to be able to produce real, novel sequences, Terrace came to realize that his evidence did not support that conclusion. In 1979, he published a paper in Science, publicly acknowledging that the Chomskians were right. “Apes can learn many isolated symbols (as can dogs, horses, and other nonhuman species),” Terrace wrote, “but they show no unequivocal evidence of mastering the conversational, semantic, or syntactic organization of language.”

Terrace continues to lecture and do research on cognition in primates. Although he does not believe that primates are capable of mastering the complexities of human language, he has a theory about how language acquisition might work. In keeping with the theory that language learning is highly tempered by environmental conditions, it has a lot 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.

It is clear that the acquisition of language has a profound effect on the way our minds function, and Terrace’s current research focuses on how animals can process information without the faculty so central to our own cognition.


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