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Animal Communication

How do animals communicate with each other? A look at the Lana project, Washoe, a comparison with human communication and evaluation of research.

Animal Communication

There are usually many differences between human and animal behavior. However, there are times when their behavior may mirror ours in many ways. This article explores the way that animal behavior relates to human psycholinguistics.


Research with primates is still in its infancy, yet it is revealing much about the way they relate to each other and to humans. Take the Lana Project for example.

The Lana Project

The research began in the 1970s and it was designed to make a language training system that was computer based. Lana was a female chimpanzee that they took to teach how to use a keyboard.

Lana did very well with lexigram research and was able to distinguish many terms and relate them to the symbols. A lexigram is symbol that relates to a term or idea. They are often used in language research with primates.

Many consider Lana to have extraordinary powers of communication. She could tell the lab assistant to refill her treats. She also could request items that were not in the lab and that she could not see. This proves that she had the ability to communicate on a level that was not believed possible before.

Just as amazing was the lexigram keyboard that Duane Rumbaugh designed for primate communication at the research lab in Decatur, Georgia. The three panel keyboard has nearly 400 symbols and when the ape selects and presses a key, the word is spoken and the lexigram is shown on a video monitor.


The Washoe project began in 1967 at the University of Nevada in Reno. There had been experiments with chimpanzees and communication previously. These attempts were aimed at teaching the chimps to speak a language. However, they soon realized that the chimps did not possess the physical ability to form a spoken language. This practice was abandoned in favor of body gestures. In the wild the apes communicated with each other this way. It was decided to try and teach a chimpanzee the ASL or American Sign Language. This was the same language that was taught to hearing and speaking impaired humans.

When the project first began, the researches practiced showing the signs and used the process of repetition to teach Washoe, how to sign. Whenever Washoe made a motion that resembled an ASL sign, the researchers would immediately work with Washoe to perfect the sign. They would work with Washoe until the sign became something of meaning to her.

Here is an example that the researchers used. The ASL signal for the word "more" involves bringing the hands together and allowing the tips of the fingers to touch. They used tickling as one of their rewards, as Washoe was fond of it. When someone ticked her, she would bring her hands together as a reflex. This would be an automatic gesture of asking for "more".

The researchers needed to make her understand that a reflex was not the same as a deliberate action. So when she cringed upon being tickled, they would immediately pull her hands apart and the tickling reward would stop. When Washoe brought her arms together again, she would receive the tickling reward, again.

At first, the mere bringing of the hands together would elicit a tickle. In time, the researchers demanded more and more actions that resembled the sign for the word, "more". This went on until the exact sign for the word "more" had to be produced in order to receive a reward. With this accomplished, the researchers went about teaching her other ways to relate to the word, "more".

They invented a game whereas Washoe would be pulled around in a laundry basket. When they stopped pulling her, she could have more fun by make the sign for the word, "more". It did not take too long for her to realize that this worked. She also applied the sign to get more of other things. This worked for food or anything else that she may want. She was able to transfer learning for communication to other parts of her life. This showed a great deal of insightful thinking that was once thought only capable by humans.

After a couple of years, the researchers noticed that Washoe could learn signs by watching others. She picked up words and their meaning by watching what the researchers did. When they realized this, they changed their teaching methods. Rewards were no longer necessary as Washoe wanted to communicate. She could express words for items that were different than what she was taught. For example a refrigerator was a "cold box". She would sometimes call it "open food", as people would open in to get food. This showed a great amount of intellect and forethought.


Koko [3] the gorilla has had an amazing life. Her ability to learn and understand sign language has brought different and new understanding to communication between species.

Koko was one year old in 1972 when the project started. She was taught differently that Washoe. Sign language and the vocal sound of the word were introduced to her at the same time. Within two weeks time, she had learned how to make the sign for water and food. Every month she would learn another sign. In the span of four years, she had learned 200 signs.

When tested for comprehension, Koko scored well above the possibilities of chance. It was not near human capability, but she was not human. She could also make unique combinations of signs for things.


Many people may argue that apes are simply imitating. However, the research is hard to ignore. Certainly, apes cannot talk and communicate on a human level. That most likely will never happen. One can also argue that these apes are just extraordinary samples of a large population. The only way to disprove that is with more research.

  1. Animal behavior can often imitate our own. There is much to find out by looking at research on the linguistics of primates.
    Lana the chimpanzee was able to learn a lot about human communication with the use of lexigrams. Lexigrams are symbols that correspond to words or ideas. They were invented by Duane Rumbaugh.
  2. The lexigram keyboard and synthesizer was a system that allowed Lana to communicate hundreds of terms to her human counterparts.
    Washoe and Koko showed an amazing ability to learn and communicate with ASL. Not only that, they were able to form their own unique combinations for communicating. This shows a great deal of intelligence.
  3. So what does this have to do with human psycholinguistics? As you recall, psycholinguistics is the study of how we learn and understand language. When we study apes and the way they learn, we may be looking into the dim corridors of our own past. This can give a great deal of insight into the way that we learn and understand all forms of communication. If you understand the base of something, you have a better chance to grasp the entire meaning and concept of it.
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