Experimental Conversations: Sign Language Studies with Chimpanzees

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Book Chapter

Department or Administrative Unit

Primate Behavior and Ecology

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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.


This article was originally published in The Evolution of Social Communication in Primates. The full-text article from the publisher can be found here.

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© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2014