"Talking" With Kanzi the Bonobo

  • By Rima Chaddha
  • Posted 01.01.08
  • NOVA

According to Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, a lead scientist at the Great Ape Trust of Iowa, bonobos can understand language and convey their feelings to humans and to each other by pointing to symbols on lexigram keyboards. Given her experience, she believes the cognitive gap between humans and bonobos is small enough that we can form meaningful relationships. Hear more in this audio slide show.

Launch Interactive

What is it like to converse with an ape? A primatologist describes the language she uses to "speak" with a bonobo.


"Talking" With Kanzi the Bonobo

Posted: January 1, 2008


SUE SAVAGE-RUMBAUGH: Hi, I'm Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, I'm a primatologist and a lead scientist at Great Ape Trust, and I'm with you today to talk about my fascinating work with a bonobo named Kanzi.

He's different in two very, very important ways. Different not from other bonobos, but different from other apes who have been in ape language studies. Kanzi, unlike all the other apes, was raised with his mother. Kanzi was a member of a very, very rare and endangered species, and myself and the other researchers didn't want ever to separate Kanzi from his mother. Traditionally, all ape language research had been done by taking the baby away from the mother, because researchers felt that they couldn't work with the mother, they might get bitten, the baby wouldn't pay any attention, but fortunately, we had maintained a very good friendship with Kanzi's mother, and so we decided not to take Kanzi away.

The second way in which Kanzi is different from all other apes that have acquired language is that no training was involved. We didn't shape Kanzi, we didn't reward Kanzi, we didn't mold his hands, we just talked around Kanzi, and we used symbols around Kanzi, and he watched, and he listened, and he learned, in the same way that a child learns language.


When humans use language, they typically talk like we are doing. If we can't talk, we may use signs. I come from a tradition that used graphic symbols instead of hand signs. Originally, graphic symbols were chosen because it was easier to eliminate the possibility of cuing, and to have a scientific record of what the chimp had done.

Now, graphic symbols are one of the better ways—I don't think they're necessarily better than signs— but they have, because they're a written system, they can do some really interesting things. They can be presented on a large screen, they can be interspersed with all kinds of pictures and video, you can use a camera to allow them to ask to see other places in the forest or the building, so because they're a written system, you essentially can give apes access through graphic symbols to the world of the computer, to the internet, which is what we about at this point in time. But the symbols that we started with are geometric forms. They're squares and circles and crosses and diamonds, and originally they were used because we suspected that apes wouldn't be able to acquire English orthography. Now, we don't think that's true, but they have learned all these symbols and they like them, so we are continuing to use them. But the basic language that they're acquiring, that's in their head, in their minds, in their brains, in their hearts, is what we're speaking right here today. It's spoken English. And the lexigrams are just a way of writing.


The number of lexigram symbols that is on Kanzi's board is around 360, and he can identify all of those. We are trying now to determine how many English words he knows, and it's hard, because you can't test a word like "a," or "that," or "it," or "where." You can't show a picture of an "it." You have to use conversational context to show that he understands "it." You have to say, "Kanzi, I put it down over there, can you go get it?" And you find that he can do that. You might preface it with, "I put the book down over there, can you get it, but don't get the bottle?" You know, and he can do sentences like that. So we know he's really comprehending words like "it." Those kinds of tests take a long time, and they're very detailed to run.


I think his favorite games are "chase" and "hide and seek". And also to hide objects, and to play "grab" and "keep away" with those objects. But he also plays video games. And he plays kind of games of pretend. He started to pretend like he would be eating the peach on every car's license plate in Georgia when they put a big peach on the license plate.

As proper research psychologists, we had devised a battery of about 45 tests that were specifically designed to test Kanzi's length of attention, Kanzi's ability to chase a target, Kanzi's ability to predict a trajectory, each one a particular memory, attention, or perceptual skill.

Miss Pac Man is not designed to test anything. It is designed to be sold in the stores for children. So we didn't know if Kanzi would be able to do it or not. We began to describe to Kanzi in English what you should do: "Oh, there he goes! Oh, chase him! Oh, get away from him!" And it was possible for him to listen to the English and to try to play that game. He was following the rules, and he was being guided by our English comments as he did that.


We've called it the Pan/Homo culture. I suppose a good way to say it—it's a group of hominids who love each other. We know we have different vocal abilities. We know some of them have larger teeth and more hair, we know some of them are stronger and others are softer, but we try to have as much as possible a seamless kind of friendship and loving connection. So that we respect what they do, and we in turn hope that they respect what we do. We become a little bit like them, and they become a little bit like us.

The question for the past 30 years has been, "do apes have language? Can they use grammar? Can they understand words?" These are questions of the past. They have grammar, and they have words. These are not really very interesting questions. In the meantime, the more important question about language, which is, "What do we do with it? How does it organize our groups? How does it change our cultures? How does it weave the web of cultural relationships among us? These are the questions that we are beginning to address, because we have a whole group of language-competent bonobos.



Courtesy Sue Savage-Rumbaugh/The Great Ape Trust of Iowa


(license plate)
Courtesy Lorrie Lyon

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