Ape ‘language ace’ gets tripped up by simple grammar

AP Photo/Steve Pope

Ape ‘language ace’ gets tripped up by simple grammar

Twenty-three years ago, a bonobo named Kanzi (above) aced a test in understanding human language. But a new study reveals he may not be as brainy as scientists thought—at least when it comes to grammar. The original test consisted of 660 verbal commands, in English, that asked Kanzi to do things like "show me the hot water" and "pour cold water in the potty." Overall, the ape did well, responding correctly 71.5% of the time (compared with 66.6% for an infant human). But when the researchers asked him to perform an action on more than one item, his performance plummeted to just 22.2%, according to the new analysis. When he was asked to "give the lighter and the shoe to Rose," for example, he gave Rose the lighter, but no shoe. When asked to "give the water and the doggie to Rose," he gave her the toy dog, but no water. The cause? Animals like bonobos may have a harder time than humans in processing complex noun phrases like “water and doggie,” linguist Robert Truswell of the University of Edinburgh reported in New Orleans, Louisiana, this week at the Evolution of Language conference. This feature of grammar—which effectively “nests” one unit within the bigger construct of a sentence—is easily picked up by humans, allowing us to communicate—and understand—more complex ideas. But Truswell cautions that humans probably aren’t born with the ability to interpret this kind of nesting structure. Instead, we must be taught how to use it.

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