Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Ape language slips reveal category knowledge storage.

Michael Erard summarizes efforts (PDF here) to analyze 'language' errors of apes for insight into the covert mental processes of animals - analogous to such work done on human language errors He focuses on the work of Lyn, who was the first to apply the study of errors to bonobos . Kanzi and a female bonobo, Panbanisha, who now live at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa, can comprehend instructions and descriptions in spoken English, and they can respond by using 384 lexigrams, which they touch on a keyboard.
Lyn found that Kanzi and Panbanisha have arranged hundreds of lexigrams in their minds in a complex, hierarchical manner based mainly on their meaning. She coded the relations between all 1497 sample-error pairs along seven dimensions, including whether the lexigrams looked alike, had English words that sounded alike, or referred to objects in the same category. She found that the errors were not random but patterned. If the lexigram stood for "blackberry," the error was more likely than chance to sound like blackberry, be edible, be a fruit, or be physically similar. Errors were also more likely to be associated with more than one category. For example, "cherries" are both edibles and fruits, and the word sounds like the correct one, "blackberries." All this indicated to Lyn that mental representations of the lexigrams must be stored not as simple one-to-one associations but in more complex arrangements. This suggests that, given the chance, bonobos and other apes can acquire systems of meaning that are closer than anyone has thought to what humans do, and that some aspects of language acquisition are not unique to humans.

1 comment:

  1. Pfft. Of course animals are always more like humans than people think. We are so speciesist to think that animals don't even have brains and come up with all kinds of silly ideas like animals don't have souls, but humans do. Animals don't go to heaven, but humans do. Animals don't suffer, but humans do. What a bunch of self-deception.

    That bonobo is so fat! Bonobo abuse!