Teaching Koko to ‘speak’: “Me Fine Animal Gorilla; you Penny”

Dr. Penny Patterson signing  the a young gorilla, Koko

Can we really communicate with apes?

Some of you may vaguely recall Koko, the gorilla who became famous in the 1980s and 90s for her ability to ‘speak’ using American Sign Language.  To date she can use over 1,000 signs and understands 2,000 words of spoken English.  Admittedly I elaborated the quote for the title, but Koko did once sign ‘fine animal gorilla’ when describing herself.  Another time when asked, ‘Who are you?’ she replied more cryptically, ‘polite me thirsty feel Koko-love’.

Recently I came across the 1978 documentary ‘Koko: A Talking Gorilla’ and was fascinated at the extent of Koko’s ability.  I wondered why these types of studies are less publicised today or if they are even still conducted.

Dr Penny Patterson, the founder of the Gorilla Institute and Koko’s personal teacher, has been a mother figure to the animal since adopting her as an infant from San Francisco Zoo forty years ago.  In 1981 Patterson published her experiences in the book ‘The Education of Koko’…

At the time there was a surge in media coverage.  As well as several appearances on television, Koko featured in articles written by the New York Times and National Geographic Magazine.  She even met high profile film stars such as Robin Williams and Leonardo Di Caprio.

Had we finally broken through the communication barrier between humans and animals?  And if communication was possible, could we find out whether apes understand abstract concepts such as freedom, love, good, guilt and self?  After all, empathy, ego and a sense of morals are some of the recognised human attributes which ‘separate us’ from animals.

Earlier Studies in Primate Communication:

Throughout the last century different groups of scientists, psychologists and linguists have conducted research into how communication through language develops, and whether it can be taught to non-human primates.  In 1925 the psychologist Robert Yerkes suggested that the vocalisations of chimpanzees are not true language, but ‘primarily innate emotional expressions’.  During the 1940s Keith and Kathy Hayes taught Vicki the chimpanzee to say ‘mama’, ‘papa’ and ‘cup’, although the whispering sounds she managed to produce were barely recognisable.  After similar attempts to get chimps to vocally mimic language failed, other researchers realised that great apes don’t have the right vocal chords or mouth shape to recreate human speech.

Yerkes observed that in the wild, chimpanzees already use diverse gestures to communicate and that there was evidence that the animals could occasionally ‘act with insight’.  He proposed that primates could perhaps be taught to use simple gestures to ‘converse’ non-verbally.  During the 60s and 70s Allen and Beatrix Gardener taught the female chimpanzee Washoe around 350 words of American Sign Language (ASL).  This was the first successful case, seeming to prove that apes had the ability to comprehend and communicate basic words.  The chimp also created the name ‘water bird’ when she encountered a duck.


Conversations with Koko

six photos of koko signing 'browse', 'frown', 'unattention', 'eye make up' 'hair barrette' and 'bite'

Some of Koko’s invented gestures.

Like Washoe, Koko occasionally uses her vocabulary of signs to invent compound names for objects, for example calling a ring a ‘finger bracelet’.  Likewise a hair brush becomes ‘scratch comb’; and a mask is an ‘eye hat’.  This can be interpreted as evidence of ‘concept combination’ in language.  When shown pictures of objects Koko will do the corresponding sign and vice versa proving that she can create simple associations between ‘objects’ and their corresponding ‘signs’.  Examples of rudimentary sentence construction include: “Thirsty, like milk,” and “Lips fake candy give me”.

Yet when teacher and pupil interact, Koko often signs so many alternative answers to a single question that it seems like Dr Penny Patterson (perhaps subconsciously) just waits for the word that makes the most sense, and thus reinforces her own subjective interpretation in the process.  At one point in the 1978 documentary Koko is sitting in front of a dictionary.  Penny is trying to teach her the concept of the word ‘wet’.  She asks: ‘wet is like…?’

To which Koko responds with a string of words: candy gum, forget, nut eat, polite, thirsty swallow that, Koko love, eat hungry.

Penny responds with an upbeat: ‘Koko’s tongue is brilliant pink’

Koko then sticks out her tongue and tries to look at it.  She continues signing: pink, pink, pink, sleep.

‘You can’t even see it from there,’ Penny says, referring to Koko’s tongue.  Penny gives Koko a mirror.  The gorilla takes it and sticks out her tongue.

‘You’ve got sparkles on your nose, I noticed that’

Koko rubs at her nose. Red, frown, mouth: she signs, pulling faces at herself in the mirror.

Whether or not Koko understands the word ‘wet’, she still has an impressive sense of self-awareness and a good enough comprehension of language to poke out her tongue in front of the mirror soon after Penny remarks on its colour.

During the documentary, Patterson suggests the gorilla can refer to past events and recognises previous misconduct:

“One day, the day before, [Koko] had bitten a companion. I asked her, ‘what did you do yesterday?’  She signed wrong wrong.  I said, ‘what’s wrong?’  She signed bite, so she remembered.”

Koko certainly has a mischievous side.  Dr Patterson describes an instance where Koko – being scolded after eating a pot plant – lied to her saying that Bill (the grad student) had eaten it!  When Patterson responded, ‘Bill didn’t eat the plant.  He’s not a gorilla, did you eat the plant?’ Koko swiftly replied some other gorilla.

Controversy & Tough Times

As exciting and moving as these accounts and videos are, during the forty years she has been running the project Dr Patterson unfortunately hasn’t presented much data to the scientific community which can be properly reviewed.  Despite contributing to 50 academic papers, critics maintain her results are hard to support, mainly because Dr Patterson rarely allows Koko to be tested by independent investigators.  If you are interested, I recommend reading Patterson’s paper ‘The Case for the Personhood of Gorillas’.

Dr Patterson published several books including ‘Koko Love’, ‘Koko’s Kitten’ and ‘Koko’s Story’ for young children.  By favouring mass media and the popular press Patterson may have set herself and her research on a rockier road; by way of opposition.  Many linguists are skeptical of Koko’s 1000-sign vocabulary; believing that the gorilla merely imitates gestures after picking up on certain clues.

Another difficulty has been the struggle to find Koko a mate to produce the prized offspring that the Gorilla Foundation still hope could complete their family of signing gorillas.  Unfortunately Koko’s first male companion Michael died quite young and since then all efforts to get a mate for Koko have failed.  Now the foundation’s efforts remain focused on raising enough money to relocate the foundation to a better site in Maui.

Results of Other Studies

A smiling Terrace holds a hand puppet in front of Nim

photo credit: Susan Kuklin, Science Photo Library

To answer one of my earlier questions, the scientist, Herbert Terrace can be held partly responsible for the decline in this type of animal research.  In the 1970s academics were enthusiastically debating whether apes could learn language, with the opposing camps equally determined to disprove the other.  On the one side were the Chomskians; who agreed with the famous linguist Noam Chomsky that only humans have the ability to ‘talk’.  On the other were the Skinnerians like the Gardeners, who believed Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner’s theory that as language is a learned skill, it could be taught to non-human primates.

In the 1980s the Gardeners produced a pivotal film entitled ‘The First Signs of Washoe’ which aimed to disprove the Chomskian view with footage of the chimp speaking in sign language.  Terrace decided to investigate further, initially believing he could also disprove Chomsky.

Consequently Terrace ran his own tightly controlled experiments with a group of colleagues.  They raised a chimp called Nim Chimsky (a cheeky pun) and taught him sign language using similar techniques to the Gardeners.  On the one hand, Nim mastered the use of sign language to label objects and actions, just as Washoe had done.  However, like Washoe and Koko, Nim struggled to construct sentences with the proper word order.  He would sign sequences like ‘Nim eat grape grape grape eat eat Nim eat’.

An extra consideration that should be made is that ASL is structured around ‘concepts’ and doesn’t follow the same sentence structure as standard spoken English.  Therefore it may sound a lot more grammatically incorrect to a non-signing person than to a person fluent in ASL.  For instance ‘I have two sisters’ is broken down into the ASL signs ‘two sisters, me.’ It isn’t clear whether Terrace took this into account when he published their findings three years later.

Slow-motion analysis of the footage of Nim, Washoe and other apes ‘talk-signing’ showed that the chimps mostly imitated their human trainers and made more errors than correct signs.  As I cautiously pointed out earlier in the case of Dr Patterson and Koko, the Nim and Washoe’s trainers often chose to ignore the errors and responded only to the chimps correct word sequences.  Meanwhile they were unconsciously prompting the apes to respond in a certain way.

The scientists concluded that although chimps can be taught to label objects correctly, they cannot learn to construct basic sentences, even at the level of a two year old human toddler.  Terrace points out that proof of correct labelling ability isn’t enough evidence to support the hypothesis that chimps can actually learn language.  Longer word strings rarely contained more useful information and ‘speech’ wasn’t spontaneously volunteered by the apes.  In most cases, Nim would only communicate by answering direct questions to get his reward of food.

Conversely,  other researchers were determined to continue the studies.  Sue Savage-Rumbaugh conducted a detailed study of language acquisition in bonobos and found that a particular ‘student’, Kanji could consistantly generate two-word sentences with correct word order.  For instance the bonobo demonstrated that he understood the difference between the phrases, ‘tickle Kanji’ and ‘Kanji tickle’.  Thus Savage-Rumbaugh proved that a chimp could use a primitive form of grammar which the researchers coined ‘protogrammar’.


Penny shows Koko a picture book of gorillas.

There’s no doubt that Koko is a very intelligent gorilla. The fact she can correctly express her emotions in sign language – using words like ‘happy’, ‘sad’, ‘afraid’, ‘enjoy’, ‘mad’ and ‘love’ – is amazing in itself.  Not only does she love to play ‘tickle’ with her handlers, Koko also cracks ‘jokes’ and expressed distress when her beloved pet kitten died.  Whereas I truly want to believe that Koko feels and understands all these things and her reactions don’t equate to ‘monkey see monkey do’, there is the niggling matter of anthropomorphism. In the documentary Koko: A Talking Gorilla, the director of San Francisco Zoo, Saul Kitchener, voices a concern shared by opposers to Patterson’s ‘Gorilla Language Project’…  What if Koko is being “made human” against her own animal will?  Would she in fact be better off in a more natural environment within the company of her own species?  At certain times during the documentory I also felt uneasy at the level of ‘unnatural’ interaction betwen Koko and the human world which encompasses most aspects of her daily routine.  The expectation placed upon the gorilla seems high.  Who is really benefitting from this relationship?

Despite Herbert Terraces assertions that apes mostly mimic the signs of their human trainers and may not fully understand what they are signing, Koko appears to have surprisingly lucid and insightful moments (for a gorilla).  For example after an experiencing an earthquake Koko was asked ‘What happened?’  She replied ‘Darn darn floor bad bite.  Trouble Trouble.’

Perhaps, like Dr Penny Patterson may well be, I am wistfully cherry-picking from the best phrases Koko has ever uttered in my eagerness for the ‘talking’ ape concept to be true.  Or maybe we should simply be satisfied that a channel of communication, however narrow, has been opened between animals and humans.  Although apes may not be able to grasp language and syntax in the truest sense, these studies have brought some important side issues to light.

Although the extent of an ape’s self-awareness, emotional intelligence and perception of abstract concepts still remains unclear, through reading different articles and watching Koko in action I have been reminded how much animals should be respected in their own right.  Just because we can’t verbally communicate with an ape, a sheep or even a lobster doesn’t give us the right to treat the animal kingdom as we please, on the ignorant assumption that they don’t experience true emotions.  If I go on much further I might talk myself into becoming a vegan, so instead I’ll end here with the Gorilla Foundation’s mission statement:  To bring interspecies communication to the public, to save gorillas from extinction and to inspire children to create a sustainable future.











4 responses to “Teaching Koko to ‘speak’: “Me Fine Animal Gorilla; you Penny”

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