Chats with Koko The Gorilla


Koko is a 36 year old gorilla who is famous for learning sign language. She knows over 1,000 words and can continue a discussion at the same level as the common two year old human. In class we have been discussing the debate as to whether language is a skill that only humans are capable of. Animals we say operate by “call systems” which differ from language for multiple reasons such as call systems communicate generally only to respond to stimuli or show emotions. They also are not able to be combined to change meanings. We can agree that this is not what Koko does with sign language. More similarly to what we call “language” Koko can talk about the future. In an interview she is asked (via sign language) if she ever wants kids, Koko replies “I don’t see it.” If I assume that she really did understand the question and her interpreter did not alter her response this means that Koko is capable of thinking in different realms of time.

Throughout the interview, Koko reflects on things like her favorite movies (Free Willy and Pretty Women) her favorite color (red) and her favorite word (nipple).  Her level of thought is deeper than I would have expected from animals based on the call system ideology of their communication. This leads me to wonder if come animals are capable of thinking like human are, but they are either unable to communicate it or we are unable to understand and figure out how they are communicating. It is interesting and overwhelming to consider that maybe all animals operate on the same social and emotional level that we do. While this may be unlikely and widely argued against it is possible. For example, we talked in class specifically about dolphins and how their communication by different pitch squeals could be as complex as humans, but we don’t know because we maybe can’t even hear the frequencies they are communicating in.

However exiting and fascinating it would be in animals were communicating in languages of their own and were really capable of the same level of thoughts as humans are I do not think this is the case. Koko for example, only knows 1,000 words while impressive, the average human communicates in 20,000 to 35,000 words. This comparison shows how even though Koko can communicate better than almost all other animals she still is vastly less able to communicate than humans. Often in the interview she was asked questions and was unable to answer and said random things that her interpreter/ trainer then explained more to make it make sense. For example, Koko was asked to describe how she looks her response was “flower” and her trainer elaborated that she has a scrunch with a flower on it that she likes to wear. This shows that Koko does understand and reply in a semi-logical way, but even after years of training her language skills are no where near those of a humans.

Reading Koko’s interview makes we think there could be another category of linguistics between call systems and full language. This could be for animals that are capable of some more complex language skills than just reacting to stimuli, but are not as diversely capable as humans are.

Do you think that Koko’s communication through sign language shows that animals have more of a capacity for language than we thought or do you think her signing is still lacking enough diversity and understanding to be considered language?



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