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Washoe is a chimpanzee, currently living at the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute (CHCI) at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington. She was the first non-human to acquire at least some elements of American Sign Language (ASL), as part of a controversial research experiment into animal language acquisition. She was named for Washoe County, Nevada, where she was raised and taught to use ASL.
In 1967, Allen and Beatrice Gardner established a project to teach Washoe ASL at the University of Nevada, Reno. Previous attempts to teach chimpanzees vocal languages (the Gua and Viki projects) had failed. The Gardners based their approach on the claim that previous projects had failed because chimpanzees' vocal apparatus is somewhat limited --not because they are inherently unable to learn language (as many evolutionary biologists and cognitive linguists claim). They chose ASL as a vehicle for their study because they noted that chimpanzees spontaneously use bodily gestures in communication in flexible ways. Like the chimpanzees in previous studies, Washoe was raised in a language-rich environment (in her case, a sign language-rich environment) that was designed to mimic that of a human child in many ways.
Today Washoe resides at Central Washington University.
- She has learned in excess of 800 signs.
- Taught her adopted son, Loulis, to use some ASL signs. She used methods similar to the ones that the Gardners used, such as molding his fingers into correct signs.
Critics argue that her signing is due to operant conditioning and not due to her ability to comprehend and desire to communicate. As a response to Washoe, another chimpanzee, named Nim Chimpsky, was taught sign language in a simliar but more strict manner. After studying Nim's abilities, his researchers claimed that chimpanzees in general are incapable of language.
A number of projects have sought to establish ASL or other forms of language in other chimpanzees and also in gorillas and bonobos, as well as in non-primate species such as dolphins, woodpeckers, and parrots (specifically, an African Grey Parrot). A clear view of the potential and limitation of other species' use of human languages is likely to come from an integration of the results of all these projects, rather than an essentially historical pursuit of what did or did not happen in Project Washoe. However the Washoe project will remain a milestone in the study of animal cognition, as it was considered by some to be the first success in teaching language to an animal of another species, and thus the stimulus for virtually all the projects that have followed it.
- Animal intelligence
- Akeakamai (dolphin)
- Alex (parrot)
- Clever Hans (horse)
- Great ape language
- N'kisi (parrot)
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