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ASL and Chimpanzees:

(Photo credit: Kevin LaCamera, July 8, 2007. Location: Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. Equipment: Leica Digilux 3, with a Leica D Vario-Elmarit f2.8-3.5/14-50 aspherical lens. Special thanks to Jen Sisson.)

Ashell Harris
April 22, 2005

Chimpanzees and ASL

American Sign Language is known for the human culture to sign.  Well we have a surprise and that is Chimpanzees are signing and having a great time with it.  This was such a shocker for me to find this information on chimps learning to sign.  I thought that this would be a great research project. 

Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) are the third largest of the great ape family.  Chimps are very intelligent monkeys and learn very fast.  Many chimps have been raised by humans, so they think like humans.

The first chimp to try to use ASL was a female chimp called Washoe.  Washoe learned approximately 150 signs in six years time in Washoe Nevada.  She was very fluent with words such as; play, food, and tickling.  Washoe is currently located at Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute at Central Washington University, in Washington (CHCI).  Washoe begin to treat a male chimp by the name of Loulis like his own son.  As time went by Washoe decided that maybe Loulis should start to sign so that we could communicate together. 

Lucy was raised as a human child. She learned over 100 signs (Freewebs), and combined them to make original words. Lucy still had wild animal ways because she would have a temper and show negative behavior.  Lucy was sent to Africa to the wild she had never known after being raised as a human. Lucy went to the wild not knowing how to survive and eventually was shot and killed by a hunter who later used some body parts as trophies.

 Koko, a female gorilla learned ASL at the age of one year old.  Koko has learned over 1000 signs and understands 2000 signs (Who2).  She also invents her combinations and understands the English word.  When Koko was alone she would sign and while she was signing someone would videotape her (Ohio State).  Koko would soon have a pet kitten named All Ball who she loved very dearly.  All ball died from escaping from the cage and run over by a car.  Koko was very saddened to know that All Ball was gone and she would sign "Cry" all the time.

Chimpanzees are very similar to humans and able to learn the ASL language.  I find it to be very interesting and intelligent for chimps to have many skills. Chimps could learn the ASL language, I'm sure that anyone could learn and use signs on a daily basis. 


Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute (CHCI)


Primate Studies


(Photo credit: Kevin LaCamera, July 8, 2007. Location: Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. Equipment: Leica Digilux 3, with a Leica D Vario-Elmarit f2.8-3.5/14-50 aspherical lens. Special thanks to Jen Sisson.)
In a message dated 7/9/2007 8:12:44 A.M. Mountain Daylight Time, jenny sisson writes:
I have a question that I hope you can answer. My boyfriend and I were at the Cleveland Zoo yesterday and observed a female chimpanzee who was on her back, lying very close to the glass. We were able to watch her for a long time and she seemed to be mimicking us (when I would clap my hands, she would do the same. etc.) She also kept repeating a gesture where she would tap the index finger of her left hand against the back of her wrist on her right hand, almost as if she were asking, "What time is it?" She did this enough to where I knew it was not accidental.
Does this hand behavior mean anything? I tried to find something online about it, but had no luck.
If you can shed any light on this behavior, I would be much obliged. Thank you in advance!
Jen Sisson
That sign can indeed mean some version of "What time is it?"
Or perhaps she was using the sign to mean, "It is time (to feed me)!"
It might mean that she has seen humans do that sign quite a bit while passing her window.
Or it might mean she has an itch, heh.
You indicate "back" of the wrist.  If by that you mean the "underside" -- hmm perhaps she is signing some version of "doctor?"
Realistically, you and I could guess all day and never know the "truth."  Your best bet would be to talk to her "handler/trainer/caretaker."
-- Dr. Bill

Dr. Bill,
Thanks for writing me back! I had hoped that this would be a very easily recognizable sign and you would know for sure that it meant she was telling me that she was the missing link! Alas, we're left to speculate. Perhaps I will email the zoo and ask them what that could mean. I was able to get a very nice photo of her so I'm sure they will appreciate that as well. (I've attached this photo as a thank you to you too!)
Thanks again for your help. I appreciate you writing me back.
- Jen

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