Sign language studies of cross-fostered chimpanzees

My goal is for this website to serve as a resource for our team. Please feel free to make suggestions for what to add, what can be left off, reorganization, etc.

Our role in the cross-fostering research

We have a great opportunity to participate in world-famous research involving human fostered chimpanzees who use the signs of American Sign Language. You will also have opportunities to meet Dr. Allen Gardner and his students through conference calls regarding this research.

There are links to some research articles about these chimpanzees in Relevant Articles. Immediately below is a very brief history of the project and description of our task.

In 1966, Drs. Allen and Beatrix Gardner* began a research project which investigated the extent to which a chimpanzee, infant Washoe, would acquire human culture when raised in a human-like environment. They later replicated their work, with significant improvements,  with cross-fostered chimpanzees, Moja, Pili, Tatu and Dar. The Gardners hoped to address a classical problem in comparative psychology, namely the extent to which another species might be able to use human language, one aspect of human culture. Previous research to address this problem ran into difficulties. According to the Gardners,

“The failure of linguists and psycholinguists to devise a behavioral definition of language is an obstacle that we tried to avoid by obtaining observations of the acquisition of sign language by young chimpanzees that can be compared with observations of the acquisition of spoken languages and sign languages by human children. Any theoretical criteria that can be applied to the early utterances of children can also be applied to the early utterances of chimpanzees. If children can be said to have acquired language on the basis of their performance, then chimpanzees can be said to have acquired language to the extent that their performance matches that of children. The use of a natural human language and the integration of this language into intellectually and socially stimulating homelike laboratory conditions permits us to make critical comparisons with human children.” (B. Gardner & Gardner, 1975, p. 244)

In order to make these comparisons, Allen and Beatrix Gardner and their research assistants recorded, in diary form, as much as they could of the daily activities of the cross-fosterlings. For decades now, students in the Gardner lab have been entering these diary entries into a computerized database. Considering that they have years of daily records for each of five chimpanzees, it is not surprising that data entry is still underway.

One reason for this process taking so long is that precautions are taken to minimize error in the database. There is always a double check for both data entry and any corrections to the database.

Our current task is to assist in this process. We’ll begin by proof-reading the computerized diary entries with the handwritten notes, identifying any errors. We’ll ship those errors back to the Gardner lab to be fixed.

While the task of proof-reading itself may sound very clerical, I can assure you, from personal experience, that reading about baby chimpanzees who “talk” is incredibly fun and interesting.

*Note: Beatrix Gardner died unexpectedly in 1995