Animal Language Acquisition

I knew my oldest would be okay when at 40 months they were able to transform the question “Do you like your new outfit” to “Yes, I like it!”  We have not yet had such a moment with Cedar.  He knows a lot of words, and he can make 2 or 3 word chains, and he can repeat sentences of several words.  But he can’t make English sentences.

I’m troubled that the claim that Koko, who died this week, is fluent in ASL.  I’ve watched the 2001 encounter between Koko and Robin Williams, but I’m not seeing language.  I see a heavily edited video, that still manages to include the steel frame and chain link edge of a enclosure near the end.

Later researchers would raise chimps from infancy as human children, and these subjects (Neam Chimpsky and Washoe) also did not produce human language.  Yet the vast majority of people believe gorillas and chimps have language.  Because to them, words are language.  They do not understand the problems of translations between languages or how human language works.

On the other side, there is AI and the decision to unplug two computers that developed a language humans couldn’t understand.  It’s troubling if you think they really were intelligent.  But the conflation of intelligence, consciousness, and language is a whole other ball of wax, bringing us back to my children with autism.

Maybe it’s not super important, any more than the idea that Columbus proved that the world was round.  It does concern me that if people can’t understand that words are not language, there is little hope they will understand that weather is not climate.

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