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Academic & Professional Books  History & Other Humanities  Anthropology  Linguistics

Why Chimpanzees Can't Learn Language and Only Humans Can

By: Herbert S Terrace(Author)
219 pages, 30 b/w photos and b/w illustrations
Why Chimpanzees Can't Learn Language and Only Humans Can is a very interesting and well-written book that revisits a remarkable 1970s behavioural experiment and surveys subsequent developments in linguistics, palaeoanthropology, and developmental psychology to offer a new understanding of how language evolved.
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  • Why Chimpanzees Can't Learn Language and Only Humans Can ISBN: 9780231171106 Hardback Oct 2019 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
Price: £21.99
About this book Contents Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

In the 1970s, the behavioural psychologist Herbert S. Terrace led a remarkable experiment to see if a chimpanzee could be taught to use language. A young ape, named "Nim Chimpsky" in a nod to the linguist whose theories Terrace challenged, was raised by a family in New York and instructed in American Sign Language. Initially, Terrace thought that Nim could create sentences but later discovered that Nim's teachers inadvertently cued his signing. Terrace concluded that Project Nim failed – not because Nim couldn't create sentences but because he couldn't even learn words. Language is a uniquely human quality, and attempting to find it in animals is wishful thinking at best. The failure of Project Nim meant we were no closer to understanding where language comes from.

In this book, Terrace revisits Project Nim to offer a novel view of the origins of human language. In contrast to both Noam Chomsky and his critics, Terrace contends that words, as much as grammar, are the cornerstones of language. Retracing human evolution and developmental psychology, he shows that nonverbal interaction is the foundation of infant language acquisition, leading up to a child's first words. By placing words and conversation before grammar, we can, for the first time, account for the evolutionary basis of language. Terrace argues that this theory explains Nim's inability to acquire words and, more broadly, the differences between human and animal communication. Why Chimpanzees Can't Learn Language and Only Humans Can is a masterful statement of the nature of language and what it means to be human.



1. Numberless Gradations
2. Ape Language
3. Recent Human Ancestors and the Possible Origin of Words
4. Before an Infant Learns to Speak
5. The Origin of Language, Words in Particular


Customer Reviews (1)

  • Very interesting and well written
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 11 Mar 2020 Written for Hardback

    The title of this book leaves little to the imagination and seems like a strong statement – how can we be so sure? The author, behavioural psychologist Herbert S. Terrace, is in a very strong position to make this claim though. Here, he revisits a remarkable experiment conducted in the 1970s to teach a chimpanzee to speak using sign language that ultimately failed. Bringing together subsequent developments in linguistics, palaeoanthropology, and developmental psychology, he has written an incredibly interesting and well-structured book on the evolutionary basis of language.

    The roots for Terrace’s story run back all the way to 1959 when a young upstart professor by the name of Noam Chomsky published a scathing review of the theory of language laid out in the book Verbal Behavior by the influential behavioural scientist B.F. Skinner. Without going into the details, what is relevant here was Chomsky’s claim that language was uniquely human and did not evolve from animal communication. This is where Terrace enters the story.

    Terrace was hoping to prove Chomsky wrong and started Project Nim: a bold attempt to try and teach a young chimpanzee (cheekily named Nim Chimpsky) to use language. Where early attempts at teaching chimps to speak had failed because they cannot vocalise like humans, Terrace turned to American Sign Language (see also his book Nim: A Chimpanzee Who Learned Sign Language). He details how Project Nim worked and why it failed. Although Nim learned to use signs, he did a Clever Hans on them (the infamous German horse that supposedly could do arithmetics but in reality picked up on subtle involuntary cues from his trainers). Careful analysis showed that Nim’s trainers were prompting him and that Nim only signed to earn rewards.

    The first two chapters furthermore examine other ape language projects that used visual symbols, or lexigrams, to teach apes to speak, most famously Kanzi (see Kanzi and Kanzi’s Primal Language). Terrace concludes that these, too, showed apes capable of learning tricks (combining sequences of lexigrams to obtain rewards), but not of understanding their meaning. But what of other animals, you might ask? Although this book focuses on primates, he does shortly discuss experiments of word comprehension by dogs (see e.g. Chaser) before pointing out that they do not imply (nor claimed) linguistic knowledge on the dogs’ part.

    So, Terrace ended up agreeing with Chomsky that language is uniquely human, but he continues to disagree with him on how language evolved. In case you are wondering why this Chomsky keeps coming up, just a quick aside. From abovementioned young upstart professor, Noam Chomsky became one of the most influential linguists whose quest for a Universal Grammar has shaped linguistics over the last five decades. This research programme proposes that there exists a set of innate rules that can be applied to each and every language to create meaningful sentences (see also Language and Mind and Chomsky’s Universal Grammar).

    Now, before you think that Terrace has a chip on his shoulder, that is not the case. Throughout the book, he expresses his admiration for Chomsky’s quest. Nevertheless, he is also critical of some aspects of it, though, as elsewhere in the book, in an insightful and respectful fashion. For one, Chomsky’s focus on grammar ignores the origin of words, which Terrace argues had to be in place before grammar could even evolve. Second is that it provides little insight into the evolution of language. Recently, Chomsky has settled on what arguably seems a bit of a cop-out solution: grammar evolved thanks to a single mutation some 80,000 years ago that produced a “slight rewiring of the brain” (see Why Only Us). Terrace envisions a different solution to the evolution of language and dedicates two fascinating chapters to findings from palaeoanthropology and developmental psychology.

    In the decades since Project Nim ended, we have found fossil remains of many human ancestors that evolved after the split from chimpanzees. But which of these used language? Here he follows Derek Bickerton, who proposes that Homo erectus was that species (see Adam’s Tongue and More Than Nature Needs). They had a significantly larger brain than others, requiring a higher intake of calories to fuel this energy-hungry organ. Lacking weapons, this required them to scavenge for meat, providing a strong selective pressure for language to communicate the discovery of a carcass. There is interesting evidence here from the order in which cut and bite marks were laid down on bones that suggests hominins started having first dibs on carcasses around this time (something Agustín Fuentes also noted in The Creative Spark). It is a neat idea, although it does not address why H. erectus evolved a larger brain to begin with. Is this another just-so story? Botha’s forthcoming Neanderthal Language also highlights collective hunting behaviour as a driver of language in this more recent hominin, so maybe my scepticism is misplaced. It is pleasant to see that Terrace never overstates his case, acknowledging and welcoming what future discoveries will add to our knowledge.

    The other strand of evidence Terrace draws on is modern developmental psychology. The nonverbal relations between a mother and her infant during its first year are crucial to the development of language. Cradling, too, has deep evolutionary roots. The switch to bipedalism reduced the size of the birth canal. As brain size increased, babies were born not yet fully developed and required months of cradling and protection. Something which, Sarah Hrdy argues in Mothers and Others, did not just involve the mother, but also other group members. This form of cooperative breeding, not seen in other primates, could both have profited from and contributed to increased communication, probably being inseparably intertwined with it.

    The only thing that you will not find in this book is a reflection on the ethics of Project Nim. The reason I bring this up is that you might have heard of it through either the book Nim Chimpsky or the 2012 documentary Project Nim. In the epilogue, Terrace vents his frustration with the documentary, which he feels misrepresents him, but, more importantly, fails to present the scientific background to the research.

    Why Chimpanzees Can’t Learn Language and Only Humans Can is an incredibly interesting book that manages to cover an amazing amount of material in only 178 pages. It is also well-structured, with each chapter ending with a very helpful summary, greatly enhancing understanding of the text. If the title even slightly tickles you, then do not give this book a miss.
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Herbert S. Terrace is professor of psychology at Columbia University, where he is the director of the Primate Cognition Lab. His books include Nim: A Chimpanzee Who Learned Sign Language (Columbia, 1987).

By: Herbert S Terrace(Author)
219 pages, 30 b/w photos and b/w illustrations
Why Chimpanzees Can't Learn Language and Only Humans Can is a very interesting and well-written book that revisits a remarkable 1970s behavioural experiment and surveys subsequent developments in linguistics, palaeoanthropology, and developmental psychology to offer a new understanding of how language evolved.
Media reviews

"Herbert S. Terrace, known for his breakthrough work on the ape, Nim Chimpsky, now shines light on language acquisition in human children. In this masterful work, Terrace provides extraordinarily novel ideas about the evolution and development of the human mind and brain. This book will change how you think about human uniqueness. Terrace fills in one of the most important missing links in cognitive science – what it means to be a talking human being, and how we got that way."
– Andrew N. Meltzoff, coauthor of The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind

"In this work, the distinguished psychologist Herbert S. Terrace illustrates a unique comparative perspective on the nature and evolution of language."
– Charles Yang, author of The Infinite Gift: How Children Learn and Unlearn the Languages of the World

"Language seems to be a miracle; even our closest relatives, the great apes, lack any capacity for the grammatical structures that make human language unique. Herbert Terrace goes further and shows that chimpanzees can't even learn words. With characteristic clarity, he gives a convincing account of language evolution in Darwinian terms, without appeal to miracles. This is an important new approach to an old and vexed problem."
– Michael Corballis, author of The Truth About Language: What It Is and Where It Came From

"Terrace played a very significant role in ape language research. His personal reflections and the conclusions he has drawn about language remain both controversial and relevant."
– Terrence W. Deacon, author of The Symbolic Species: The Coevolution of Language and the Brain

The idea that animals can be taught language is perennially appealing, driven by a longing to get into their heads, a desire to challenge human pride, and the misconception that Darwinism predicts that all organisms are the same. But humans are outliers among the primates, with cognitive, social, and linguistic talents that are as outsize as other flamboyant adaptations in the animal kingdom. Herb Terrace, who knows a thing or two about what animals can be taught, restores perspective to this issue in this insightful and wide-ranging reminiscence and analysis."
– Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and the author of The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works

"A provocative and comprehensible book about an important and complex topic."
– David P. Barash, Wall Street Journal

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