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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.
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).
"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