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Signing With Animals:
Also see: "Signing with Gorillas"

Cynthia Lewis
July 29, 2005

American Sign Language & Chimpanzee Research

“Overwhelming fear” was my first reaction to writing a research paper. A fair amount of time has passed, 28 years, since I wrote my last paper. I thought if I picked an interesting topic to study, it would make sharpening my rusty study skills a little easier. I definitely found that to be true. I selected the topic of ASL and Chimpanzee research. Wow, what a totally amazing concept of humans communicating with animals. This was a real-life “Dr. Dolittle” in the making. I couldn’t wait to get started.

R.A. Gardner and Beatrix Gardner were the couple who started this research project which involved teaching chimpanzees American Sign Language (ASL). There were a few reasons why ASL was chosen over other signed languages. One reason is that ASL is not a word for word translation from the English language, another reason is that it doesn’t rely heavily on word order, and it doesn’t use auxiliary verbs. (Gardner,1989)

The Gardners received “Washoe” a 10 month old female chimpanzee in June, 1966. All humans who had contact with Washoe had to communicate solely with ASL. They also had to use ASL when communicating with each other while in Washoe’s presence. They did this because they wanted to keep diversions at a minimum and also wanted to have Washoe see humans communicating with each other using ASL. (Linden, 1974)

The researchers involved with this project did not teach the chimpanzees signs, they taught them to associate signs with objects or activities. It was thought at the beginning that the chimpanzees would associate an ASL sign with a specific object, but this was not the case. They identified objects in real life with the learned sign and could also identify the same object in books.

While Washoe was with the Gardners, she learned approximately 132 signs. Now it is very important to stress how each of these words were counted as a “learned” sign. First the words being taught were put on a list. Each time Washoe signed one of the words, it was recorded. To be recorded, it had to be formed correctly and used appropriately. The new “learned” word had to be used every day for 15 consecutive days for it to be counted at a “learned” word.

In one instance, the sign for “bib” was being taught. The researchers failed to find an ASL sign for this word, so they improvised and used the sign for “napkin”. During one of the sessions with Washoe, they asked her “What this?”. She responded by outlining on her body where the bib would be found. Since this was not the appropriate sign the group had come up with, they didn’t count this as a correct response. Months later, while showing a film presentation to a group at the California School for the Deaf in Berkeley, experienced signers told the group that Washoe had actually used the correct ASL sign for “bib”. This showed the researchers that Washoe had learned enough of the ASL concept to make up a sign for an object even when she had not been taught that sign. (Fouts, 1997)

After Washoe had been with the Gardners for about 5 years, she was moved to the Institute for Primate Studies in Oklahoma and Roger Fouts continued with his research with Washoe there. When Washoe was 14 years old, she adopted a 10 month old chimp named Loulis. Fouts did quite an amazing thing, he made all human signing forbidden around Loulis. Since Loulis and Washoe were almost inseparable for the first 2 years, this meant that Washoe had very limited human conversations.

Fouts wanted to observe if Washoe would teach the young chimpanzee sign language, and that is what happened. In fact, Loulis learned approximately 50 signs from Washoe. It is interesting to note that Washoe taught signs to the younger chimp in the same manner she was taught. She molded his hands into the correct shape.

Since 1980, Washoe and other chimpanzees have been living at the Chimpanzee and Human Communications Institute at Central Washington University. Roger Fouts opened the Institute to the public to help fund the day to day operations.

I have learned so much in my exploration of this topic, that visiting the Chimpanzee and Human Communications Institute has become a new desire of mine.


Fouts, R. (1997). Next of Kin, My Conversations with Chimpanzees, New York, New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.

Gardner, R.A.& B. (1989). Teaching Sign Language to Chimpanzees, Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.

Linden, E. (1974). Apes, Men and Language, New York: Saturday Review Press.


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