Herbert S. TerraceApr 21, 2021
Why Chimpanzees Can't Learn Language and Only Humans Can
Through discussion of his famous 1970s experiment alongside new research, in Why Chimpanzees Can’t Learn Language and Only Humans Can (Columbia University Press, 2019), Herbert Terrace argues that, despite the failure of famous attempts to teach primates to speak, from these efforts we can learn something important: the missing link between non-linguistic and linguistic creatures is the ability to use words, not to form sentences. Situating language-learning as a capacity gained through conversation, not primarily representing internal thought, Terrace takes naming as the first step towards language. By drawing on research in developmental psychology, paleoanthropology, and linguistics, Terrace builds a case for understanding human language as grounded in social interaction between mother and child, rather than an inevitable, asocial result of a person’s development.
Malcolm Keating is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Yale-NUS College. His research focuses on Sanskrit philosophy of language and epistemology. He is the author of Language, Meaning, and Use in Indian Philosophy (Bloomsbury Press, 2019) and host of the podcast Sutras (and stuff).