026: What a Talking Ape Can Teach Humans

In This Episode: It’s easier for young children to learn basic sign language than to speak, and what a head start they can get on learning! Proof of concept: a gorilla, which in part shows that thinking is not limited to humans.

026: What a Talking Ape Can Teach Humans

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Show Notes

  • To help support Uncommon Sense, see the Patron’s Page, or the form in the sidebar.
  • An interesting article on the history and structure of American Sign Language.
  • If you haven’t seen it already, check out the fascinating Honorary Unsubscribe for Koko the gorilla, which includes a video of Koko interacting with a special friend: Robin Williams.
  • Using an online ASL video dictionary, you can see the signs for all and for ball — and note the facial aspect, especially during the former sign. And, you can see they don’t look at all alike.


It’s easier for young children to learn basic sign language than to speak, and what a head start they can get on learning! Proof of concept: a gorilla, which in part shows that thinking is not limited to humans …especially when you compare such animals to some humans who don’t seem to think at all!

Welcome to Uncommon Sense, I’m Randy Cassingham.

This is a retake on a popular episode from season one, which was prompted by something in the news. And it happens to be something my wife and I coincidentally both have experience with. Plus, it’s a fantastic tool to help kids learn and communicate at a much earlier age than thought possible a generation or two ago. And that’s sign language, specifically in this case, American Sign Language, because yes, different countries have different sign languages.

And by the way, there are even different dialects of American Sign Language. You might think, well that sure makes sign language harder to learn. Maybe, but what I call “soda pop,” those in the south call “coke” — you know, like “orange coke” and “root beer coke.” British English is different too: their cars have boots where ours have trunks. French Canadian is a bit different than French in France. So different dialects are clearly a common factor in languages in general, not just sign language.

Most people seem to think that sign language is some sort of gestural system for deaf people. But it’s far more complex than that: it is a true language, with its own syntax and grammar that are very different from English, and it’s a very useful tool for hearing people too. That’s what we’ll be exploring a bit here.

In college, I majored in Journalism to learn to research and write quickly. But I’ve always been interested in communications in general, so I designed my own minor in non-verbal communications. That was partly to study what most people call “body language,” and I was honored to even study briefly with Professor Albert Mehrabian of UCLA, one of the pioneers in the study of what he calls “implicit communications,” and he’s the one that got me interested in that topic.

Mostly, though, my course of study included a full year of college-level American Sign Language classes, which were not just fun — they were challenging. There I learned not only is ASL a true language with syntax and grammar, has dialects, and involves much more than hand signs, but it even has poetry that’s amazing to watch, even if you can’t really understand the nuances. I found a video sample of ASL poetry that I’ll include on the Show Page so you can see what I mean.

When I met my wife, meanwhile, I found she also had experience with American Sign Language. When we got together she was still a volunteer at the National Sport Center for the Disabled in Winter Park, Colorado, which is a program that teaches disabled people to ski, and she had chosen to specialize in deaf kids. So once we got together and discovered we both had basic ASL skills, we have used it to communicate across rooms and in noisy environments, which has been useful and fun.

So with that basic information out of the way, let’s talk about sign language for hearing children. It gives kids a head start in communicating. Babies can verbalize words like “dada and mama” at around six months. But it takes until they’re 18 to 24 months old before they can use two- to four-word sentences. Studies show that babies start to understand basic sign language by about six months, the same as spoken language. But they can make signs to communicate their own needs by nine months, which is a huge head start over their speech-only peers.

And if they have any sort of speech difficulty, like so called late talkers, which are kids that don’t have a hearing problem yet don’t talk until as late as 30 months, those kids will often use sign language — if they’ve been taught, and it should be obvious that they need to be taught well before it becomes clear that they’re going to be late talkers.

Then, if you add in developmental issues like Down Syndrome or autism, it’s a huge benefit for those kids, too. Kit and I have a niece with Down Syndrome who was not verbal for some time. Her father is a genetic researcher and happened to have a lot of schooling in developmental disabilities, and he got her started on sign language very early on, even though she was born more than 30 years ago.

What got me on this topic of sign language was a fascinating Honorary Unsubscribe from last June. It told the story of a graduate student in developmental psychology at Stanford University who was given a sickly one-year-old back in 1972 to care for. She decided to teach that baby American Sign Language, even though that baby was a western lowland gorilla.

I’ll link to the Honorary Unsubscribe in the Show Notes; you probably have already heard of Koko the sign language gorilla, who died last June at the age of 46. The bottom line is yes: she proved that a gorilla can learn to communicate quite well with humans, not just that she’s hungry or thirsty, but that she wants to play: “chase me” and “tickle me” and many other fairly complex topics such as, amazingly, that she wanted a cat for Christmas. And when she got it, she named that cat: All Ball, because Koko liked to rhyme her words.

Which really is an interesting concept, because Koko was obviously not deaf. They spoke to her in English as well as signing to her. She was reported to understand about 2,000 English words in addition to about 2,000 signs. I don’t think there’s such a thing as rhyming per se in sign language. You could have signs that kind of look similar and mean completely different things, where the meaning is communicated by context just like in English. But in fact the ASL signs for “all” and “ball” are completely different from each other, and thus don’t, if you will, “visually rhyme.” That means Koko showed that she understood the concept of rhyming from spoken English.

And you know what “understanding” means: thinking. Let that sink in.

So back to Koko wanting a cat for Christmas. She not only named the cat, but she demonstrated that she understood even abstract ideas, like, “We’re very sorry, but your cat was run over by a car, and is dead.” Koko wept when she was told that: she understood conceptually what death was, and that her cat, who she couldn’t see was dead, she knew what it meant simply because her humans told her. And you know what grasping abstract concepts means: that’s clearly part of thinking.

What Koko couldn’t do was learn syntax and grammar, which is probably similar to teaching sign language to a human child: they’ll be able to communicate very quickly well before they’re able to speak, but they probably won’t use proper ASL grammar. But isn’t that pretty much what children do anyway? They don’t speak complete grammatical sentences immediately, they use the words they know to communicate the concept they need to, like “water” if they’re thirsty. It’s completely coherent in its way, and what a tool that is whether it’s spoken or ASL, and again they can use ASL much earlier than spoken language. It’s a great way to give a child an amazing head start. I think it’s as important to their early development as reading to them.

And I’ll hasten to add for listeners outside the U.S. that certainly this will hold true for other languages, and their associated sign languages.

So, what: what’s the point here? Language is a fundamental prerequisite for thinking. I don’t mean speaking: I mean any language. If children can get a jump start on language, and it has been proven that sign language provides that advantage, that means they’re also getting a head start on thinking.

If you’re interested in learning sign language, or especially teaching your kids, don’t get a book; I did use several in college, but these days you can look online, where there are short videos of people making signs. That’s much better than a picture in a book because motion is very important in ASL, and you can get a much better idea how to — if you will! — “pronounce” the signs by watching them being made again and again. You can see the arched eyebrow, or the other sometimes subtle moves that differentiate one sign from another.

One site claims there’s a 12 point I.Q. benefit to teaching hearing kids ASL. That site didn’t show their source so I can’t confirm that, but even if that’s not the case, any parent of a two year old knows kids that age are still learning to control their emotions. It’s really hard for a toddler to talk when she’s crying, to tell you she’s hungry, or thirsty or whatever. What if they were able to use the sign for hungry or thirsty at nine months, and then progress from there? Do you think that might really reduce the frustration they feel, and it might be a lot more pleasant to be around them! It’s got to reduce the number of tantrums.

So why formal sign language, rather than just making up random gestures? Because as this idea spreads, other kids are learning signs too, and they can communicate with each other, and adults who know some signs. And because signs have developed over time, and deaf people have figured out good ways to make themselves understood more clearly, why reinvent that wheel?

While I’ve forgotten a lot of my ASL vocabulary over time, as a medic I’m able to ask deaf patients, do they have pain? Where? When did it start? Have you had this before? Do you take medications? — all basic things we need to ask every patient, and it’s a lot faster to sign than it is to write things down for them. And yes, I also know how to say “I only know a little bit of ASL,” and “please slow down!”

My point really isn’t that you should necessarily teach your kids ASL — what’s the percentage of listeners that have kids right now, or will soon? It’s too late for most of us! But if you have grandkids, it’s a great tool to support them. The real point is, preschools need to do it. New parents need to do it. They should be made aware at the very least, that this is an option to give children an advantage in life, and to reduce frustration for the entire family.

Plus, the sooner that kids can truly think, the sooner they start learning more complex ideas. Their brains are able to absorb an enormous amount of learning, and as we all know, that tapers off over time, so an early start is a huge advantage.

If a gorilla can do it, human children sure can, and get that advantage.

It’s just another out-of-the-box idea that, when you think about it, makes Uncommon Sense.

Again, the Show Page for this episode is thisistrue.com/podcast26, where I look forward to seeing your comments — in English, please!

I’m Randy Cassingham, and I’ll talk at you later.

Comments Note

Since this is a redo, comments start with those made on the original post — the dates are correct.

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10 Comments on “026: What a Talking Ape Can Teach Humans

  1. I actually did this with my first-born. It was in the late 70s after I saw a documentary, when pregnant, about Washoe the chimpanzee. She was signing before 6 months and quite adept before she began speaking and reading parts of billboards along the highway by 2. Is it any wonder that she speaks 4 languages and is a writer by trade? I did the same, though to a lesser degree, with subsequent children. All of them are strong communicators.

    Awesome! A great example. -rc

  2. I found your podcast about sign language very interesting: it had never occurred to me that if babies and toddlers learn sign language they can communicate better long before they can talk. I don’t deny that sign language is an excellent tool, important for the deaf but also potentially useful for hearing people, but, as a blind person, I have had mixed feelings about sign language for years. The blind community has to learn to type or use the computer so that sighted people can read what the blind write, and this has made me stubbornly believe for years that deaf people should learn as many mainstream ways of communicating as they possibly can. I know this is not possible for some of them when it comes to speaking or lip-reading, but, for practical reasons, I think it would be hard for us blind people to learn sign language. Even if we learn to do the signs ourselves, anyone with no usable vision can never understand words addressed to them in sign language without a speaking interpreter.

    I have rarely conversed with deaf people, and when I did they could speak, but it seems to me that a totally blind person can’t easily converse with a totally deaf person, unless someone else is present, or unless they bring technology into it, using text messaging or something similar. Maybe I’m taking a negative or pessimistic view of the whole thing, and I apologise for that, but there are definitely times when different communication methods are not really compatible, and for me this is one of those.

    While this is obviously a thoughtful (and well thought out) comment, what I really like about it is how clearly it shows that blind people can fully participate online. Yes, there are a number of technologies that allow the blind to read web sites, navigate, and comment. Sorry to point out the obvious, Clare, but so often when I mention that I have a good number of blind readers (including on TRUE’s Community Forum), I get questions like “How’s that possible?” At least they’re asking the question, but I’m glad to (heh heh) open their eyes a little. -rc

  3. I have an ex GF who knew a limited amount of ASL including “inventing” her own sign for “yuck”. She was proud of that. 😉

    Nice, but there is already a sign for it: yucky. -rc

  4. Check out “Breaking Cat News” — which is a comic strip, but based on the creator’s actual cats. One of them (see “About Our Reporters” at breakingcatnews.com) is deaf. They’ve taught Lupin several signs. Obviously, he can’t make them himself, but it’s useful to be able to tell the cat “down!” or “stop that!” She will sometimes show The People making signs to Lupin in the comic strip. It’s sort of an Easter Egg for readers to notice.

    Pretty cool. ^-^ -rc

  5. I think the point that little children are frustrated in their communication is important. Frustration = emotional upheaval = loss of whatever vocabulary you’ve got, and certainly difficulty in actually using the voice/tongue/mouth while crying!

    If ASL helps them retrieve vocabulary, they’ll get more used to thinking through their emotional upheavals — which is the first step to Uncommon Sense. It’s OK to be upset, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still think.

  6. If I have it right, children can understand speech long before they learn the complex movements required to speak themselves, but they master the simpler limb movements used in signing a lot earlier. You CAN ‘converse’ with pre-speech babies (I did with mine 🙂 ) and understand some of what they ‘say’, even without being taught to sign.

  7. We taught our daughter how to sign some simple things, and yeah it helped her not be frustrated with not being able to communicate to us. Because she could understand what we were saying long before she could manage the complex task of speaking herself.

    On the other hand she promptly forgot most of it once she started to talk.

  8. I have a nephew with Muscular Dystrophy who can only speak a few words. He’s 2 1/2 years old. He is able to sign and also show pictures on a tablet to say what he wants.


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