Can Apes Talk?

This Slate interview explores the work of the Great Ape Trust in Iowa, where researchers for many years have been trying to teach chimpanzees and bonobos to use language. Results are still hotly contested: in this film, their answer to most questions seems to be “hot dog” or “banana”, which suggests sophisticated language structures aren’t quite there yet. But the researchers themselves have learnt to take their charges’ abilities seriously; one man whispers his replies to the interviewer, explaining that he’s learnt never to make critical remarks about the apes within their hearing: “Yeah! They eavesdrop! It’s disgusting!” As one of his colleagues points out, what we need to do isn’t to teach apes to be more human, but to find out what’s really going on with them. We might be surprised.