Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Was Koko, the 'talking' gorilla, bilingual?

Many people felt a pang of sorrow last week at the news that the most famous and most studied of gorillas, Koko, had died peacefully in her sleep in California . Koko herself had felt such a pang when she was given the news  that first her beloved adopted kitten and later her friend the actor Robin Williams had died. How do we know that? Because Koko communicated her feeling to her carers in her language, Gorilla Sign Language.

The extent and nature of Koko's language ability is a matter of special interest to the Followers of this blog. It's long been  hotly disputed, though it's generally agreed she did have some and that she used the medium of sign language to transmit it. The signs she used were drawn from the American Sign Language (ASL) widely used by the deaf. It wasn't the full ASL – therefore it's misleading to say that she "mastered ASL" as some obits have done – but a modified subset of it, a baby sign language. Still, she learnt 1,000 to 2,000 signs -- accounts vary -- which is quite a big vocabulary.She wasn't the first primate to learn some sign language -- it had been done by chimps -- but she was the first gorilla.

The amount of ASL that Koko knew is unimportant. It probably wouldn't have been of any use to her to know more. Her cognitive ability was equivalent to that of a young human child, and in general people only learn as much language as they need at their age. Nobody knows the whole of, say, English. However, there's another feature of Koko's language that's of interest to translatologists. Although she only produced sign language, she could understand some spoken English. Apes don't possess the organs of phonation needed for producing the sounds of English so she had no possibility of speaking it; but it's not uncommon for humans also to be able to understand a language yet not speak it. What is documented is that Koko could be asked a question in English and answer it in sign language.

In a 1978 paper on translation by young children (see Sources below) we called this kind of interaction bilingual response. It's a variety of what linguists code switching. Can it be considered a kind of translating?  In the 1978 paper we classed it among the pretranslation phenomena in children which precede translation as it is generally understood.  But translation or not, it involves a transfer of thought between symbolic systems. It therefore implies that Koko was capable of what we have elsewhere called conversion. (For more on conversion, enter the term in the Search box on the right,)

There are many other indications that animals, and not only primates, are capable of conversion; but Koko's 'bilingualism' is an important one. It raises the tantalising question of whether some of the seeds of translating may already be planted in lower animals than humans

Koko: Gorilla death coverage rekindles language debate. BBC News, 22 June 2018. Click [HERE].or go to

Washoe (chimpanzee). Wikipedia, 2018. Click [HERE]. or go to

Brian Harris and Bianca Sherwood. Translating as an innate skill. 1978. Click [HERE]. or go to


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