Almost everybody is aware that great apes like chimpanzees and gorillas are not only closely related to humans, but they also possess a lot of the traits that were once considered exclusively human.
From the feelings they have to the interpersonal bonds they form, and, of course, the tools they use, they seem almost uncannily close to us. But one question remains that for some signify the greatest difference between humans and animals:
Can gorillas talk? The answer depends on how you define “talking.” Gorillas are not capable of communicating in spoken language, in the way that humans are. While they do communicate in sounds and gestures with one another, they are not capable of imitating a spoken human language like English. This does not mean that they cannot communicate with human beings at all. On the contrary – Koko, probably the world’s most famous gorilla has learned to communicate using sign language.
But what is the reason that gorillas cannot talk to us using their voice? Are they not intelligent enough, after all? Well, it has to do with their brain, but not with what we would conventionally consider “intelligence.”
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Speaking out loud is about a lot more than simply having something to say and utilizing words and phrases to communicate it. Human language has a wide range of sounds that come naturally to us, but gorillas are not neurologically equipped to control their vocal cords in a way that would make it possible for them to form the words they need.
Can You Teach a Gorilla to Speak?
For a long time, it has been assumed that the problem lies in their vocal cords as such, but a study from 2016 has shown that this is not the case. It is not enough to have a vocal tract that is theoretically equipped to form words, but you also need the brain pathways to control it.
And while apes can produce a wide range of sounds to communicate with each other, their brains are not able to tell their vocal cords to produce the sounds that are needed to form human words.
Knowing what words mean and how to use them is simply not all that there is to talking! You might notice something similar when you try learning a foreign language. Chinese and Russian, for example, are known to be especially challenging to native English speakers because of sounds and intonations that are not used in English.
The same is true for almost all languages – they all have, sometimes very minuscule, elements of pronunciation that require precise control of the vocal tract and breathing and are close to impossible to copy for someone who is not used to listening for and producing these sounds since childhood.
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And while it might seem slightly disappointing that gorillas cannot teach their throats to form human words, the reverse is also true – or could you imitate all the idiosyncratic sounds that gorillas make?
How Can Gorillas Communicate With Humans?
The most famous “talking” ape is probably Koko, a female western lowland gorilla who lived from 1971 to 2018. After she was six months old, Francine Patterson, an animal psychologist, started to teach her sign language.
Koko learned by imitating her teacher and sometimes having her hands moved into the right position. After ten years she had an active vocabulary of about 500 signs. She was able to understand about 2000 words of spoken English, which shows that the abilities to understand language and to produce it do not have to go hand in hand – another thing that might sound familiar to foreign language learners!
While not even Koko had the range of vocabulary of an average adult English speaker, which consists of about 20,000 words, gorillas are commonly said to have the language skills of a small child.
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Are Gorillas Friendly?
Gorillas are very complex animals that can be both friendly and aggressive, just like most humans. If you’ve ever had a pet like a cat, you know that each animal has its own personality – the same is true for gorillas. Some gorillas are more friendly, while others are more aggressive and territorial than others and, in general, if you do not impose an immediate threat to them they will not attack you.
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Talking in the sense of communicating is not just about the words you know, though, it is also about how you use them. With Koko, humans had the chance to get a glimpse into the way of feeling and thinking as well as the sense of humor, great apes display.
Even with her limited range of expressions, Koko was able to express affection and sadness, play word games, and make jokes.