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Is there something you have always wanted to know about language? We might have an answer! On this page we answer questions about various aspects of language asked by people outside of the language researcher community. If you have a question about language that you would like to ask, please ask us here! MPI researchers periodically select questions from the submissions and post new answers on this page. Come back to see updates and learn more about language.

Why can't apes speak?

Unlike humans, apes lack the anatomical pre-requisites for verbal language production. The organs within the vocal tract, such as larynx muscles and vocal cords, cannot be moved as freely and coordinated as in humans, especially not at a comparable speed. For this reason, we cannot talk with apes in the first place, even though they certainly understand and imitate a lot! (Click here for an example.)

Still, the communicative behavior of apes shares many characteristics with human language. Like many other animals, apes have developed ways to communicate that seem to resemble verbal language. However, most researchers refuse to call animal sign systems 'language' in the human sense because they are fairly restricted on many levels. For example, communicative signs are limited in number and cannot be combined to create new meaning. Also, apes can only communicate about things in their immediate surroundings, unlike humans who can refer to the past, the future or places and objects which are not present in the here and now.

Another reason why apes cannot speak is because they lack the cognitive capacity necessary for complex communication processes. Humans for instance are able to combine a limited number of words in such a way that they can express an infinite number of messages. We can also sequence smaller units of information, put them in a meaningful order and the result is a story. The brains of apes do not provide the cognitive resources to process such amounts of information. Apes can learn hundreds of words, but fail to use them in a creative way to convey complex meaning and intentions.

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Recent evidence however indicates that brain structures supporting language production in the human brain might not only have been present in the ancestors of today's humans but also in the ancestors of chimpanzees. It was found that an area of the brain involved in the planning and production of spoken and signed language in humans (Broca's area) plays a similar role in chimpanzee communication.

Written by Katrin Bangel and Franziska Hartung

Further reading:

More videos on animals and language (link)

Chimps May Have A 'Language-Ready' Brain (link)

Did Neandertals have language? (link)

Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct: how the mind creates language. New York: William Morrow & Co.

Taglialatela J.P., Russell J.L., Schaeffer J.A., Hopkins W.D. (2008). Communicative Signaling Activates 'Broca's' Homolog in Chimpanzees. Current Biology, 18, 343-348. (link)

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The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

The institute is situated on the campus of the Radboud University. We participate in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and have particularly close ties to that institute's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. We also participate in the Centre for Language Studies. A joint graduate school, the IMPRS in Language Sciences, links the Donders Institute, the CLS and the MPI.

 
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This project was initiated by Katrien Segaert, Katerina Kucera and Judith Holler.

Currently, this project is being coordinated by:
Mark Dingemanse
Agnieszka Konopka
Katerina Kucera
Gwilym Lockwood
Sean Roberts
Joost Rommers