by Jonathan Leake, Science Editor
July 25 1999
Copyright 1999 Times Newspapers Ltd.: The Sunday Times.

RESEARCHERS have for the first time taught apes how to speak. Two animals, a pygmy chimp and an orangutan, have been able to hold conversations with humans.

The chimp, called Panbanisha, has a vocabulary of 3,000 words and talks through a computer that produces a synthetic voice as she presses symbols on a keyboard.

She now speaks constantly, constructing sentences ranging from, "Please can I have an iced coffee" to discussing videos she has watched with the scientists who look after her at Georgia State University's language research center in Atlanta.

The 20-year-old orangutan, called Chantek, is a few miles away at Atlanta zoo where it, too, is learning to use a voice synthesizer - a skill it is expected to master quickly, since it already has a 2,000-word vocabulary in sign language.

Among its first spoken words, delivered Stephen Hawking-style, was the request to keepers: "Please buy me a hamburger." Recently it saved money paid to it in return for carrying out tasks and building artifacts, then told scientists in sign language: "I want to buy a pool," because a heat wave was making life in the cage too uncomfortable.

The animals use a specially designed keypad with about 400 keys, each bearing a symbol. Some symbols have simple meanings such as "apple"; others represent more abstract concepts such as "give me", "good", "bad" or "help".

The animals have to learn all the symbols and then construct sentences by pressing keys in the right order. The computer speaks the words and flashes them up on a screen. Recently Panbanisha, 14, has started writing words on the floor using chalk - apparently learning letters from the computer screens.

Duane Rumbaugh, the university's professor of psychology and biology, who is director of the center, said tests suggested the animals had the language and cognitive skills of a four-year-old child.

Panbanisha has gone further than just learning to speak and read. She is teaching the same skills to her one-year-old son Nyota, who has developed a vocabulary similar to that of a one-year-old child. He cannot create sentences yet, but his early start means he may soon outstrip his mother. Apes could soon be talking to each other and language skills could be passed from one generation to the next.

Panbanisha's mother, Matata, cannot use the keyboard, so she tells Panbanisha, who then communicates her mother's needs, such as: "Matata wants a banana."

When the apes look reflective, they may be asked what is wrong. Sometimes they just reply: "I'm thinking about eating something," or "I want to go to Campers Cavern" (a location in their 55-acre site).

Now Rumbaugh has been given a US government grant for a project to see if great apes can be given the power of true speech.

Until recently it had been thought they would never speak because their voice boxes could not produce the range of sounds used by humans.

Then researchers noticed that some animals were successfully copying human words and phrases. The sounds were distorted, but recognizable. A spokesman for the center said: "Over time our opinions of apes could change and one day we may have to extend them human rights. Who knows, soon Panbanisha may voice an opinion on that."

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