Books / The Education of Koko

The Education of Koko

by Francine (Penny) Patterson and Eugene Linden (1985)

Describes the scientific genesis and first nine years of Project Koko, the most far-reaching ape language experiment yet conducted - the only one with a gorilla. Chronicles Dr. Penny Patterson's experience as Koko's dedicated teacher, mentor, and surrogate mother, from PhD. dissertation to life-long study and relationship. Koko's education gives us a glimpse into the mind of our closest relative, and sheds new light on the nature of the human beast.

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Table of Contents
Ch.   1.   Conversations with a Gorilla (preview below)
2.   Getting Started
3.   Gorilla Gorilla
4.   Tumultuous Times
5.   Koko's First Words
6.   The Move to Stanford
7.   The Campaign for Koko
8.   Koko's Day
Ch.   9.   The Rules of the Game
10.   Production: The Basics
11.   Comprehension: The Bacics
12.   The Troubling Question of Word Order
13.   Sign Language
14.   Testing Koko's Intelligence
Ch. 15.   Koko's World
16.   Gorilla Humor and Other Language Games
17.   Innovations and Insults
18.   Koko and Michael
19.   After School Gets Out
20.   The Gorilla View of Things
21.   The Limits to Koko's Learning
22.   Conclusions
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Chapter 1:  Conversations with a Gorilla

( Note: All signed words—those made in American Sign Language—are indicated in italics. )

When I began teaching Koko American Sign Language nine years ago, I had no idea how far she would progress with it. There was little reason for me to assume that a gorilla could learn to use language to rhyme, lie, joke, express her emotions, or describe her world.

Nor could I have anticipated that the intense controversy ape-language experiments generated within the behavioral sciences a decade ago would still be continuing today. During the past few years the idea that any nonhuman can acquire language has been denounced with renewed vigor, and yet ironically it is also within this time that Koko has begun to demonstrate her most remarkable abilities.

Just how far those abilities extend is difficult to answer. Take one simple example. A visitor recently stopped by to see Koko. On greeting the 180-pound gorilla, the visitor pointed to her and then made a small circle with her open hand in the air in front of her own face, signing You're pretty. Koko digested this comment for a moment and then stroked her finger across her nose; her reply meant false or fake.

Was Koko's response an indication of modesty, or a comment on her visitor's sincerity? Was it a random gesture carrying no significance? Was she simply imitating someone else's previous response to the same compliment? To prove what Koko meant - or that she had any feelings about her looks at all - is a maddening proposition. It means establishing that Koko in fact made the sign cited, that she knew what she meant, and that her behavior was intentional, not imitative or cued.

That is the job of this book - to show how Koko learned language, and that Koko learned language; and to look at what a gorilla does with human language.

Why does anyone care whether or not an animal can learn language? This issue has intrigued humankind from Plato and Descartes to contemporary scientists and thinkers, for thousands of years. But its importance was perhaps best expressed recently by Walker Percy:

Where does one start with a theory of man if the theory of man as an organism in an environment doesn't work and all the attributes of man which were accepted in the old modern age are now called into question: his soul, mind, freedom, will, Godlikeness?

There is only one place to start: the place where man's singularity is there for all to see and cannot be called into question, even in a new age in which everything else is in dispute.

That singularity is language.

Why is it that men speak and animals don't?

What does it entail to be a speaking creature, that is, a creature who names things and utters sentences about things which other creatures understand and misunderstand? . . .

Why are there not some "higher" animals which have acquired a primitive language?

Why are there not some "lower" men who speak a crude, primitive language? . .

Why is there such a gap between nonspeaking animals and speaking man, when there is no other such gap in nature?

Is it possible that a theory of man is nothing more nor less than a theory of the speaking creatures?

When Walker Percy wrote these words in 1954 in The Message in the Bottle, he could speak with confidence - and find unanimous support from scientists - about the fact that only man might learn language. According to the traditional wisdom of the behavioral sciences, animals can only signal. Their communication consists of a preprogrammed series of instinctive reactions to the immediate demands, fears, and pleasures of their lives. In the 1960s, however, a series of experiments involving two-way communication with apes began to erode that traditional wisdom.

Language-using apes have not only destroyed our confidence about the uniqueness of language—and therefore of man—but have also exposed uncertainty in the scientific world about what exactly "language" is. And the experiments have raised the question of what the apes are doing when they communicate with their human mentors. Are they in fact using language, or are they merely interpreting nonlinguistic signals unconsciously given by the experimenters? In short, have apes learned language or have they learned a circus trick?

If, as we hope to show, claims that we can talk with the animals are legitimate, then what they have to tell us far outstrips what we might imagine. In the nine years during which she has been taught American Sign Language, Koko has learned not only a large number of words, but also a great deal about language. It has become an integral part of her daily life. The language Koko uses, American Sign Language, or Ameslan as it is called by the deaf for whom it is a primary mode of communication, is the fourth most commonly used language in the United States. It is not English. It is a gestural language, and there are marked contrasts between the way a statement is made in English and the way it is made in sign language. For instance, it takes on an average about twice as long to complete a word in a gesture as it does to say an equivalent word in English. This constraint places a premium on economy of expression. (Thus, the written translation of statements made in sign language has a stilted, telegraphic quality.)

Koko's conversation has changed dramatically through the years. At age three, Koko was manifestly an infant. She showed a great deal of dependence, a lot of brattiness, and relatively little signing in general. Many of her attempts at signs were unclear or inappropriate. A high percentage of her statements during this early period were requests for some form of sustenance or stimulation (tickling, chasing, swinging - these were very frequent requests). Indeed, a reading of the records might give the misleading impression that Koko was living on the edge of starvation and getting by precariously on handouts: Pour that hurry drink hurry . . . me me eat . . . you me cookie me me . . . gimme drink thirsty, and so on.

By age six, she was exhibiting her own ideas about language and the uses to which it might be put - such as expressing her increasing independence. One day when Koko was six I came in at 6:00 P.M. to put her to bed and relieve Cathy Ransom, one of my deaf assistants. Before leaving, Cathy pointed to the notebook in which all of Koko's utterances are logged. There I found Cathy's transcription of an "argument" she and Koko had just had in sign language. The dispute had begun when Cathy showed Koko a poster picture of Koko that had been used during a fund-raising benefit. Cathy had signed to Koko, What's this? by drawing her index finger across her palm and then pointing to the picture of Koko.

Gorilla, signed Koko.

Who gorilla? asked Cathy, pursuing the conversational line in typical fashion.

Bird, responded Koko.

You bird? asked Cathy, not about to let Koko reduce the session to chaos.

You, countered Koko, who by this age was frequently using the word bird as an insult.

Not me, you bird, retorted Cathy.

Me gorilla, Koko answered.

Who bird? asked Cathy?

You nut, replied Koko, resorting to another of her insults. (Koko switches bird and nut from descriptive to pejorative terms by changing the position in which the sign is made from the front to the side of her face.)

After a little more name-calling Koko gave up the battle, signed, Darn me good, and walked away signing Bad.

Cathy and Koko's argument illustrates one of the principal lessons of Project Koko, which is that in being "bad," Koko can be very, very good. Throughout the nine years of the project, Koko has been driven to her most creative uses of language through her obstinate refusal to submit meekly to dull routine. Indeed, the most telling proof that Koko understands the language she is using is the way she adapts it to express her impatience and other feelings.

Today, at ten, Koko is somewhat less mischievous, and much more verbal, than she was at three. In Koko's conversation today we see her ability to "build up" complex ideas through a series of short statements. How Koko does this, and the thoughts she expresses this way, is what this book is about.

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