Young Koko Learns to Sign

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Photographer: Ron H. Cohn

Videographer: Ron H. Cohn

Source: KokoArc Database

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Koko, like all young gorillas, was curious and loved to play. Penny realized that just as a human child would learn, Koko should be immersed in language, so it became part of all aspects of Koko’s life. Koko was taught American Sign Language (ASL) along with spoken English.

Penny and her advisor (Dr. Karl Pribram) chose the signs eat/food, drink and more as the first ones for Koko to learn. In the second clip, Koko is about 2 years old, and she is signing “more food” for her next spoonful. Penny used a technique known as molding, in which she formed Koko’s hands into the correct sign.

Penny also used modeling, in which she performed the sign while Koko’s attention was focused on her. Penny would perform the action or show the item while teaching Koko a new sign, or demonstrate its use with the help of another caregiver.

In the third clip Penny waits for Koko to use the appropriate sign before giving Koko a drink. Koko initially signs “food” as she wants to take a sip from the cup. Penny waits for Koko to make the “drink” sign and then hands her the cup.

Koko learned the first three signs quickly and went on to learn over 1000 different signs in addition to understanding spoken English.

But Koko was not the only gorilla who learned a human sign language (ASL). Her younger companion, Michael, learned over 400 signs, and used them to communicate his needs and wants, and share his thoughts, memories and feelings.

Both Koko and Michael used natural (untaught) gestures from the very beginning. Koko would indicate she wanted to be picked up with an upward outstretched arms gesture. It is now known that gorillas, both captive and free-living, have a repertoire of over 100 (and counting) unique gestures that they combine to communicate with each other, in addition to vocalizations.

Thus, all gorillas are Kokos and have the ability to communicate. On this World Gorilla Day we must commit to ensure gorillas have a future. Please join us in sharing their abilities and generating empathy for gorillas everywhere.

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