Primatologist Plans School Where Apes Learn English

teaching orangutans photo
Photo: Chi King / cc

As a polyglot fluent in seven languages, French primatologist Dr. Francine Neago can converse in the native tongue of peoples throughout the world -- but she's interested most of all in talking with orangutans. In 1978, Neago spearheaded a program of orangutan language study at UCLA, and, using a specially designed computer program built in collaboration with IBM, became the first (and only) researcher to successfully teach a young ape to read and spell in English. Now, decades after proving that other primates have a capacity for learning human language, Neago is hoping to open an English school for orangutans in Malaysia.According to a report from the Malaysia Star, the world-famous primate expert was in Borneo last week to propose what would be the first of its kind orangutan language study center in the primate's native habitat. Using some basic learning tools along with a language-teaching supercomputer she helped develop, Dr. Neago says orangutans can acquire the ability to read and spell hundreds of English words after a few months of living with a teacher for 24 hours a day -- because they really want to.

"[Orangutans] love to learn and want to express themselves. They are very intelligent, they are just like normal children, but a bit different," Neago tells The Star. "It is a unique programme. People should know how important it is. We can also get volunteers and students to come here to study,"

Neago is hoping to be granted permission from wildlife authorities to establish her English school on land which would double as an orangutan sanctuary. "I need a piece of land big enough for me to stay with an orangutan and teach spelling to the animal," she says.

While the notion that apes could communicate in English might seem far-fetched to some, it's actually been done before -- and, according to The Star, Dr. Neago may be the only qualified primatologist around to do it again.

In a 12-year study programme at the University of California, Los Angeles, Dr Neago taught a one-year-old orang utan called Bulan to express itself through a computer using up to 150 words.

Unfortunately, Bulan was accidentally killed by a chimpanzee during training. Otherwise, Bulan could have learnt up to 500 words, said Dr Neago.

Similar studies were subsequently carried out by many other scientists in United Kingdom and the US but none were successful.

Officials from Malaysia's Sarawak Forestry Corporation (SFC), which oversees the region's wildlife, are intrigued by Neago's proposal, but at the same time a little apprehensive. Since the organization is charged with preventing its wild and semi-wild apes from being in too close of contact with humans, the primatologist's plans to live with the animal round-the-clock for months raises some concerns.

In addition to shedding light on language development in non-human primates, Neagro says that the results of her research could offer benefits to human students as well -- particularly those with learning disabilities. Meanwhile, the proposed 10 acres set aside for the orangutan language center would serve as a wildlife sanctuary for the dwindling species.

"I wish to continue the study here in this part of the world, which could also assist in the preservation of endangered species that are unique," says Neago, lending a voice to orangutans -- that is, until she can teach them to 'speak' for themselves.

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