Jul 14, 2008

The Education of Koko

by Francine Patterson and Eugene Linden

Koko is a gorilla who was taught sign language by Francine Patterson (known as Penny), a graduate student in psychology at Stanford University. The project began in 1972 when Koko was one year old, and the book covers its first nine years. During that time Koko learned to use or recognize over 600 words (The Gorilla Foundation tells us she now uses 1,000 signs and recognizes 2,000 spoken words). The Education of Koko describes the gorilla's development and how she learned to use sign language. Her language development and understanding is compared to that of human children, the way she combines words is analyzed and she is continually tested for comprehension. Koko is shown not only using signed words to communicate with her human caretakers and teachers, but also inventing new words to describe things not yet in her vocabulary, and making jokes or practicing deceit. One section of the book describes how Koko sees the world, as revealed through her use of language. Throughout the entire book its authors address the questions: does Koko really use language? or is she just repeating motions she has been taught, for reward? and what, exactly, defines language?

I remember when I was younger looking at photos in National Geographic of Koko with her kitten. I was enthralled. It was even more thrilling to read this book. The first time. The second time I read it with a lot more scrutiny. It's obvious Koko has learned to use many signs, in immediate context (she sees fruit and makes a sign naming it, or asking for food, for example). But if you read things like this transcribed online chat session between Penny, Koko and an "AOL facilitator" the idea of an ape holding even the most basic conversation appears ludicrous. A two year old child makes more sense than this gorilla.

Here are some more things I read online:
A conversation with Koko
Skepticism about apes using language

Similar books: Silent Partners
Lucy: Growing Up Human

Rating: 4/5 ........ 224 pages, 1981


Nymeth said...

I remember those pictures of Koko and her kitten! This sounds like such an interesting book. Thanks for the review.

Nyssaneala said...

When I was in college I wanted to spend a summer interning with a gorilla sign language program (I took ASL classes and was an anthropology major). Instead, I took a regular job to save money for a study abroad trip. The trip changed my life immeasurably, but I still sometimes wish I would have signed with gorillas! I'll have to check out this book.