Chimpanzees Learn New Languages Based on Location

Chimpanzees from the a Dutch zoo have astoundingly learned a new language from being relocated to a zoo in a different location. Zoo officials stated the chimpanzees learned what is the equivalent of a Scottish brogue dialect after being moved from the Edinburgh zoo.

Katie Slocombe, a University of New York psychologist, stated that this is the first instance they have seen a primate species, any species, to change language structures after learning social calls regarding objects in their environment. She and her colleagues published this phenomenon the journal Current Biology.

The discussion of changing language is centered around an apple – how the chimpanzees “call” the object. They usually belt out a series of calls and grunts when they see their favorite food or observe other chimps eating the fruit. However, those observed at the Beekse Bergen Safari Park in the Netherlands showed signs of using high-pitched grunts, whereas those located at the Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland, used a lower pitch.

Back in 2010, nine chimpanzees at the Netherlands zoo were scheduled to be relocated to the Scotland zoo to breed. This proved to be a prime opportunity to see if the chimpanzees, much like humans, learn new dialects and names for objects when they enter a new social group and locale.

The researchers at the zoo recorded the chimp’s calls made by both the Dutch zoo-based and Scottish zoo-based chimps before they were moved. Afterwards, the researchers followed up and re-recorded the chimps during a social, getting-to-know-you gathering a year later. In 2013, after they were fully acclimated with their new brethren, Slocombe noticed that the Dutch chimpanzees changed their “word” for apples to mirror the pitch pattern with the Scottish ones.

They said a chimpanzee named Frek changed his call in the same fashion. The crucial factor in the switch was not just being exposed to the different call in the new location. Instead, the researchers said the switch was enforced after a strong bond between the chimpanzees was formed. Even though the call was essentially the same, the dialect in calls was different.

Therefore, why was there a switchover in language dialect? Moreover, why did the Dutch chimps change their call and not the Scottish chimps? Slocombe and her team referred to a study done with wild vervet monkeys to unearth the answer.

They explained that it was a conformity mechanism that motivated the newly relocated monkeys to adopt the vocal normality of the main group. Though more observation will be necessary to fully explain why this happens, they stated that it will be a very exciting find.

Simon Townsend of the University of Zurich wants to know if it is so that the chimpanzees can be better understood or if it is to fit in quicker with the group. Previous observations regarding chimps show that social learning and communication comes quickly.

Scientists say that these new findings in language dialect among chimpanzees may unearth information regarding the evolutionary origins of language. They also said that the fact that humans and now chimpanzees possess the ability to change their words and learn new languages based on location is revolutionary.

By: Alex Lemieux

Tech Times


NBC News

Picture: Tambako the Jaguar – Flickr License

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