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Growing up with tech makes young bonobos language-savvy

Gregg Segal

Teco interacts with a tablet

The intelligence and linguistic acumen of our ape cousins, the bonobos, is well-understood. While chimps, orangutans and other great apes are all famously curious, intelligent, and expressive, the bonobo seems to be even more receptive to the complexities of language. And living in the modern era of tablets and touchscreens is intensifying that affinity.

Ken Schweller, a researcher at the Bonobo Hope Great Ape Sanctuary in Des Moines, Iowa, has been observing the progress of one Teco, whose father Kanzi is perhaps the most linguistically advanced non-human in the world. Kanzi wields a formidable vocabulary of more than 500 "lexigrams," unique symbols that represent items and actions such as "want," "strawberry" and "now." Kanzi employs all those concepts using touchscreens and tablets — which is a big improvement over the joysticks and picture posters that have been used over the past few decades.


Great Ape Trust

A baby bonobo named Teco plays a children's game on an iPad under the supervision of researcher Sue Savage-Rumbaugh at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa.

Teco has been growing up alongside his illustrious father, and has naturally been interested in the bright, colorful lexigram displays. But researchers were particularly pleased when, at the tender age of 4 months, Teco began using language the way his father does, combining ideas and real-world objects with symbols. At an age when human children would still be working on basic motor skills, Teco was able to request a grape from a researcher using a touchscreen. His familiarity with the language-enabling tablets and screens (one may reasonably call them language prosthetics) is greater and more natural than any ape before him, and Teco may soon excel his father in powers of expression.

Schweller's article in IEEE Spectrum discusses the history and technology associated with bonobos and other apes learning language, and is well worth a read.

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Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. His personal website is coldewey.cc.