Chimps can be bilingual, too (who knew?)

We already knew that chimps can learn to use tools by copying each other. Now, for the first time, researchers have discovered that chimps have the ability to learn a new (chimp) language.

Katie Slocombe and her colleagues at the University of York studied chimps that had been relocated from the Netherlands to Edinburgh zoo. As New Scientist reports, they kept records (and recordings) of the chimps’ grunts in the two locations. After three years, they found that the Dutch chimps had altered their grunts to fit in with their new Scottish friends.

Until now scientists had (arrogantly) assumed that humans were the only animal that could pick up language. They thought that the noises chimps make stemmed from involuntary outbursts, meaning that their ‘words’ for things were fixed and could never be changed. But this study suggests that not only do different groups of chimps have specific grunts for specific objects, they’re able to adapt to use the local dialect.

The researchers focused on the noise for ‘apple’ as it was the most distinctive difference between the Dutch and Scottish chimps. The Dutch chimps’ noise was more high-pitched, at 932 hertz to the Scottish chimps’ 657 hertz. But in the second year of living together, after the two groups had bonded, the Dutch chimps’ pitch dropped to 708 hertz so they sounded more similar to their hosts. (It’s a distinctive difference, as this recording shows.)

Slocombe says that female chimps in the wild sometimes swap social groups, and it’s possible that this ability to change vocalisations to fit in could be one reason they’re accepted. (Chimps: they’re just like mean girls.)

Brandon Wheeler from the University of Kent is more sceptical, however, telling New Scientist that there’s a big difference between a change in grunts and using completely different words for things as humans do. Of course, the fact that chimps lack the physical ability to speak may also be a factor. Animals can use iPads and learn from movies, is it really so weird to imagine they’d all be gossiping about last night’s CBB if they could?

Image via Afrika Force’s Flickr.

Diane Shipley