Washoe and Koko: the Use of Sign Language with Primates


English translation: Sara Gómez Herrero

Washoe was an African female chimpanzee that was born in 1965 who became famous around the world in the 70s when she became the first animal that learnt American Sign Language (ASL). She took part in research to explore the use of language with non-human subjects. Beforehand, the Gardner marriage had tried to teach oral language to primates without success due to their phonological limitations, so that they took a chance on sign language and it was the Fouts marriage, psychologists too, who successfully taught primates to use sign language, that they were even able to learn 350 different signs.

Washoe and Debora Fouts signing "hat" (photo: Nonhuman Rights Prohect)

The first findings were published in the prestigious scientific magazine ‘Science’ in 1969, which were followed by a great variety of scientific articles that deepened the non-human communication and psychology. Only the NGO Friends of Washoe quotes more than a hundred scientific publications.

Washoe learnt to identify sadness and to express it using sign language, she could lie or even apologise. The most shocking part is that she transmitted sign language from generation to generation: Washoe’s cub died in the first few days after birth, but they found an orphan chimpanzee cub called Louilis who was taken along with Washoe. Washoe adopted Louilis as her own cub and Louilis learnt ASL from Washoe. Moreover, scientists also observed that, when other chimpanzees learnt sign language, they were able to have conversations with each other using that language.

Next of Kin is the book published by Roger Fouts, which tells the story of Washoe

The learning process was similar to the one that we do in early infancy: at first, several concrete sessions were developed along a few days per week, but Washoe neither learnt or had fun. Nevertheless, Washoe learnt spontaneously when the researchers and the keepers used sign language in her presence and the sign language changed completely the way of understanding communication as well as the respect towards the animal kingdom.

Koko, the gorilla

After Washoe, there were more primates, among them, one of the most famous gorillas, Koko. Only two years ago she became even more famous when she was filmed meeting the excited deceased actor, Robin Williams:

Koko is 44 now. At the end of 2015, Koko was back in news for starring in an awareness campaign promoted by a French NGO, Noé NGO, sending out a message to humanity coinciding with the celebration of the XXI Climate Change Conference in Paris:

[Update 07/26/2016]: On 4 July 2016 Koko just turned 45. Congratulations Koko! Follow it on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

[Update 06/25/2018]: Sadly, Koko has died on 20 July 2018. A great amount of communication media from all over the world told the sad news.

Bubbles and Michael Jackson

Finally, the very famous singer Michael Jackson had a chimpanzee called Bubbles with whom he communicated through sign language. In the following video we can see, over the minute 0:35, how Michael Jackson orders Bubbles to sit down and how the chimpanzee obeys promptly:

Plus: in the recent film ‘Dawn of the planet of the apes’, we can also see how apes use sign language.


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