Kennesaw State study finds chimpanzees learn ‘language’ from their mothers

KSU biology professor Jared Taglilatela and his chimpanzee subjects

Research may lead scientists to rethink how human language evolved KENNESAW, Ga.  (March 22,…

Georgia (Mar 22, 2012)

Research may lead scientists to rethink how human language evolved

KENNESAW, Ga.  (March 22, 2012) — Kennesaw State University biology professor Jared Taglialatela’s discovery that chimpanzees learn to “speak” by observing their mothers may lead scientists to rethink how human language evolved.

Taglialatela’s study was published in the current issue of the prestigious British science journal Biology Letters. While humans learn to speak by observing other humans, prior to Taglialatela’s research it was not known if chimpanzees learn the same way. His research shows chimps learn vocal communications in social settings from other chimpanzees.

Taglialatela examined the production and use of a specific type of sound made by captive chimpanzees, so-called attention-getting sounds, to get the attention of humans.

His team assessed 158 chimpanzees raised in captivity to determine if they produced these sounds and found that about three-quarters of those raised by their biological mothers did so, compared with only about one-third of those who were raised by humans.

“Interestingly, however, not all apes in captivity produce these sounds,” he said. “In this study, we found that chimpanzees that are raised by mothers that produce the sounds learn to produce these sounds as well. If their mothers do not produce attention-getting sounds, they do not learn to produce these sounds. No such concordance is found between mother and offspring if the offspring was not raised by that mother.

“We think that over the course of evolution, there was increased selection for expansion in both the form and function of vocal communication in early hominids, the common ancestor of both modern humans and chimpanzees,” Taglialatela said. “Eventually, that resulted in unprecedented vocal flexibility and full-blown spoken language in modern humans.”

The study proved that social learning plays a role in the acquisition and use of communicative vocal signals in chimpanzees. Taglialatela, who studies the evolutionary origins and the biological processes of human language, was the lead investigator. The research was supported in part by Taglialatela’s $389,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health.

“Down the road, further research could help us better understand the basis for some communication disorders in infants and very young children,” said Taglialatela.

Taglialatela has been studying primate behavior for the past 14 years. His research, primarily conducted at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, focuses on animal communication, specifically primate vocal and gestural behavior.

Taglialatela earned his bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Virginia and his Ph.D. in neurobiology and behavior from Georgia State University. He joined the faculty of the Department of Biology and Physics in KSU’s College of Science and Mathematics in June 2010. Previously, he had taught at Clayton State University.

The findings published in Biology Letters were based on studies conducted at the University of Texas, which, like Yerkes, maintains a colony of chimpanzees for biomedical research and behavioral studies. Co-authors included: Lisa Reamer, Steven J. Schapiro and William D. Hopkins.   

Launched as an independent journal in 2005, Biology Letters is a primarily online, peer-reviewed scientific journal that publishes short, high-quality articles from across the biological sciences.


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-- By Robert S. Godlewski,


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