Look Who Is Talking – Kanzi

I was reading this article “Inside The Minds Of Animals”, in the Time magazine,few days back. It was about animals ability to complex thinking like human beings. I do share a great relationship with dogs. And I have always felt they understand every word I speak , they understand my gestures. So when I read about the bonobo who could understand language and perfectly follow instructions,it didn’t surprise me much. But, when I got to know that he could speak, he could communicate to humans with a lexigram keyboard and that he would even have telephone conversations, was far from I could assimilate.


Kanzi is the bonobo am talking about.The Time magazine describes Kanzi “ as a fellow of few words-384 of them by formal count,though he probably knows dozens more.” He is a 29 year old male Bonobo (born October 28, 1980) who has been featured in several studies on great ape language.Great ape language involves teaching chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans to communicate with human beings and with each other using sign language, physical tokens, and lexigrams.A lexigram is a symbol that represents a word but is not necessarily indicative of the object referenced by the word. He was brought up at the Great Ape Trust near Des Moines along with his adopted mother and siblings.

Kanzi,The Talking Bonobo
Image courtesy:”www.scenicreflections.com”

According to Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, a primatologist who has studied the bonobo throughout her life and also the head scientist at the Great Ape Trust , Kanzi has exhibited advanced linguistic aptitude,becoming the first observed ape to have learned aspects of language naturalistically; rather than through direct training.

Sue discovered Kanzi’s flair for learning accidentally.Kanzi used to be playing around in the class when she was trying to teach his mother. He would often fall in and pick out things for Sue, when his mom was asked to do so. And later she found that he was trying to communicate with her using the lexigram. The lexigram keyboard had keys, which if pressed would tell out the word. Once he learnt the words he would use a lexigram sheet(mat-like sheets),which was filled with hundreds of colorful symbols, he would build sentences by pointing to it. His lexigram sheet even contained words like from, later and words indicating tenses like -ing and -ed .

Kanzi and his teacher Sue

Sue believed that he would acquire and learn the language better if he learnt like how human babies did. Babies learn by listening to others around them , speaking;and they start using it when they have some need, to ask something or convey something. Similarly Kanzi was allowed to mingle with people, when eating or playing. He mingled with his human friends who used to talk to him in their language. Before long he started picking it up and he even started talking complete sentences vaguely.He could use language almost the way humans did.

She conducted a test to prove that he was not reacting to gestures, but understanding her complete sentences. In a test she wore a welder’s mask and gave instructions,so that Kanzi couldn’t see her expressions and she didn’t make any gestures, he followed her instructions perfectly.

Welding Mask Test, Sue and Kanzi

Kanzi uses his hand for communication (sign language), because unlike other great apes who use their hand for clinging around their mom, Kanzi was carried in arms, when he was a baby at the trust, which left his hand available for commuting. Kanzi could make sounds similar to “yes” or “no” in telephone conversations. For very complex telephone conversations he used his lexigram keyboards.

In an outing in the Georgia woods, Kanzi touched the symbols for “marshmallows” and “fire.” Susan Savage-Rumbaugh said in an interview that, “Given matches and marshmallows, Kanzi snapped twigs for a fire, lit them with the matches and toasted the marshmallows on a stick.”

Kanzi reading from lexigram

Kanzi’s accomplishments also include tool use and tool crafting. Kanzi is an accomplished stone tool maker and can flake Oldowan Style cutting knives. He learned this skill from Dr. Nick Toth, who is an anthropologist with the Stone Age Institute in Bloomington, Indiana. The stone knives Kanzi creates are very sharp and can cut animal hide and thick ropes.

When Kanzi was given Kale, he combined the symbols for slow and lettuce from his lexigram and named it Slow Lettuce, since it took longer time to chew Kale.

I had seen a funny video, in which a dog (I don’t remember the breed), saying “I love you”, in a way baby’s say when they start talking, “ayooveuu”. Now this leaves me musing, if we are approaching an era, where, our pets are going to speak as well as we do. Wow!!! Who is going to be the next one? Lets wait and see…
To watch Kanzi video, click here.

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