Washoe, I Knew You Well. Too Well

I am a graduate of Hampshire College. Hampshire is an alternative institution that was hatched in the late 60s when creating alternative institutions of higher learning was all the rage. If you think Hampshire College = underwater basket weaving please take note that Ken Burns of The Civil War series and the more recent The War series (as well as Baseball and Jazz) is a Hampshire graduate as is John Krakauer of IntoThin Air and Into the Wild fame. There are others but I digress.

Hampshire is so alternative that they did away with the Freshman – Senior structure and replaced it with Divisions I, II and III. Division I is your liberal arts training where you have to demonstrate that you understand how the pros go about learning new things and creating new art. Division II is a multi-disciplinary concentration (sort of like a major on steroids) and Division III is basically a Senior Thesis. It’s a great way to go except for the part where you have to really learn about stuff you are not comfortable with. The arty types have to really learn some science and the science geeks have to really learn about the social sciences and in the mid 70s we all had to learn about something called ‘Language and Communication’. Now that might not sound so obscure now but this version of L&C had to do not with mass media and marketing, but rather with the intersection of anthropology, language acquisition and computer programming. It exists but I’ll leave that explanation for some other time. Suffice it to say that it was so obscure they don’t even have it any more – they have something else.

To get out of Division I you have to do some sort of project or write a paper for each of 4 schools (Natural Science, Humanities and Arts, Social Sciences and the dreaded L&C). At that time a couple named Allen and Beatrice Gardner who were psychologists at the University of Nevada in Reno (Washoe County) decided to teach their chimp, Washoe how to communicate with sign language. They actually began this study in 1967 so there was some data. My job was to figure out if Washoe was learning language or just acting like a monkey.

I spent a few weeks reading stuff and I wrote a paper and took it to the professor who read it and said, “this is a book report. This won’t do at all. I need you to tell me if that chimp has language or if she’s just aping her trainers”. I gave him a blank stare. He handed me some books by Noam Chomsky (who was a linguist before he became a political writer and speaker) that gave the intimate details of language acquisition zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…………………………

Not that language acquisition isn’t interesting. It is. A vast majority of children who speak English come up with the word ‘pasgetti’ before they can say ‘spaghetti’. Most kids will say “Me want that – mine!” before they learn to say “I want that and if you don’t give it me I’ll bite you” . If you look at it from that perspective it is interesting. French speaking kids have a French version of that and German speaking kids have a German version of that and so on and so forth. How you quantify and describe that is not so interesting.

I spent a month slogging through these books trying to be a language acquisition scholar. Then I had to re-read all the papers on what Washoe could and couldn’t do and how her signing was measured and how reliable and repeatable it was and zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz……………. Then I had to make my case. I think KoKo the ape was starting to learn sign language then so I studied her, too. I got through it. I came up with something. I think I decided they had limited language and that they really did know some words for some things but had no ability to expand on that. I passed my Division I L&C exam – Yay!

Washoe died today. She was 42 years old and had 3 offspring to whom she taught some limited amount of sign language. She was a shoe freak and is widely reported as insisting you show her your new shoes. I sort of feel like I’ve lost a long time acquaintance and I can’t help wondering if she would have gone ape over Runner Susan’s shiny red boots. I’m pretty sure she would have.

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7 Responses to Washoe, I Knew You Well. Too Well

  1. IHateToast says:

    nay kye for nell. nay kye for washoe. chickabee

  2. Hilary says:

    camp hamp’s gotten much more structured, alas, especially in the last decade or so from what I hear. my husband was in the last year where you could finish your div i’s at the same time as your div ii…

    but nonetheless, reading this brought back some fond memories of my own hampshire days. (and left me wondering if i knew the faculty member involved in your L&C div I)

    and washoe was a great story — it’s a sad day.

  3. Jen says:

    Awww, sorry to hear about Washoe. That’s a really interesting story though, sounds like a difficult and unique system of education there. One of my good friends is doing graduate study in linguistics at the U of Wyoming and has done some pretty cool research over the years. I loved hearing about language acquisition from her, but I can see how it would be difficult to study!

  4. momo says:

    i learn such cool things about you all the time. i studied a bit of linguistics in college, but it sounds to me like you remember a whole lot more of it than i do.

    oh, and susan’s boots are great! i’m positive washoe would have loved them. a girl’s gotta have her shoes.

  5. fe-lady says:

    Oh man you just brought back my junior and senior year in the Speech Department! Augh! Chomsky and teaching sign language to apes!
    I am teaching sign to humans who have less intelligence than the monkey probably. If babies and toddlers can learn sign (and they do!) then anything that has the intelligence of a 12-18 month old can learn some type of language!

  6. fe-lady says:

    Oh and “busghetti” is just an articulation error thing because of the length and complexity of the word…not language realted…just had to throw that out there being a speech pathologist and all….:-0

  7. Tammy says:

    I did an entire psych presentation on Koko…. and LOVE the books about Washoe. I almost stopped reading when I saw you snoring at Noam Chomsky (blasphemer!!!), but then I saw “…Washoe died today…” Now I’m sad 😦 but thanks for sharing.

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