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Language skills for orang utan

A scientist wants to set up an orang utan language study centre in Sarawak to teach language skills to primates. -The Star/ANN

Sun, Aug 07, 2011
The Star/Asia News Network

KUCHING, Malaysia - A scientist wants to set up an orang utan language study centre in Sarawak that can help teach language skills to primates.

Ethnologist and orang utan specialist Dr Francine Neago said she had created a computer-spelling programme that could help the orang utan acquire language skills and communicate with humans.

"Each orang utan's learning skills differs, but normally it takes a year for it to adapt to using the skills acquired.

"I need a piece of land big enough for me to stay with an orang utan and teach spelling to the animal," she said.

If Dr Neago's wish is granted, Sarawak may become a world leader in research on the orang utan and other endangered species.

Dr Neago said it would take a few months for the orang utan to learn English, followed by up to six months for it to be able to play with coloured learning blocks and to recognise phonetics.

Only then would it be taught to read and spell on a specially-designed computer.

"They (the orang utan) love to learn and want to express themselves.

"They are very intelligent, they are just like normal children, but a bit different.

"It is a unique programme. People should know how important it is. We can also get volunteers and students to come here to study," she added.

Dr Neago, who has spent more than 40 years studying the orang utan, said the result of the study would provide invaluable data on animal language-learning and research.

She said tests had proven that a primate could acquire sign language and phonetic spelling skills.

She had previously conducted a 12-year study at the University of California in the United States where she taught a one-year-old orang utan named Bulan to express itself through the computer by learning to use up to 150 words.

Dr Neago said studies in animal cognitive processes had helped in the teaching of American children with learning disabilities.

"I wish to continue the study in this part of the world.

"The study can also assist in the preservation of endangered species," said Dr Neago.

She said it was crucial for a human teacher and the primate to live together 24 hours a day, with no other orang utan around, to secure bonding before the language learning begins.

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