https://www.duolingo.com/FuzzyAslan

A Language Lesson from Koko the Gorilla

Koko the gorilla passed away on June 19, 2018 at the age of 46. She was amongst the first non-humans to try to communicate with us, via one of the only ways available at the time, American Sign Language. Koko learned on the order of 1,000 different signs to indicate the various things that were important in her life, but what is fundamentally endearing and amazing about her, was that with anything novel, she was able to create new meanings and descriptions with the tools that she had, without having to learn anything new:

A Mask = “Eye Hat”

A Hairbrush = “Scratch Comb”

A Lion = “More Cat”

A Creek = “Nice Drink”

A Yogurt = “Milk Fruit Candy Food”

Your Ring = “Finger Bracelet”

An Earthquake = “Darn Darn Floor Bad Bite”

I am wondering why we can't take more of a lesson from Koko. I read through the posts here and see so much of a emphasis on fluency, on literacy, on articulation, but I don't see many simply wanting to understand, and be understood. Koko, I think, has a lesson for us. Use the tools that you have. You will be understood. And be met with smiles. Give it a try.

7 months ago

28 Comments


https://www.duolingo.com/la_ricfoi

You might like toki pona

  • toki: language, talking, speech, communication

  • pona: good, simple, positive, nice, correct, right

It is a constructed language with about 125 words developed to be small and easy to learn. It composes words much like Koko to describe things:

toki pona lit. translation meaning
jan pona person good friend
jan ike person bad enemy, jerk, negative person
jan utala person fight/violence soldier

It is not a very precise language, but for most casual communication that does not really matter.

7 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/zanzaboonda
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I've never heard of this. Thank you!

7 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/CoconutMermaid
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I want to add to this message actually, because this is really important.

A friend of mine became virtually fluent in Portuguese over about 6 months when I had been practicing for years with my Spanish and still felt like I wasn't anywhere close to being fluent. When I asked him how he managed it, he said something that really changed my perspective: "I quit being afraid of getting it wrong."

He had gone to a video chatroom online (I forget which one.) and chose to speak with Brazilians. After that, he just used the tools he had to say as much as he could and would Google Translate if he got really stuck. Like most people, I think, he understood more than he could speak at first and so he was able to pick up more skills the more he conversed with native speakers. That was something that I never would have been comfortable doing, because I was so nervous about native speakers thinking I was dense or just "some dumb American", when in actuality, most people think it's cool that you're trying to learn something new and have a lot of respect for the effort.

A couple of months into those chatroom conversations, he met his now-wife which probably gave him a little extra incentive to learn the language more quickly. ;-) But it didn't make the feat any less impressive to me. And now I don't worry what native speakers think. It's usually a great way to make a new friend, because you're guaranteed to laugh (usually at yourself) and learn something new. I mean, we didn't learn to walk without falling on our faces a few times, right?

TL;DR - Mistakes are necessary to learn something and learn it well, so don't worry about fluency. Use the tools you've got and the finesse will come later.

7 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/FuzzyAslan

Thanks camartinez722, for the additional viewpoint. And it definitely was not tl;dr!

7 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/EL5tEL
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Great advice - quit being afraid of getting it wrong! Thanks for your post camartinez722.

7 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/UFaruqui
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Motivational story. But Google Translate? Not the best option.

But, still! An upvote for you!

7 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/CoconutMermaid
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Definitely not! And he confirmed that too. Sometimes you just can't "Darn Darn Floor Bad Bite" your way to "Earthquake" though and Google helped bridge the gap for him on some of the vocab. I think most of the conjugation/grammar he really cemented conversationally.

7 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Randomizer6

Koko died?! Oh nooo ;~;

But I do agree with what you said. I think just being able to be understood is so much more important that being able to talk and read perfectly. That's what communication is, really. Just being able to state your thoughts to someone, and to understand someone else's thoughts. It doesn't have to be perfect, just enough to get the point across.

7 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/EdouardC2020
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This is one of the few valuable and interesting comments that I've ever read in a long time. Thank you for sharing :)

7 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/tu_madre_vic

Koko passed?! We seriously lost something special ;(

I'm a perfectionist when it comes to learning things and it makes it really hard to actually get any learning done. This is evident in so many aspects of my life--school, learning languages, working out--and I'm starting to realize that the only way I can become even close to "perfect" is by doing what I can first. I've recently joined a language exchange app, Tandem, where I can chat with native speakers. I haven't yet stepped completely out of my comfort zone (talking to people in the real world), but it's a start, and I will push through.

I love the message you have here. I will continue to come back to this post whenever I get discouraged or scared of making mistakes. Thanks for this :)

7 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/GiaJet

That's so amazing. I agree that we should learn a lesson from Koko, and she was an amazing gorilla.

7 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/le_tra-jeudi

Thank you. This inspired me

7 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Mark.MacLean

For your consideration: While the 'story' of Koko seems like a great example of human/animal interaction, (and perhaps of complex language acquisition by a primate), the science tells a very different tale, and it is important that we not overstate (or romanticize), the level of Koko's language ability:

https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4630

7 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/zanzaboonda
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Interesting read. I especially liked the last sentence. I remember watching a video a few years back talking about her, and the reporter noted that, in all the years she'd been working with her handler, she never once asked a question. And that, in itself, says a lot.

I think the truth of the matter is somewhere in between the skepticism of the article and the romanticism that has been portrayed in popular media. If she was able to communicate basic desires and needs, that is sufficient. And if she described things in creative ways, that does require some "interpretation" itself.

What I liked about Koko wasn't necessarily that she learned to sign, even at a basic level. (Even human babies can learn to sign for "milk" when they're hungry.) It was her personality that made her a star. That she was sweet and had learned some signing made her a good ambassador of sorts of the animal kingdom. As the last paragraph suggests, animals don't need to be human-like; they are wonderful in their own right. But a lot of humans forget this point, and Koko's language skills, whether real or romanticized, helped a lot of people feel a connection to another creature on this planet that they didn't before.

7 months ago

[deactivated user]

    Well said

    7 months ago

    [deactivated user]

      Thank you so much Mark, for pointing out this article. I couldn't agree more; especially the last paragraph expresses what I feel. I have never understood why humans should carry out such experiments. I 'd say leave animals alone and let them live in their own habitats… If they would like to communicate with us (like the aliens, but this is a joke) they would do so.

      7 months ago

      https://www.duolingo.com/la_ricfoi

      Indeed. Animals regularly communicate with us. Anybody who has had a dog or cat will testify to that.

      7 months ago

      https://www.duolingo.com/zanzaboonda
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      Lol I often tell my chihuahua, "I wish I spoke dog so I could explain."

      7 months ago

      [deactivated user]

        LOL!

        7 months ago

        https://www.duolingo.com/Zsuzsi97194

        Over my relatively long lifetime I have had several sets of dogs who wanted to communicate with me, I am certain.

        When I didn't understand what they wanted they started out with body language that they were pretty sure I would understand, for example, jumping around near the door to say they wanted to go out.

        The next level was physically picking up an object and bringing it to me, dropping it at my feet and adding body language to let me know what they wanted.

        After that vocalization was added to let me know the urgency of the desire to communicate. There were different sounds for communicating various desires.

        You can't tell me that animals don't want to communicate with humans, at least those who have strong bonds with us. These can be traditional pets but they can also be other animals, formerly wild, who found themselves in the position of bonding with humans.

        We may find that no living thing wants to be isolated and that communication is a good thing not only desirable but necessary.

        Have you had the opportunity to read "The Hidden Life of Trees - What they Feel, How they Communicate" by Peter Wohlleben, a career forrester and researcher? A short NPR Summary: "Draws on up-to-date research and engaging forester stories to reveal how trees nurture each other and communicate, outlining the life cycles of "tree families" that support mutual growth, share nutrients and contribute to a resilient ecosystem."

        7 months ago

        https://www.duolingo.com/zanzaboonda
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        Yes, an excellent lesson to be learned from her. Thank you for sharing! It really is true. Oftentimes, I think it's just a matter of getting over that first hurdle. Once you do it one time, you can do it again. I'm a fairly shy, introverted person who is super awkward in social situations, but I'm not really afraid to make mistakes or "look stupid". Well, that's not entirely true. I do still feel nervous. But I push forth anyways.

        Your post reminded me of a language learning video I saw not too long ago (wish I could remember it). They said their friend was so much better than they were, and it was specifically for the reason you mentioned. When they couldn't remember a word, they would describe what they were talking about and just continue on. They were understood, and it worked out just fine.

        I'm studying Japanese and was having a conversation with a local native speaker. I was trying to introduce myself, and when trying to discuss my children, I mentioned I couldn't remember the correct form of "have/exist" to use. He was not a shy person, and he said, "Who cares? Just say it. You'll be understood." (He was not a shy person. lol) That was pretty liberating, and he was so right. I think speaking it is one of the best ways to remember it, and you'll pick up the correct usages with time. I now take weekly lessons speaking online, and while I have a very long way to go, I've found that it's already helping me so much.

        Great reminders. I'm so glad you posted this.

        7 months ago

        [deactivated user]

          Bonjour, Hello, your post cheered me up :) I read about Koko the Gorilla many years ago in National Geographic. I never remembered what words she learned. Thanks so much for sharing this.

          6 months ago

          https://www.duolingo.com/antonmo
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          I got sad. I never knew about him. I like compounding languages. I am also wondering, are there other gorillas who can communicate with a sign language or was he the one and only genius? If you want to learn a sign language, what sign language is the one most used in the world? Are there easy and difficult sign languages, just like how we can order spoken languages in difficulty? How many words does each sign language have? What's the easiest way to learn?

          3 months ago
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