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.
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.
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.
Thanks camartinez722, for the additional viewpoint. And it definitely was not tl;dr!
Great advice - quit being afraid of getting it wrong! Thanks for your post camartinez722.
Motivational story. But Google Translate? Not the best option.
But, still! An upvote for you!
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.
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.
This is one of the few valuable and interesting comments that I've ever read in a long time. Thank you for sharing :)
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 :)
That's so amazing. I agree that we should learn a lesson from Koko, and she was an amazing gorilla.
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:
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.
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.
Indeed. Animals regularly communicate with us. Anybody who has had a dog or cat will testify to that.
Lol I often tell my chihuahua, "I wish I spoke dog so I could explain."
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."
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.
Joel, Luisa, camartinez, sjyoshida, argovela, I don't mean to hijack your conversation, but I would like to point out that conversations regarding new languages often devolve into perspectives that, like this one, get further and further into the weeds even when the original topic revolves around the simple attempt to be understood.
There's a website, the spanishdude.com, that takes this topic and runs with it. In particular, one video, "Mistakes are Good," shows us that no matter how we tend to mess things up, as long as we make the attempt, we'll still be understood:
Eso depende mucho de muchas circunstancias; tu edad, tu país y idioma de origen….y muchas más. Los verbo, ?seguramente que no son faciles? Sorry, but you might actually discourage people by saying this? The vocabulary is larger than English! And what about tener/haber and ser/estar?
You are right that many factors contribute to the ease/difficulty of learning a new language. The verbs in any language are not easy. In English, conjugations of to be (would be/will be/have been/has been/had been/is/am/are/was/were...) are likely as hard to learn as the conjugations of ser/estar. And English has roughly twice the vocabulary of Spanish due to Germanic roots with a huge Latin influence. So beyond the verbs, there are so many more variants to learn, like rage (Latinate) and anger (Germanic) or before (Germanic) and prior (Latinate).
I think the language with which you start is definitely an influencing factor in learning a new language too. Maybe I'm way off, but I imagine learning something like Portuguese with Japanese as your native language would be much harder than learning Portuguese if your native tongue is Spanish, since Spanish and Portuguese are so similar.
And as you intimated, ease is relative. Some people are going to "click" with a language more quickly than others which will make it seem easier to them. No matter the language, learning a new one is a challenge and one that I think anyone here on DuoLingo is eager to accept. :-)
Camartinez, you are quite wrong, I am afraid. Spanish has more words than English! I have been taught this variuos times at various levels in various institutes and experienced it myself, studying to be an interpreter... what about the various translations of the word "leaf"? Your explanation about the Germanic and Latin roots is a bit wobbly; English is roughly a Germanic language with many Latin and French loanwords. I am an English teacher, so I should know... The verb forms are more difficult and ser/estar or tener/haber have no equivalent problems in English! "To be" may have a difficult conjugation, but what about the other verbs? In general, use the infinitive form for all persons in the present(when using) the simple present. add "s"for the 3rd person singular and hey presto: here are the forms. You do have a point with Portuguese and Spanish, though, as the one sort of developed out of the other..
All challenges are challenges, but some are greater challenges than others...
If you have a resource, I'd like to read more on that because the (admittedly little) research I've done has all indicated that English has a larger vocabulary. I suppose the vocabulary most people actually use may be significantly less than the available vocabulary, but I would have to assume the same is probably true of Spanish.
English does borrow a lot from other languages. One of my favorite descriptions of the English language is "English is a language that lurks in dark alleys, beats up other languages, and rifles through their pockets for spare vocabulary." Hahahaha!
Admittedly, verb conjugation in Spanish is more complex considering you typically have to change -ar/-er to -o, -as/-es, -a/-e, -an/-en, but it is still a consistent format for most verbs. English has it's moments too though. Consider the addition of some letters, like "panic" into "panicking" and the oddballs that require -es instead of -s, such as "match" into "matches." And then all the different ways we can pronounce a single vowel which is just exacerbated by the combinations of them that have varying pronunciations, such as through/dough/tough or beige/weird/foreign. And speaking of beige/weird/foreign, what happened to "i before e except after c, and in sounding like a as in neighbor or weigh"? Hahaha! I'm actually laughing out loud as I type this thinking about how strange the English language actually is. :-)
Does Spanish have similar issues? I'm nowhere near fluent, so I'm genuinely curious. I find languages fascinating due to their dynamic nature, so I find conversations like this educational and stimulating. So thank you!
You are a funny guy! Studying means going to college or university and consulting books written by professionals, hopefully not just searching the internet, which may be full of faulty sources(not desources) I think one of the books is "the Origin of Languageby Wrenn and any decent profound grammarbook might also give you more information. More tomorrow, ..
sjyoshida, the idea was first introduced to me in high school Spanish class, and I'd have a hard time getting a hold on the text 12 years later. Hahaha! Even sifting through my college texts (which for unknown reasons I never sold after finishing my degree) would prove a time-consuming task.
After Luisa mentioned it though, I was curious. So I tried to do a little digging and couldn't really come up with a definitive answer, or even an safe guess for that matter. This site [https://www.theglobeandmail.com/technology/web-20-crowned-one-millionth-english-word/article1198737/] claims that English has upward of 1,000,000 words, and this site [https://www.thoughtco.com/spanish-fewer-words-than-english-3079596] claims that Spanish has a mere 150,000. (Those are the highest and lowest estimates I could find, respectively, so if you pick and choose your sources, then it's easy to make either choice look like the clear winner.) But then you find things like this report [https://hypertextbook.com/facts/2001/JohnnyLing.shtml] which shows various sources with a WIDE range of estimates for the number of words in the English language, and I was kind of forced to realize that the question isn't an easy one to answer. This article [https://www.transfluent.com/en/2015/07/why-spanish-uses-more-words-than-english-an-analysis-of-expansion-and-contraction/] explains how Spanish uses more words to convey the same meaning, which makes me wonder if grammar density or "expansion" during translation help to shape perception on the size of a language. Another forum offered this information which also got me thinking:
"English > Spanish. Friend > Amigo, amiga, amigos, amigas.
Plus: The English words "Friend, Friends" can also be translated (like most of used nouns) by MANY other words. These ones don't appear in any Spanish dictionary. But all dictionaries tell you the rules how to make up all of them. Here I place them as more used first.
Little friend: amiguito, amiguita, amiguitos, amiguitas. Big friend: amigote, amigota, amigotes, amigotas. Little friend: amiguillo, amiguilla, amiguillos, amiguillas. Big friend: amigazo, amigaza, amigazos, amigazas. Big friend: amigón, amigona, amigones, amigonas."
As a native English speaker, I wouldn't consider 'n00b' to be a real word (as referenced in the first linked article), so much as slang, but if it conveys a meaning and is widely accepted, does it count? I'm not a native Spanish speaker, so I don't know if all of the above versions of amigo/amiga are considered true Spanish words or slang, but I'd be interested to know.
If it were me, I'd say just count the base word and only words in current use. (English has a lot of words that could really be considered dead which could vastly affect a word count.) But even that can be a bit subjective. If you count "run" but not "runs" or "ran" or "running" that removes three words from the count. But then there's "run" the noun and "run" the verb. So do those count as two words or just one?
It's an interesting concept and one that I now see has no definitive answer. It's still intriguing to contemplate and discuss it. :-)
This article in the The Economist caught my eye:
The biggest vocabulary?
There's no meaningful way to show that "English has the most words of any language"
I saw that article too. It seems a little ridiculous to try to make any claim to that extent with any language. I'm willing to bet there's at least one language with more words than English; I just don't know if it's Spanish. Maybe it is, but it seems there's no definitive answer to that. Not like it really matters lol. There's no way anyone is going to know and use every single word of a language anyway. It's just a fun thing to ponder.
It absolutely is fun to ponder, you're quite right. I find language endlessly fascinating. Enjoy The Owl. ;-)
I think you mean : Sí, ! lo compraré en inglés ! I cannot use the upside doen exclamation mark; You should really use the future here; you do not kbow if you will be able to buy it tomorrow; it is an act that differs from acts like having breakfast, which you perform every day and of which you therefore can make an announcement. But anyway, thanks for the enthusiastic reaction!
Koko. That chimp was alright! High five!
Sorry. You make a really good point.
I think, for people anyway, it doesn’t really matter the amount of words. English (and for that matter, every other language) is getting new words all the time, and we are keeping up. And we are perfectly capable of learning another big vocabulary language like German, or something comparatively more concise. Sure, learning words takes time, but I think the real difficulty and challenge all has to do with familiarity. A native English speaker can have just as much trouble with Spanish as a native Spanish speaker might have with English. Not being familiar with the nuances of a particular language is the most difficult hurdle to overcome.