by Francine Patterson and Eugene Linden
Koko is a gorilla who was taught sign language by Francine Patterson (known as Penny), a graduate student in psychology at Stanford University. The project began in 1972 when Koko was one year old, and the book covers its first nine years. During that time Koko learned to use or recognize over 600 words (The Gorilla Foundation tells us she now uses 1,000 signs and recognizes 2,000 spoken words). The Education of Koko describes the gorilla\’s development and how she learned to use sign language. Her language development and understanding is compared to that of human children, the way she combines words is analyzed and she is continually tested for comprehension. Koko is shown not only using signed words to communicate with her human caretakers and teachers, but also inventing new words to describe things not yet in her vocabulary, and making jokes or practicing deceit. One section of the book describes how Koko sees the world, as revealed through her use of language. Throughout the entire book its authors address the questions: does Koko really use language? or is she just repeating motions she has been taught, for reward? and what, exactly, defines language?
I remember when I was younger looking at photos in National Geographic of Koko with her kitten. I was enthralled. It was even more thrilling to read this book. The first time. The second time I read it with a lot more scrutiny. It\’s obvious Koko has learned to use many signs, in immediate context (she sees fruit and makes a sign naming it, or asking for food, for example). But if you read things like this transcribed online chat session between Penny, Koko and an \”AOL facilitator\” the idea of an ape holding even the most basic conversation appears ludicrous. A two year old child makes more sense than this gorilla.
Rating: 4/5 …….. 224 pages, 1981