WJEC AS Psychology PY2 - Gardner and Gardner (1969)

Revision notes for aims and context, procedures, findings and conclusions, evaluate the methodology, and alternative findings

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Gardner and Gardner (1969) - Aims and Context


  • language: there are 16 characteristics that distinguish human language from animal communication known as design features by Hockett; eg interchangeability (send receive messages), semanticity, productivity, learning (acquisition) and transmission (transferring to the next generation)

Importance: human cultures use language; children acquire it quickly; suggests animals should not be able to; language important part of life, doing experiments essential to determine language acquisition

Previous Research:

  • Hayes and Hayes (1952) worked with chimpanzee called Vicki; aimed to teach her vocal language; after 6 years, Vicki could only make 4 sounds resounding English: mama, papa, cup, up
  • Premack and Premack (1966) raised chimp called Sarah, used different coloured and shaped chips to represent words; placed on a board to make sentences; developed 130 signs up to 8 units long; not spontaneous but did practise sentences alone
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Gardner and Gardner (1969) - Aims and Context

Previous Research continued:

  • Bryan (1963) chimps vocal apparatus different to humans; can only make sounds when highly stressed or excited, when undisturbed = silent
  • Yerkes (1963) chimps spontaneously developed begging and similar behaviourshands useful to solve manipulatory problems = suited to sign language


1) aimed to investigate if they could teach a chimp to communicate using ASL. Chimps raised like a child so language acquired naturally; chimp suitable as intelligent, sociable (prime motivator for language) and attach to humans; decided to use sign language as previous research showed chimps don't have vocal apparatus and they are good with their hands

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Gardner and Gardner (1969) - Procedures

Participant Info: case study done on a wild female infant chimp called Washoe who was approx. 8 - 14 months old when arrived at Gardner's lab; chimps are completely dependent until the age of 2

Environment/Upbringing: during the first few months, focus was on building a daily routine and relationships with several human companions who cared for her in shifts; brought up in a same way a child interacts; always with at least one companion who were friends/playmates and introduced games/activities for maximum interaction

ASL:  consists of manual gestures that correspond to particular symbols but also words/concepts; words can be arbitary or iconic (image based); all of Washoe's companions used ASL

Data Collection: article over 22 month period where record kept of language acquisition; each new sign had to fulfill certain criteria before it counted as learnt sign:

  • 3 different observers see Washoe sign spontaneously/approp.
  • sign had to be recorded everyday over 15 day period
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Gardner and Gardner - Procedures Continued

Training Methods:

  • imitation: signs where trainer says 'do this' and chimps meant to imitate specified act for the reward of being tickled; unsuccessful with Washoe as imitated gestures but not on command
  • prompting: imitation used as method of prompting; sometimes Washoe lapsed into 'poor diction'; shown correct sign and then imitate
  • using signs: during games/everyday activities, objects and activities named with appropriate signs therefore associating sign with objects/activities; Washoe understood large vocab of signs
  • babbling: important stage in human speech development when infants practise speech elements so important for Washoe to manually babble; encouraged by repeating babble back and linking it to actual signs
  • instrumental (operant) conditioning: using rewards to increase likelihood of behaviour being repeated
  • shaping: initially rewarded for a sign that was similar to the actual one, gradually only rewarded for closer approximations
  • direct tuition: tutor forms hands into right gestures and then repeat this; quicker method of acquiring new words
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Gardner and Gardner - Findings + Conclusions

Results from Experiment:

  • 5 wordsWashoe learnt: more (when asked to continue or repeat activity) drink (for a drink) sorry(after biting someone, or being mischievous) baby (for dolls) please (asking for object or activity)
  • at 7 months = 4 signs, 14 months = 13 signs, 21 months = 30 signs
  • learnt 30 words in 22 months

3 ways in which Washoe's acquisition of language similar to child's:

  • differentiating: learnt to use sign for flower to include reference to odours eg smelling cooking; G+G taught Washoe sign for smell using passive shaping and prompting; learnt to tell between 2 signs, sometimes used in wrong context though
  • transfer: learnt to generalise from one particular thing to general class of objectse.g. hearing a dog bark, Washoe did sign for dog
  • combining signs: once 8 signs learnt, Washoe combined signs to represent complex meanings such as 'listen dog' (dog barking); could be due to researchers but Washoe did produce own combinationseg 'open food drink' meaning open the fridge
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Gardner and Gardner (1969) - Findings and Conclusi

Conclusions from Experiment:

  • G+G were wary of answering whether or not Washoe had learnt language as it can only be answered if there is a clear way to distinguish between communicative behaviour and language
  • G+G did show that chimps can be taught more than a few words, chimps can use sign language
  • Washoe showed that more could be accomplished as she could spontaneously transfer signs and combine 2 - 3 words together
  • difficult to develop a reliable way to demonstrate Washoe using sign language in a meaningful way
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Gardner and Gardner - Evaluate the Methodology


  • produces rich, qualitative, detailed data about study, case study only practical method to use
  • reliability: strict criteria to ensure all words were 'acquired' by filling certain requirements; unlikely signs formed by accident
  • using ASL considered beneficial as considered to be a true language due to use of arbitary symbols


  • can't be generalised as only 1 subject, difficult to apply to wider population; Washoe could have just been clever = not necessarily representative
  • difficult to replicate so reduces reliability
  • investigator bias: researchers may have interpreted signs more favourably
  • low ecological validity: not a natural environment for chimp or child
  • ethical issues: taken from mother causes distress to mother and child; deprived of other chimp company, no informed consent, no right to withdraw
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Gardner and Gardner (1969) - Alternative Findings

1. Gardner and Gardner et al (1989) SUPPORTS

  • cross-fostered other chimps called Maja, Tatu + Dar; raised in similar way but with new improvements
  • chimps all new born; arrival staggered so grew up like siblings = provided company and role models for one another = more naturalistic; no use of operant conditioning as suggested using language gets a reward

SUPPORTS G+G's study on Washoe as shows experiment could be repeated and improved, reinforcing chimps can use a form of human language

2. Loulis DEVELOPS

  • Washoe at CHCI given adoptive son called Loulis
  • researchers didn't sign in front of Loulis (apart from 7 signs) to see if Loulis could be taught it by other chimps
  • acquired 50+ signs by watching other chimps, mirroring children

DEVELOPS: identifies that chimps able to mirror other chimps using language, like human children, can identify sign meanings and use them, like human language

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Gardner and Gardner (1969) - Alternative Findings

3. Nim Chimpsky - Terrace (1979) CONTRADICTS

  • study done on chimp called Nim Chimpsky; learnt 125 signs, combined them
  • Terrace found Nim couldn't combine words to create meanings, only uttered them after trainers demonstrated it; learning combinations but not the same as language acquisition

CONTRADICTS: Nim's language different to human child's, Washoe's language acquisition down to imitating previous combinations without using them meaningfully

4. Savage-Rumbaugh et al (1986) DEVELOPS

  • bonobo chimp named Kanzi learned to use lexigrams (visual symbols meaning words) through interactions with mother who was taught
  • age of 17 months, produced more than 2500 non-imitative combinations
  • word acquisition of 'common' chimps who were less successful

DEVELOPS: suggests some chimps, perhaps different breeds, have greater propensity for language than others

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