Lecture 'DLLD#2: Bobobos, children, and fear of trees'
Kanzi, a bonobo, has been learning English since infancy. I examine a corpus of instructions given to Kanzi at age 8 (Savage-Rumbaugh et al 1993), as a source of evidence concerning his syntactic abilities. Although Kanzi has learned the meaning of many English words, the corpus suggests that Kanzi cannot interpret NP-coordination structures like “Give [[the water] and [the doggie]] to Rose”. I claim that this reflects an inability to form hierarchical phrase-structural representations of sentence structure: NP-coordination is one of the simplest structures that cannot be interpreted without some notion of constituency, because an interlocutor has to recognize that “water” and “doggie” jointly form a single argument of “give”. Kanzi’s failure to interpret NP-coordination can therefore taken to be indicative of a general inability to generate hierarchical representations of sentence structure. I compare this finding to the literature on the acquisition of NP-coordination by human infants. Humans also initially struggle to understand NP-coordination structures (e.g. Gertner & Fisher 2012), but unlike Kanzi, their comprehension quickly improves.