ISSN 2079-6617 (Print)
ISSN 2309-9828 (Online)
Ru | En
Russian Psychological Society
The Faculty of Psychology. Lomonosov Moscow State University.
Main RSS Search


Sokolova E. E., Fedorovich E.Yu. (2016). «Speaking does not mean being a human»: critical analysis of current studies of the “animal language” in accordance with L.S. Vygotsky’s ideas. National Psychological Journal. 3, 8-19.


This paper is based upon the ideas of the psychological school of L. S. Vygotsky, A. N. Leontiev and A. R. Luria and presents a critical analysis of currently popular and allegedly successful projects of teaching human language to apes. The paper shows that the authors of such studies and their promoters ignore qualitative differences between psychological mechanisms of human and animal communication, as well as their functions in behavioral regulation of both. This is explained, in particular, by the fact that the human-animal comparison originates from some visible and functional similarities of certain aspects of their communicative behavior. Moreover, the observed differences are recognized as quantitative distinctions, but not qualitative ones. In this paper a critical analysis of data submitted by such projects is presented. The outcome is as follows. Though apes, especially in vitro, can use some symbolic means (language symbols) to manipulate the behavior of others, none of the animals, subjected to such experiments have acquired an ability to control themselves in the context of certain social (conventional) requirements. Meanwhile, according to L. S. Vygotsky, the arbitrary regulation of one’s own behavior with the use of symbolic means as «psychological tools» is what determines a human as a being, qualitatively different from an animal. Moreover, this arbitrary regulation has emerged in the course of historical development through human labor (common, socially-induced and tool-mediated) activity.

Hence, the conclusion is that if the most important features of human language (its use on the way of mastering one’s own behavior and regulating one’s own mental processes) is ignored, this leads to inadequate interpretation of the data collected in animal behavior studies, as well as to biological reductionism of human activity explanation.

Received: 09/10/2016
Accepted: 09/16/2016
Pages: 8-19
DOI: 10.11621/npj.2016.0302

Sections: History of Psychology;

PDF: /pdf/npj-no23-2016/npj_no23_2016_008-019.pdf

Keywords: L. Vygotsky; language; language-trained apes; comparative psychology; psychological tool; arbitrary regulation;

Available Online 30.10.2016


Bekoff, M., Allen, C. & Burghardt, G., eds. (2002) The cognitive animal: empirical and theoretical perspectives on animal cognition.MIT Press. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachussetts.

Brakke, K. & Savage-Rumbaugh, E.S. (1996) The Development of Language Skills in Bonobo and Chimpanzee—II; Production. Language and Communication. 16, 361-380. doi: 10.1016/S0271-5309(96)00018-3

Burlak, S.A. (2008) From protolanguage to language: where is the transition point? [Razumnoe povedenie i yazyk. Vypusk 1. Kommunikativnye sistemy zhivotnykh i yazyk cheloveka. Problema proiskhozhdeniya cheloveka]. Moscow, Yazyki slavyanskikh kul’tur, 89-100.

Butovskaya, M.L. (2005) Human and apes: language skills and prospects for dialogue [Zoologicheskiy zhurnal], 84, 149-157.

Chesnokova, O.B. & Subbotskiy, E.V. (2010) Social intelligence in the context of complex social systems [Natsional’nyy psikhologicheskiy zhurnal], 4, 22-29.

Clayton, N. S., Bussey, T. J. & Dickinson, A. (2003) Can animals recall the past and plan for the future? Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 8, 685-691. doi: 10.1038/nrn1180

de Waal, F. & Tyack, P. L. (2003) Animal social complexity: Intelligence, culture and individualized societies. Harvard University Press. doi: 10.4159/ harvard.9780674419131

Fedorovich, E.Yu. & Sokolova, E.E. (2015) On the issue of current comparative psychological studies: Michael Tomasello vs Aleksey N. Leontiev. [Ot istokov k sovremennosti: 130 let organizatsii psikhologicheskogo obshschestva pri Moskovskom universitete: sbornik materialov yubileynoy konferentsii]. Moscow, Vol.5, Kogito-Tsentr, 439-442.

Fitch, U.T. (2013) Evolution of language. Moscow, Yazyki slavyanskikh kul’tur.

Griffin, D. (1978) The question of animal awareness: Evolutionary continuity of mental experience. The Rockefeller University Press.

Hanzel, I. (2012) Sue Savage-Rumbaugh’s Research into Ape Language. Science and Methodology. Organon F. 19, 201-226.

Hauser, M., Barner, D. & O’Donnell T. (2007) Evolutionary linguistics: A new look at an old landscape. Language, Learning, and Development. 3, 101-132. doi: 10.1080/15475440701225394

Khokket, Ch. (1970) The problem of language universals. [Novoe v lingvistike]. Moscow, Vol. 5 , Progress, 45-76.

Koshelev, A.D. (2006) On human language (compared with the one of the apes) [Zorina, Z.A. & Smirnova, A.A. O chem rasskazali «govoryashchie» obez’yany: sposobny li vysshie zhivotnye operirovat’ simvolami?] Moscow, Yazyki slavyanskikh kul’tur, 367-423.

Leontiev, A.A. (1963) Language, its emergence and initial development. Moscow, AN SSSR.

Matsuzawa, T. (2001) Primate origin of human cognition and behavior. Springer. doi: 10.1007/978-4-431-09423-4

Moll, H. & Tomasello, M. (2007) Co-operation and human cognition: The Vygotskian intelligence hypothesis. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. 362, 639-648. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2006.2000

Panov, E.N. (2012) Paradox of continuity: the language Rubicon. An insurmountable gap between animal signal systems and human language. Moscow, Yazyki slavyanskikh kul’tur.

Penn, D., Holyoak K. & Povinelli, D. (2008) Darwin’s mistake: Explaining the discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 31, 109-178. doi: 10.1017/S0140525X08003543

Pepperberg, I. (2005) Intelligence and rationality in parrots / Rational animals? Eds. S. Hurley, & M. Nudds. Oxford University Press, 469-488.

Pinker, S. & Jackendoff, R. (2005) The faculty of language: What’s special about it? Cognition. 95, 201-236. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2004.08.004

Pinker, S. (2004) Language as an instinct. Moscow, URSS.

Premack, D. (2007) Human and animal cognition: Continuity and discontinuity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. 104. 13861- 13867. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0706147104

Rendall, D., Vokey, J. & Notman, H. (2008) Quotidian cognition and the human-nonhuman “divide”: Just more or less of a good thing?/ Commentary/ Penn et al.: Darwin’s mistake: Explaining the discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds. Behavioral and brain sciences. 31, 146-147. doi:

Rendell, L. & Whitehead, H. (2001) Culture in whales and dolphins. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 24, 309-382. doi: 10.1017/S0140525X0100396X

Reznikova, Zh.I. (2005) Animal intellect and language. The basics of cognitive ethology. Moscow, Akademkniga.

Savage-Rumbaugh, S., Murphy, J., Sevcik, R., Brakke, K., Williams, S. & Rumbaugh D. M. (1993) Language, Comprehension in Ape and Child (Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development). University Of Chicago Press.

Savage-Rumbaugh, S., Shanker, S. & Taylor, T.(1998) Apes, language, and the human mind. Oxford University Press.

Savage-Rumbaugh, Е.S. (1986) Ape Language: From Conditioned Response to Symbol. New York, Columbia University Press.

Sergienko, E.A. (2008) Cognitive pre-verbal development of a child [Razumnoe povedenie i yazyk]. Issue 1. Communication systems of animals and human language. The origin of language. Moscow, Yazyki slavyanskikh kul’tur, 337-365.

Shettleworth, S. J. (2010) Cognition, Evolution, and Behavior (Second Edition). Oxford.

Smith, J. D., Shields, W. & Washburn, D. The comparative psychology of uncertainty monitoring and metacognition. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 26, 317-373. doi: 10.1017/s0140525x03000086

Sokolova, E.E. & Fedorovich, E.Yu. (2016) On the issue of animal “culture”: critical analysis of current studies in accordance with L. S. Vygotsky’s ideas [Kul’turno-istoricheskaya psikhologiya], 12, 14-23.

Sokolova, E.E. (2006) The “letter” and the “sense” of A.N. Leontiev’s activity approach in the context of interiorization problem solution [Uchenye zapiski kafedry obshschey psikhologii MGU imeni M.V. Lomonosova.]. Moscow, Issue 2, Smysl, 14-25.

Sokolova, E.E. (2007) Ways of developing L.S. Vygotsky’s ideas in Kharkiv’s psychological school [Kul’turno-istoricheskaya psikhologiya], 1, 3-12.

Suddendorf, T., Corballis, M. (2007) The evolution of foresight: What is mental time travel and is it unique to humans? Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 30, 299–313. doi: 10.1017/S0140525X07001975

Terrace, H. S., Petitto, L. A., Sanders, R. J. & Bever, T. G. (1979) Can an ape create a sentence? Science. 4421, 891-902. doi: 10.1126/science.504995

Vygotsky, L.S. (1982) On psychological systems [Sobranie sochineniy]. Vol 1. Moscow, Pedagogika, 109-131.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1982) Instrumental method in psychology [Sobranie sochineniy]. Vol 1. Moscow, Pedagogika, 103-108.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1983) History of the higher mental functions development [Sobranie sochineniy]. Vol 3. Moscow, Pedagogika, 5-328.  

Vygotsky, L.S. (1984) Tool and symbol as means of children development [Sobranie sochineniy]. Vol 6. Moscow, Pedagogika, 5-90.

Wasserman, E. & Zentall, T. (2006) Comparative Cognition: A Natural Science Approach to the Study of Animal Intelligence Comparative Cognition: Experimental Explorations of Animal Intelligence. Eds. E. Wasserman, & T. Zentall. Oxford University Press, Inc., 3-14.

Woods, A. & Grant, T. (2015) Rebellious Mind: Marxist philosophy and contemporary science. Moscow, Kanon+, ROOI “Reabilitatsiya”.

Zinchenko V.P. (2008) Whisper that goes before the lips OR what precedes children language explosion [Razumnoe povedenie i yazyk]. Issue 1. Communication systems of animals and human language. The origin of language. Moscow, Yazyki slavyanskikh kul’tur, 101–134.

Zorina, Z.A. & Smirnova, A.A. (2006) What did “speaking” apes tell us? Are higher animals capable of using symbols? Moscow, Yazyki slavyanskikh kul’tur.

Zorina, Z.A. (2008) Prospects for dialogue between a human and an ape: experimental studies review [Razumnoe povedenie i yazyk]. Issue 1. Communication systems of animals and human language. The origin of language. Moscow, Yazyki slavyanskikh kul’tur, 135–172.

For citing this article:

Sokolova E. E., Fedorovich E.Yu. (2016). «Speaking does not mean being a human»: critical analysis of current studies of the “animal language” in accordance with L.S. Vygotsky’s ideas. National Psychological Journal. 3, 8-19.

About Editorial Board Volumes Authors For Authors Indexing Contacts

National Psychological Journal, 2006 - 2020