Glendon’s Bonobo Human Discourse research team to meet US members

A nine-member Glendon research team, including senior scholars Jim Benson and Bill Greaves from the Department of English, is travelling to Des Moines, Iowa, for a four-day interaction with other similar research teams, from April 29 to May 2, to discuss linguistics and bonobo human discourse.

The team is engaged in the multi-location, multi-year Bonobo Human Discourse (BHD) research project, ongoing since the summer of 2009 in Glendon’s Centre for Research on Language Contact (CRLC) and funded by Research at York (RAY). Greaves and Benson are the principal investigators for the project, which is striving to produce a searchable database of video clips of bonobo-human conversations to document the language capacities of the bonobos, a type of ape, and to extend scientific understanding of how language has evolved.

For the 2009-2010 academic year, the team included five student participants, some paid and some volunteers – second-year undergraduates Charlotte Petrie, Maria Wong, Laura Guecha and Meng Yang, as well as fourth-year undergraduate Lidia Giosa, who has been accepted into a PhD program for speech pathology at the University of Louisiana partly as a result of her participation in the BHD project. Two additional participants are recent Glendon graduate Daniel Byrnes (BA Hons. ’09), who has continued to work on the project since graduating, and mature student Bruce Anderson.

Left: Senior scholars Jim Benson and Bill Greaves with the Bonobo Human Discourse research team members

The current project has emerged from past cooperation among a number of scholars from different countries, including Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, a scientist with special standing at the Great Ape Trust of Iowa, linguistics and media communication Professor Paul Thibault of University of Agder in Norway and Meena Debashish, phonetics & spoken English professor at the English & Foreign Languages University in Hyderabad, India, along with Benson and Greaves. This international team had worked together in 2005 on a project based at Glendon and funded by the John Templeton Foundation and has been actively collaborating ever since.

For this project, Savage-Rumbaugh has made available 400 hours of video footage filmed by the NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) representing a corpus of spontaneous interaction between researchers at Geogia State University and the bonobos. In the videos, the humans use spoken language to communicate and the bonobos use a lexigram keyboard of 450 symbols that produces spoken English words.

Right: A bonobo

Benson explained that this project provides many types of learning opportunities for participating students. “The international dimension of the students’ training has been present from the beginning. Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh is based in Des Moines, Iowa, and the data she has made available to us was assembled in Georgia. At the same time that we were initiating these undergraduates into the linguistic analysis of bonobo-human discourse, Dr. Rumbaugh was engaging students from Buena Vista University, Simpson College and Missouri State University in work that was based on the bonobos. The US students were looking at the bonobos in terms of psychology and anthropology, rather than linguistics, and it became very clear that much was to be gained by bringing these young people together.”

For this international collaboration, Benson and Greaves have incorporated US professors involved at different institutions (Savage-Rumbaugh, psychology Professors Carl Halgren and Don Evans of Simpson College in Iowa, anthropology Professor Margie Buckner of Missouri State University, and psychology and computer science Professor Kenneth Schweller of Buena Vista University in Iowa) as “teachers” in the Glendon Moodle Bonobo Human Discourse Web site. Their students will also be included shortly on the Web site.  

“But interaction on a Web site has its limitations,” said Greaves. “The best possible way to launch this joint venture is through a face-to-face collaboration. Bringing the York team to meet with the others at Simpson College in Des Moines over the weekend of April 29 will provide an excellent opportunity for personal interaction.”   

Greaves said this research experience provides students with a multi-dimensional experience, including practical career training and international networking opportunities. “Our long-term strategy is to give a group of undergraduates an exceptional apprenticeship in research extending over three years and, at the same time, to build for them – and for us – a base of scholarly interaction that binds student researchers in the US with our student researchers in Canada.”

Submitted by Marika Kemeny, Glendon communications officer