Scientist hopes Sarawak will be centre for development of orang utan-human communication

KUCHING: Sarawak is being offered the unique opportunity to set up a centre where orang utans can learn to ‘talk’ to humans.

Renowned ethnologist and primatologist Dr Francine Neago hopes the state will agree to open the orang utan language study centre, which would be the first of its kind in this part of the world.

Primates in the centre will learn English language skills in order to communicate through a computer spelling programme. If the plan succeeds, Sarawak will be at the apex of research into orang utans and endangered species.

“I need a land big enough for me to stay with an orang utan between one and three years old and teach him spelling in English using the computer. Each individual’s learning skill differs but it will normally take one year for an orang utan to adapt to it,” she told The Star in an interview here.

She arrived on Thursday on a fact-finding mission and to meet the authorities as well as academicians here to put forward her ideas about the project.

Dr Neago explained that it would take a few months for an orang utan to learn English, followed by up to six months playing with coloured learning blocks to recognise phonetic spelling and finally the orang utan would be taught to read and spell on a specially designed computer.

As orang utans need a lot of attention, Dr Neago said it was crucial for a human teacher and a student primate to live together 24 hours a day with no other orang utans around to secure bonding before language learning starts.

“They (orang utan) love to learn and want to express themselves. They are very intelligent, they are just like normal children but a bit retarded.”

The medical doctor, who had spent more than 40 years studying and caring for orang utans, said the result of the study would provide invaluable data for the research of language learning and have positive impact on many different scientific fields such as psychology, psychiatry, anthropology, zoology and ethology.

“The centre will bring in a lot of scientists from abroad to Sarawak,” she said. “This is a unique programme. People should know how important it is. We can also get volunteers and students to come here and study.”

Dr Neago, the first scientist to direct an orang utan study in the world, had successfully proven that the intelligent primate could acquire sign language and phonetic spelling.

In a 12-year study programme at the University of California, Los Angeles, Dr Neago taught a one-year-old orang utan called Bulan to express itself through a computer using up to 150 words.

Unfortunately, Bulan was accidentally killed by a chimpanzee during training. Otherwise, Bulan could have learnt up to 500 words, said Dr Neago.

Similar studies were subsequently carried out by many other scientists in United Kingdom and the US but none were successful.

The scientific world is expecting the continuation of this study as it has shed new light on the debate of language teaching to primates.

These studies on the cognitive process have already induced several methods of teaching human children who have learning disabilities in the educational system in the US.

“I wish to continue the study here in this part of the world, which could also assist in the preservation of endangered species that are unique.”

Having failed to start the project in Indonesia due to lack of support and technical difficulties, Dr Neago hopes to realise it in Sarawak and she hoped that the state authorities concerned would be supportive of the plan.

After setting up the language centre, her long-term plan is to start a school for animal behaviour on a site that is at least 10 acres where scientists can study the behaviour of endangered animals.

The site, proposed to be called “Noah and His Ark”, would also serve as a sanctuary for endangered species, she said.

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