Do animals have the propensity for language, especially chimpanzees? If so, is this language limited to sign language? Theseare the questions raised by Project Nim, a fascinating documentary/movie that surrounds the life of a chimpanzee called Nim Chimpsky. Born in Oklahoma and adopted by Columbia professor Herbert Terrace, Nim is raised like a human infant. Nim is also shifted from home to home and to different “parents” to illustrate his adaptability for human tendencies. In particular, Nim is mainly raised by Stephanie Lafarge who was recruited by Terrace as the chimp’s foster parent.
Funny enough, Stephanie breastfeeds Nim, smokes pot with him and even gives him a beer sometimes. Through the tutelage of Stephanie and others, Nim gains certain adaptability for language understanding a 125 signs vocabulary. Although impressive, there are certain questions raised whether Nim really understands the language or is really just hard-wired to use the signs. The approach used by the researchers is good. However, the hands-free approach of the lead researcher professor Herbert who seems more intrigued by her female research assistants including Stephanie rather than Nim does pose questions. Also, the behavior of the researchers especially professor Herbert as Nim grew old lacked the dignity that is afforded to animals through abandonment of the chimp. As Nim reaches his adolescence years he becomes aggressive and in one instance bites a researcher, Nim then signs sorry, maybe a depiction of understanding language. However, did Nim really mean the sorry or is he just programmed to respond with the “sorry” sign in these particular situations?
The progression of the film towards the later years of Nim’s life illustrate the researchers resentment with his increased aggressiveness and he ended up being pushed through potential medical experiments and finally consigned to a cage. It is a question on whether trying to humanize the chimpanzee actually contribute to the dehumanization of the people involved. Also noted is that language is simply more complex than 125 word signs.