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Groundbreaking research with apes that understand English words.

ByABC News
November 26, 2008, 11:58 AM

May 29, 2007 — -- The Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa, is home to seven bonobos -- a close relative of the chimpanzee -- and three orangutans. But if you think Iowa might be a strange place for them to live, don't say it out loud these apes understand English.

Really. No kidding.

Watch more on this story tonight on 'Nightline' tonight at 11:35 p.m. EDT.

You can talk to the apes, and they know what you are saying.

The residents of the Great Ape Trust are part of groundbreaking language research where the apes are being taught to communicate with humans by pressing 350 lexigrams -- symbols that appear on a screen and represent thoughts and objects.

The superstar is 26-year-old Kanzi, whom Bill Fields has been working with for years. To communicate, Fields speaks to Kanzi, who then points to the lexigrams to respond and demonstrate a level of understanding.

"Qualitatively, there is no difference between Kanzi's language and my language," Fields said. "It's a matter of degree."

The key to ensuring they grasp the language, the researchers said, is to start teaching them when they are young, just like you would with human babies.

"Language is culturally acquired. Its not learned," said Fields. "It's acquired in the immediate postnatal antogyny of the organisms life. The only organism capable of learning language are babies."

They've been communicating with bonobos through the keyboard for almost three years, relying on a technique developed in 1971 and also used at the Primate Research Institute at Kyoto University and other facilities.

At the Great Ape Trust, researchers said the apes would likely never be able to vocalize words like humans; they are limited by the range of their vocal chords among other things.

However, Fields swears he has heard Kanzi try to say "thank you."

When they begin to work with the apes, some pick up the vocabulary quickly while others never acquire the language.

Rob Shumaker has known Azy, a majestic, huge male orangutan, for more than 20 years. He talks to Azy, just like he would speak to one of his children, or a longtime friend.