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Glendon’s Bonobo Human Discourse Research Group Joins International Team in Des Moines


A nine-member Glendon research team, comprised of Glendon senior scholars of linguistics Jim Benson and Bill Greaves and seven others affiliated with Glendon, is travelling to Des Moines, Iowa for a four-day interaction with other similar research teams from April 29 to May 2.

They are engaged in a multi-location, multi-year research project whose goal is to produce a searchable database of video clips of bonobo-human conversations, which will document the language capacities of the bonobos and extend scientific understanding of how language evolved.

Greaves and Benson are the principal investigators for the Bonobo Human Discourse (BHD) research project, which has been ongoing since the summer of 2009. Funded by Research at York (RAY), the BHD group functions within Glendon’s Centre for Research on Language Contact (CRLC).  

For the 2009-2010 academic year, the team included five student participants, some paid and some volunteers: 2nd-year undergraduates Charlotte Petrie, Maria Wong, Laura Guecha and Meng Yang, as well as 4th -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 this project. Two additional participants are recent Glendon graduate Daniel Byrnes, who has continued to work on the project since graduating, and mature student Bruce Anderson.

The current project has emerged from past cooperation among a number of scholars from different countries, including Dr. Sue Savage Rumbaugh (U.S.), Dr. Paul Thibault (Norway), Dr. Meena Debashish (India), as well as Benson and Greaves.  This international team had worked together in 2005, on a project funded by the Templeton Foundation, and based at Glendon. The group has been actively collaborating ever since.

For this project, Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh has made available 400 hours of video footage, filmed by NHK, representing a corpus of spontaneous interaction between researchers at the 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.

Benson and Greaves 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 U.S. 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.”

L-r: senior scholars Benson and Greaves with Glendon research team members

For this international collaboration, Benson and Greaves have incorporated the U.S. professors involved at the different institutions (Dr. Rumbaugh, Dr. Carl Halgren, Dr. Margie Bruckner, Dr. Kenneth Schweller and Dr. Don Evans) as “teachers” in the Glendon MOODLE Bonobo Human Discourse (BHD) site. Their students will also be included shortly in the site.  

“But interaction on a website has its limitations”, said the senior scholars. “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 29th will provide an excellent opportunity for personal interaction.”  

Benson and Greaves confirmed that 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 U.S. with our student researchers in Canada.”

Article submitted by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny

Published on April 21, 2010