The Chimp That Learned Sign Language Project Nim was a research study conducted in the 1970s meant to find out if a chimpanzee could learn to sign. The study's chimp –- named Nim Chimpsky -– lived in a Manhattan brownstone with a family who could teach him sign language.
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The Chimp That Learned Sign Language

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The Chimp That Learned Sign Language

The Chimp That Learned Sign Language

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The story of Nim Chimpsky, a chimp who lived with humans, when Day to Day continues.


Back now with Day to Day. "Project Nim" at Colombia University back in the 1970s sought to discover if a chimpanzee could learn to communicate in American Sign Language. The chimp actually lived with an American family on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Well, now there's a new book about Nim and some of the family members who raised him are talking about the ethics of what they did. NPR's Margot Adler has the story.

MARGOT ADLER: Jenny Lee, Nim's surrogate sister remembers the day Nim came to live with her family. She was 10.

Ms. JENNY LEE (Nim's Surrogate Sister): He was coming off the plane with my mom, wrapped up in baby blankets and he was this tiny newborn being who happened to be a chimp. And it was probably love at first sight.

ADLER: Nim Chimpsky is a pun on Noam Chomsky, the MIT linguist who has theorized that language as we know it is unique to humans. "Project Nim" hoped to disprove Chomsky, to show that a chimpanzee could develop language. The project was run by Colombia University psychologist, Herbert Terrace.

Prof. HERBERT TERRACE (Psychology, Colombia University): Everybody agrees that words are learned one at a time. But that syntax seems to emerge spontaneously. So the question is what would them do?

ADLER: He chose Stephanie LeFarge to be Nim's surrogate mother. For LeFarge who was studying psychology it was thrilling. She says a chimp is five times as strong as a human being, yet its touch is unbelievably gentle.

Dr. STEPHANIE LEFARGE (Nim's Surrogate Mother): I wasn't even aware of what the role of chimpanzee - mother, surrogate mother would be. It was to have this body attached to you for almost two years, period.

ADLER: And that's what she did. She raised this chimp like a child, including it in her sprawling, chaotic blended family, along with seven kids. Jenny Lee says it was kind of nutty.

Ms. LEE: Well, you're making you know, sloppy joes for seven kids or two kids, and who is doing the dishes. And, were you sharing the room that night or were you not.

ADLER: Raising a chimp in a human family might raise questions now. But 35 years ago a lot less was known about chimpanzees. Bob Ingersoll was a graduate student working at the Institute in Oklahoma, where Nim was born.

Mr. BOB INGERSOLL (Former Graduate Student, Oklahoma): From the 1975 perspective it didn't seem misguided at all, you know. I mean, handing out chimp babies to just about anyone that wanted one. And that gives you a kind of understanding of how little we knew.

ADLER: Soon Nim was breaking things all over the house. Stephanie LeFarge's husband was never comfortable with Nim. Finally, Herbert Terrace put Nim in a different home. Nim learned about 125 signs, but was he really learning language? One day watching a video of Nim signing with a teacher, Terrace says he had an epiphany.

Prof. TERRACE: Nim was tracking most of the teacher signs, imitating most of the teacher signs. He almost never made a sign spontaneously.

ADLER: Terrace came to believe that Nim would never use language the way humans do; to form sentences and express ideas. That was the end of the project. Nim was returned to the research institute in Norman, Oklahoma, to live a very different life, in a cage with other chimps. But Bob Ingersoll says his life wasn't a bad one.

Mr. INGERSOLL: In the sense that he was with his own brothers, he got to have a chimp group that wasn't necessarily always controlled by humans.

ADLER: But in 1981, all funding ended for the institute. There was no exit plan for the chimps. Within a year Nim was sold to a medical lab for tuberculosis studies. Nim's supporters managed to rescue him. He was taken to Cleveland Amory's Black Beauty Ranch in Texas. An animal sanctuary where Nim died in the year 2000. Jenny Lee, Nim's surrogate sister was in college when Nim was taken to the medical lab. How do you reconcile, she says, a tiny chimp in blue baby blankets, drinking from a bottle and wearing Pampers?

Ms. LEE: Those are the baby pictures and then when he's 10, him in the lab, in a cage, with nothing soft, nothing warm, no people, you know. This is my brother, this is somebody that I raised and that the system could let this happen was shocking.

ADLER: Stephanie LeFarge, Nim's surrogate mother, says today she believes that taking Nim into her home was totally unethical.

Dr. LEFARGE: Essentially tricking him into thinking he's a human being with no plan whatsoever of protecting him.

Prof. TERRACE: I don't think what we've done to Nim was unethical.

ADLER: Says Herbert Terrace. Given that people eat meat, have pets, train horses to race. Elizabeth Hess interviewed all these people and many more for her book "Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human." She says Nim was an amazing survivor. She says "Project Nim," would never happen today, and the debate over the project continues.

Ms. ELIZABETH HESS (Author, "Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would be Human"): Whether chimps have language or don't have language and what is their own language? The surprising thing is how little we know about how animals communicate.

ADLER: Researchers today she says, are looking at how prairie dogs warn each other, how birds know where to fly, they're asking a better question. How do animals communicate? Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

CHADWICK: There's a video of Nim signing with Bob Ingersoll and you can read an excerpt from the book, "Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human," at

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