Roger Fouts

(1943 - )

Compiled by Kristin Lynch (May 1999)

Fouts Biography
Time Line

For most of Roger Fouts life, he dreamed of becoming a clinical psychologist and working with children. However, he was not accepted in any of the clinical programs he applied to. As a consolation choice, he applied to experimental programs. His mentor, Joe White, felt that after he received his Ph.D. he could do postgraduate work with children. However, after taking an assistantship that plan was forever altered.

Fouts soon learned that he would not be experimenting with rats but would be teaching a chimpanzee sign language. Project Washoe was a experiment designed by R. Allen and Beatrice Gardner in 1966. They had seen prior chimpanzee language studies fail. However, the Gardners believed that the failure of those experiments had more to do with the inability of the chimpanzee to learn spoken language then the chimpanzees intelligence. They designed the experiment to see if a chimpanzee was capable of learning language.

Fouts continued to work with Washoe at the University of Nevada. He cared for her, fed her, bathed her, and also taught her to sign. Washoe quickly developed an extensive vocabulary of about 130 signs (Gill 1997). Then in 1970 Washoe along with Fouts was sent to the Institute of Primate Studies in Oklahoma under Dr. The Gardner hoped to be able to replicate the study with four other chimps as a set of cross-fostered siblings. They felt that since chimpanzees are extremely social animals, this would facilitate the project even more. More importantly, they were interested to see if the chimps would sign to each other without any human intervention. This was later accomplished.

The chimpanzees were taught using two main techniques. The first was modeling, which is a form of operant conditioning. This occurs when a random natural behavior is consistently rewarded. This leads to the continuation of the behavior but was shown to be too slow and inefficient. The other method was molding. This occurs when the hands of the chimp are molded into the correct sign.

Washoe was later given an adopted son named Loulis. Fouts decided to see whether a chimpanzee could learn and use sign language without any human intervention. After seven years Loulis had acquired nearly seventy signs.

jane & washoe With his work with the chimps, Fouts naturally became an advocate for better treatment of chimpanzees. He, with Jane Goodall, toured biomedical labs and observed how chimps were treated. They were locked is small cages, isolated from others. For a social animal, that is extremely cruel.

Fouts has also campaigned for chimpanzees to have legal status under the law. He feels no chimpanzee asked to come to this country. He feels that they need to be treated with respect.

Roger Fouts is currently involved in five studies. One study deals with the chimpanzees use of tools, two deal with the gestural dialect used by chimpanzees, one deals with conversation use, and the other study deals with improving the lives of chimps in captivity. He and his wife have shown that chimps use tools and gestures differently.

Fouts has been involved in chimp research ever since graduate school, working with Washoe since the beginning. He has studied many aspects of chimpanzee language and has branched out into examinations of different aspects of chimpanzee life. What Fouts, and other researchers like him, initially wanted to see was whether not a chimpanzee could acquire a human language. The Gardners started the first successful project by teaching Washoe to sign with American Sign Language (ASL). This project is being continued by Fouts.

The purpose of the Gardner's research was simply to see whether or not Washoe could acquire language. Others had tried to get chimps to use spoken words in a semblance of language but were unsuccessful. Since chimps relied heavily on gestures in their daily lives, the Gardners reasoned that ASL would be more readily adopted by a chimp. So, they set out to teach Washoe ASL and within four years she had acquired and regularly used over 130 signs. She was able to ask for things and ask questions about the world around her. She then was able to use signs in combinations. She was able to say YOU ME HIDE. (In ASL, the preceding sentence follows the rules of grammar).

Eventually, four more chimps were acquired by the Gardners. They wished to test if the chimps would engage in conversation with each other as well as teaching each other new signs. This apparently happened. They were shown to be engaging in three-way conversation and if one chimp was taught a new sign, they were all found to be using that sign.

Similarly, Fouts wished to study whether or not chimps could learn sign language without any human intervention. He acquired Washoe from the Gardners and presented her with an adopted son, Loulis. Experimenters did not sign in Loulis' presence. If they did sign accidentally, it was documented. In six years, this happened less then forty times. By the end of the project, Loulis was observed to regularly engage in conversations with the other chimps and to have acquired over seventy signs. The other chimps, especially Washoe, had been observed to mold Loulis's hand to help him correctly make a sign.

Throughout these experiments, Fouts was able to look at similarities as well as differences in how chimpanzees and human children acquire and learn a language. Fouts reported that chimpanzees could only hold a vocabulary of about 240 signs. There are over 4,000 in ASL. However, they commonly strings signs together for a different totally different meaning. For example, the word for radishes was "cry hurt food". The word for a glass of Alaska-Seltzer was "listen drink". Human children are able acquire many more words than the chimps.

Chimps and human children were also compared in how quickly they acquired language. Chimps actually start learning faster but by the time they are four level off. Human children then speed up but do not level off until much later. Chimpanzee language research has also been helpful in studying non-speaking human children such as deaf children, children with cerebral palsy, and autistic children.

Fouts has also studied chimp language to see how our own language might have developed. He feels that since gorillas, orangutans, and chimpanzees can all learn to sign, the first human language was gestural and vocal language was a much more recent development. He feels that vocal language probably developed in humans 200,00 years ago.

Time Line
1943- Born in California.
1960-Enrolled in Compton Junior College.
1961-Enrolled in Long Beach State college.
1964-Married Deborah Harris.
1967-Accepted to the University of Nevada's graduate school in experimental psychology.
1967-receives an assistantship teaching a chimpanzee (Washoe) sign language.
1970-Washoe was relocated to the Institute for Primate Studies in Oklahoma. Fouts accompanies her.
1972-1976-acquired four additional chimpanzees (Moji, Phili, Tatu, and Dar) and attempted to replicate the results of his work with Washoe.
1979-Washoe is giving an infant son, Loulis. Fouts decides to see whether or not Loulis will learn to sign without human intervention. The trainers do not sign to Loulis.
1980-left for Washington State to continue the language research with Washoe and the other chimpanzees. 1980-Became a lobbyist for the rights of chimpanzees as many of his chimps were sold off to biomedical labs.
1986-the project with Loulis is ended after he can regularly use seventy signs.
1993- was able to build a new home for Washoe and the rest of the chimpanzees. This took thirteen years of fund-raising.
1999- continues to study chimpanzees. Has a variety of studies now from conversation to gestures to tool usage.



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