Can apes use language or do they just learn to correlate symbols with reactions from humans? The story below doesn't come close to convincing me that the "interviewed" ape understands the meanings behind the symbols it recognizes.
Sound beyond belief? During a visit to the Great Ape Trust, I sat down with Kanzi the Bonobo -- the first Ape I have ever interviewed.
I read Kanzi a series of words, and then without fail, he hit the corresponding lexigram symbol on a touch screen.
I said "Egg."
He pressed "Egg."
I said, "M and M."
He pressed "M and M."
Then Kanzi took control of the conversation and pressed the symbol for "Surprise!"
Needless to say, I was quite surprised, having never actually spoken to an ape before.
But Kanzi was pointing to a box of candy that I was sitting near. That is the surprise that he wanted.
Correlating sounds with pictures (e.g., "egg" with an egg) is a far cry from comprehending the symbolic, abstract communication of true language. John Berman's interpretation of the "surprise" symbol strikes me more as projection on his part than as communication by the ape.
The real difficulty I have believing the researchers in this case is one that is similar across many scientific endeavors: conflicts of interest. The researchers at the Great Ape Trust have a vested interest in demonstrating that the apes can learn language; if they spent millions of dollars studying apes for years and then concluded "nope, no language", they'd be out of a job. In contrast, news stories like these bring publicity and funding to their life work, stroking egos and provoking all sorts of non-scientific motivations.
Confirmation bias: the researchers set up a foundation to study ape language and to promote ape conservation, and lo-and-behold their sincerest hopes are confirmed by their own research! Apes can use language and must be protected!