Monkeys Would Talk…If Only They Could

“Primates are unquestionably clever: Monkeys can learn how to use money, and chimpanzees have a knack for game theory. But no one has ever taught a nonhuman primate to say ‘hello.’ Scientists have long been intrigued by the failure of primates to talk like us. Understanding the reasons may offer clues to how our own ancestors evolved full-blown speech, one of our most powerful adaptations.” C. Zimmer, The New York Times

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post with Answer Key

They think we can’t talk. Image-Big Think

Excerpt: Monkeys Could Talk, but They Don’t Have the Brains for It-By Carl Zimmer, The New York Times

“On Friday, a team of researchers reported that monkeys have a vocal tract capable of human speech. They argue that other primates can’t talk because they lack the right wiring in their brains…Human speech results from a complicated choreography of flowing air and contracting muscles. To make a particular sound, we have to give the vocal tract a particular shape. The vocal tracts of other primates contain the same elements as ours — from vocal cords to tongues to lips — but their geometry is different…the range of vowel sounds that monkeys could make was quite restricted, compared with those produced by humans.


In theory, the researchers concluded, monkeys can make a fairly wide range of sounds. Looking at the most distinct vocal tract shapes, Dr. Fitch and Dr. Ghazanfar identified five separate vowels among the possibilities. What you get are the vowels in ‘bit,’ ‘bet,’ ‘bat,’ ‘but’ and ‘bought…When the researchers played these sounds to people, they were able to correctly distinguish them most of the time. The scientists could even assemble the sounds into recognizable sentences.So what prevents these monkeys from gabbing all day long by the watering hole? .

Monkeys Lack Brain Circuitry to Speak. image I4U News

..researchers argue that the key to the acquisition of speech lies somewhere in the brain. If they had the brain, they could produce intelligible speech, Dr. Ghazanfar said. Dr. Lieberman isn’t convinced: His view is still that the evolution of human speech had to involve changes in both the brain and the vocal tract. Monkeys in the new study, he noted, failed to make the most distinct sounds in human speech, such as a long e. Without such a full repertoire of distinct sounds, he argues, it’s not possible to speak clearly as we do.”

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post

NOTE: Lessons can also be used with native English speakers.

Level: Intermediate – Advanced

Language Skills: Reading, writing, and speaking. Vocabulary and grammar activities are included.

Time: Approximately 2 hours.

Materials: Student handout (from this lesson) and access to news article.

Objective: Students will read and discuss the article
with a focus on improving reading comprehension and learning new vocabulary. At the end of the lesson students will express their personal views on the topic through group work and writing.

I. Pre-Reading Activities

 Predictions: Analyzing headings and photos

Directions:  Have students  examine the titles of the post and of the actual article. After they examine the photos, ask students to create a list of  words and  ideas  that they think might be related to this article. 

Pre-reading chart by J. Swann


II. While Reading Activities

Word Inference

Directions: Students are to infer the meanings of the words in bold taken from the article. They may use a dictionary, thesaurus, and Word Chart for assistance.

  1. Primates are very smart.
  2. Researchers  are intrigued by  monkeys.
  3. Monkeys have a vocal tract capable of human speech.
  4. Scientists debate whether primates can make speechlike sounds.
  5. A crucial part of the evolution of speech was a gradual anatomical change.
  6. Ghazanfar is a neuroscientist.
  7. So what prevents these monkeys from gabbing all day?
  8. If they had the brain, they could produce intelligible speech.
  9. Our ancestors may have evolved special brain circuits.
  10. Monkeys can open their jaws and move other parts of their vocal tracts.

Reading Comprehension

Word -Recognition

Directions: Students choose the correct word to complete the sentences taken from the article. They are to choose from the options presented.

Dr. Lieberman would go on to study/studied  chimpanzee vocal tracts and lock/look for clues/glues  to speech in the fossils of ancient/accent humans and Neanderthals. He argued/agreed that a crucial/special part of the resolution evolution of speech was a gradual anatomical change/chance  to the vocal tract in humans. Crucial to this transition was the human tongue’s decent/descent back into the throat. It’s not until about 75,000 years ago that you find fossils/fossil  of fully modern humans with a vocal tract like that, Dr. Lieberman said in an interview.

 Grammar Focus

Using Adjectives  to describe pictures

   Directions: Have students choose a picture from the article  and write a descriptive paragraph using adjectives.

For a review of Adjectives visit ESL Voices Grammar

III. Post Reading Activities

Directions:  Have students use this advanced organizer from Write Design to assist them with  discussing  or writing about  the main idea and points from the article.


Directions: Place students in groups and have them  discuss the following statement. Afterwards, have the groups share their thoughts as a class.

  1. “While monkeys may not have the full range of human vowels, Dr. Barney said, their repertoire is a very good starting place for speech. Still, she cautioned that the new study left important questions about speech unresolved. Vowels are important to speech, for example, but so are consonants. What they’ve shown is that monkeys are vowel-ready, not speech-ready.”
  2. With your group  create a list of topics that you think monkeys would talk about if they could speak. Share the list with the class.

Extra: Web Search

Directions: In groups/partners have students “Google” the topic and see what additional information they can find. Students can either have further discussions or write an essay about the subject.


Directions: Allow students 5 minutes to write down three new ideas they’ve learned about the topic from the reading,  two things they did not understand in the reading, and one thing they would like to know that the article did not mention. Review the responses as a class.


Category: Animals