The movie Planet of the Apes shows (and in the end explains away) humans talking with the apes in English. Assume we don't want that plot point but the setting is similar otherwise:

  • The human is a sole survivor from a space mission and has limited tools. After crash-landing he's living off the land (no computers etc).

  • The apes are (on this world) a superior species to humans. Humans are zoo exhibits, not peers. Assume that a captured human will be treated about the same way we treat chimps in zoos on Earth.

  • The apes are on the technological level of Earth 1970s, but with no space program.

  • The apes speak a language which is hard to learn and hard to understand, but within your cognitive possibility to learn it (imagine Finnish language for an English speaker, as an example what I mean). They will assume that humans can learn up to the level of "Polly wants a cracker" but that humans can't really learn and communicate.

In this setting, how could a lone human communicate with the apes?

  • $\begingroup$ Finnish is still Indo-European language, not too far from English. Many human languages would be more distant from English, like tonal Mandarin Chinese or click languages with about hundred of consonants (link in my answer). $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 15, 2015 at 20:40
  • $\begingroup$ No apes do not have the right configuration at the base of the skull to be able to create a language with vocals and consonants although there was recently an appe that seem to emulate their zoo keepers $\endgroup$
    – Barnaby
    Commented Jan 15, 2015 at 21:00
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    $\begingroup$ @PeterMasiar it's an Uralic language but as I don't speak it, I can't say how much different it is form English. $\endgroup$
    – Vincent
    Commented Jan 15, 2015 at 21:17
  • $\begingroup$ You are right, Finnish seems not be Indo-European but Uralic. Still, tonal or click languages sounds much harder. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 15, 2015 at 21:22
  • $\begingroup$ Finnish isn't all that hard (to the limited extent that I learned it, anyway). The only real problem in speaking it is the trilled 'r' sound, which I could never manage. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Feb 28, 2015 at 21:22

8 Answers 8


There are a lot of factors that can affect a timeline here.

Questions pertaining to the lone Human:

  • Does the lone human only know one language? Were they in a multilingual environment from birth?
  • How strong is their knowledge on grammar? Grammar is a bit universal...knowing additional languages would help a person understand the various ins and outs of grammar. My experiences in Belgium taught me English - beer Dutch - Pint. English - small beer Dutch - Pintje. the -je ending in this case makes it diminutive...knowing these concepts will help one recognize it in another language
  • How old are they? Humans at a younger age (under 6) have an inherent ability to learn language simply by being immersed in it. Odds are our Astronaut here is older, but some humans retain this ability better than others. Ever read the book 'Shogun' where an English sailor lands in Japan and through sheer exposure learns Japanese in a shorter period of time?

And a couple pertaining to the apes language

  • Does it contain mostly the same sounds we use, or are their a variety of sounds that they can make that we would struggle with. Are there sounds that we could make, just don't (eg: French contains Œ sound that english people can make if they work on it, but don't do it naturally)
  • Is there a tonal nature to the language (tone inflection is pretty meaningless in English, perhaps an upwards inflection at the end of a sentence would denote a question...in Mandarin, 4 words that would look identical to an english speaker could have 4 meanings of mother/hemp/horse/scold depending on the tone used). Thai languages have 6 tones making it that morr complex.
  • Are there other sounds/variations that we are simply incapable of differentiating in their language?
  • Does the language contain genders? or another attribute on a word (strong vs weak?)
  • How thorough is the use of tense (Sasak, an Indonesian language, completely lacks tense...everything is in the present tense. This makes the language considerably easier learn than English where would have being had appears to be a valid tense use).

As social beings, humans are actually quite adept in picking up communication. Actual learning time will vary pending all the factors above, but the odds are this astronaut would probably surprise these Apes with how readily the Human starts to pick up on their language and it's grammatical components.

Not very likely the human will fully catch on to the language and they'll speak it more in a broken form, but it would be a relatively short time (1 month) before the human starts speaking it in very broken forms (like stringing nouns together to kinda form sentences). Beyond that...it's really hard to give any timelines without having the answers to above questions

Alternatively, there are some more common methods of communication, such as math, that the human could employ to denote he is far more intelligent than what he is being treated as. I would assume the astronaut knows calculus to some degree...poking a hole in his water dish, displaying the waterflow out of his bowl in algebraic terms, finding the derivative of that and graphing it over time on the floor...any sign that the human is far more intelligent than he appears may entice the Apes to work on communicating with him more thoroughly.

  • $\begingroup$ More importantly, there must be an Ape actively trying to communicate with the Human. $\endgroup$
    – Aron
    Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 3:48
  • $\begingroup$ @aron not necessarily, overhearing them talk (with some visual cues) would work...just extends the time frame. I think id try to teach the apes that 'damn dirty ape' meant something highly respectful towards apes so i could refer to them as that freely. Ha $\endgroup$
    – Twelfth
    Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 17:07
  • $\begingroup$ it took 20 years of the greatest scholars in the field to understand Ancient Egyptian after the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, which is a much denser source of knowledge than "visual cues". I'd dare say "extend the time frame" would be measured in centuries if not millennia... $\endgroup$
    – Aron
    Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 17:15
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    $\begingroup$ @aron ancient egyptian is dead...there is no 'immerse in the language' possiblem. We are simply going with picking up a language enough to show you can understand spoken words, not translate dead hieroglyphics. $\endgroup$
    – Twelfth
    Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 17:19
  • $\begingroup$ Without someone trying to communicate with you, without interactivity, how it is any different? Also your "experience" is rooted in European languages... You are suggesting you can learn a language simply watching a cultures' TV... one that might have completely different customs and social norms... $\endgroup$
    – Aron
    Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 17:24

Try drawing pythagoras triangle in the sand. It will show far higher understanding/knowledge than average caveman.

In original movie, guy made paper plane from a sheet. I seen original movie but not the new one.

If language is hard to learn, try drawing pictures showing your deeper understanding of nature. Try build simple tools or mechanisms like block.

If ape's language is click language you may not be able to become fluent speaker for a long time. Google for some examples.

  • $\begingroup$ Peter this isn't an answer to the question. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Commented Jan 15, 2015 at 16:41
  • $\begingroup$ OK I removed part you might find objectionable. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 15, 2015 at 17:10
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    $\begingroup$ Also prime numbers in binary (or unary if that doesn't work). $\endgroup$
    – Joshua
    Commented Feb 29 at 19:16

Don't act like a beast. Learn their language, you obviously have nothing but time. Befriend your zoo-keeper. If you have materials, learn to weave, or make yourself other useful tools to improve your environment.


Talking does not need to use speech to happen. Written languages are also fantastic for communication. Hint: we are communicating over one right now. But the written word is a very high-level form of communication. You should be able to recognise that Mandarin (Chinese) is a viable method of communication between two people, but that doesn't necessarily mean you can use it (yet).

What I suggest is that you find a common language between yourself and the Apes. As others have already hinted at; mathematics is a pretty fine common language. It's also fairly high-level, which makes it difficult to communicate things like "Hey, I feel hungry. Could you do me a favour and let me out of this cage so I can fetch something to eat?"

So let's rewind a bit, and choose something else.

Initially, you want something a little more practical. People and animals leak lots of information in the form of body-language. Gesturing is a more forced form body-language, and is pretty intuitive.

What this leads onto is sign language (ironically, sign language is present in the reboot Planet Of The Apes). There's no universal sign language. Most countries follow one/few standards, just like most countries have one/few accepted written languages. My knowledge of signing is very limited, but I've been told that the sign for eating is common among several of them.

Learning to sign would allow you to talk to Apes. As signing is primarily for the deaf and mute, it has the advantage of you not needing to know how to speak their language in the first place. More accurately, many of the methods employed while teaching sign don't make the assumption that the learner can already speak Ape.

Final note: If their technological level is equivalent to the 1970's then it would be safe to assume they have computers (albeit, clunky slow ones). Programming languages share lots of commonalities with maths, but allow you to phrase statements that are much more useful to communicating between two intelligent animals. Computer code also follows very strict structure. This is a boon, because structure means predictability. Patterns will emerge in the code, while you may not understand any of the letters, given enough exposure, you will correlate collections of symbols with meanings.

A 1970's computer programming Ape might be the easiest thing to talk to... so long as you have a computer.

  • $\begingroup$ Who knows, they might try to implement their Infinite Humans Theorem experimentally! $\endgroup$
    – March Ho
    Commented Jan 16, 2015 at 6:26

I would demonstrate intelligence so they become interested and start teaching you their language. Demonstrating intelligence is easy enough: use math, and start teaching them English.

Counting and arithmetic are common foundations for language. Start with groups of similar things (3 apples), then move on to simple glyphs (3 scratches in the dirt) then numbers (the number 3). Cut an apple in half and write 1/2. An observant ape should figure out what's going on. Encourage them to write their own numbers next to yours.

Once you can communicate numbers you can communicate some basic words for logic. "ONE apple AND ONE apple IS TWO apples." It doesn't matter if they give you the word for "plus" vs "and" or "equals" vs "is", it's a start.

You can demonstrate higher intelligence with math. Start with some fundamental sequences.

  • 1 1 2 3 5 8 13 21 34 55
  • 2 3 5 7 11 13 17 19 23

Geometry is another common language. Draw regular geometric shapes. Draw platonic solids. Draw circles with tangents. Bisect a square into triangles. Do any number of purely geometric proofs. You can use the shapes to build up some words. Triangle: "3 sides". Square: "4 sides". Hexagon: "6 sides".

Another approach is to demonstrate and play games which are simple to teach, but have some complex outcomes. Start with tic-tac-toe. Simply play with yourself to demonstrate the rules. Maybe move on to dots and boxes. Then Checkers. Then Go.

Another is to point at things and name them. Do it with everything. Do it consistently. Write the English name on everything you can. Similarly, perform actions and say the verb. The simple act of being able to consistently label things demonstrates more than animal intelligence.

Any of these behaviors from an animal should merit some reaction and interest. Someone is going to get it and start teaching you ape language... assuming there isn't a religious conspiracy to suppress knowledge of human intelligence.


One point that hasn't yet been covered by the other answers is that it is quite possible to show someone that you have complex speech capabilities without actually sharing a language. I don't speak Chinese, but when I hear Chinese spoken, I can tell that there is meaning and structure there compared to when a dog barks or an ape using various grunting noises to communicate. Similarly, we can tell that there is some meaning and syntax among the "languages" of other intelligent animals like dolphins, and we have put quite a lot of work into establishing communication with these species even though we don't expect them to ever learn English.

The advanced ape species may not realize that your speech is as advanced as theirs, but I suspect that just by speaking to them in your native language you could convince them that you are intelligent. If you coupled that with writing things in the dirt or on the wall, you may really pique their interest. That would get you past the issue of them thinking you are just imitating their speech like a parrot.

If you could catch the interest of one of their zoologists, then you could work more closely with them to teach each other your languages, which would greatly increase the speed at which you learned.


As I remember about the different "Planet of the Apes" from the seventies, their world is an alternative future derived from 20th century Earth. The Apes civilization is located in North America, near today New York, as you could conclude from the ruins of the Statue of Liberty.

The events that triggered the Planet of the Apes happened in the 20th and 21th centuries:

  • the extinction of dogs, cats and other similar mammals from a viral disease
  • the extensive use of apes as pets and slaves, even with selective reproduction and genetic tampering for desired traits, like better understanding of human gestures and speech
  • the arrival of talking apes from the future in a human made spacecraft and the birth of their son who learns English from a circus director (played by Ricardo Montalban) and becomes the leader of the apes' revolution.

Then, one can infer that the language the future apes use will be a derivative from one or more of the main languages used today in North America:

  • English
  • Spanish
  • French

And, as a Roman from 2000 years ago could easily learn today Spanish, French or even English, so an astronaut like the one played by Charlton Heston, a person selected because of his skills and intelligence, maybe even initially bilingual or trilingual, could easily learn that future language.

Also the apes language is a multispecies language (talked by chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas and even bonobos) and remembering that humans are also apes and genetically more closer to chimpanzees than the latter are to gorillas or orangutans, it is an easy conclusion that languages will not be more difficult to learn to a modern human than to anyone of the other possible future apes.

The future apes also have books, many of them copied from human books, and as classical Latin influenced modern European languages, "classical" English, French and Spanish could have influenced future "Apish".

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuiding. I'm not really sure if you actually answer the question. You conclusion is that the language the apes speak in Planet of the Apes is close enough to English to be easy to learn (and that the main character is smart), but you seem to miss that the question is not about that movie. The poster uses it as an example for a specific scenario but also states that it's not that exact plot here. I also don't really see how their language would be easy to learn simply because we are genetically close to us; if they developed it independently, then it can be completely unrelated. $\endgroup$
    – Mrkvička
    Commented Apr 16, 2017 at 18:55
  • $\begingroup$ Im actually ok with this answer...basically, in what is a possible overly verbose way, he is saying: They'd be able to communicate in whatever language due to reasons x, y, z Which seems like a valid point considering the scenario. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Commented Apr 18, 2017 at 16:43

In today's Earth there are 5 great apes species (homininae):

  • orangutans
  • gorillas
  • humans
  • chimpanzees
  • bonobos

Humans are not less apish than any of the other four. Since the generic Planet of the Apes also has the same five species and four of them speak the oral language, I do not see any difficulty for a selected human, an astronaut, a person with high IQ and sophisticated culture (in the anthropological sense), already speaking at least a different and complex apish language (English), to learn a new language, as any committed adult human with his background will do it.

  • $\begingroup$ You are still stuck at the Planet of the Apes movie, which the question still is not about - the question could just as well be about a parallel Earth where things developed similarly, but not exactly the same (i.e., other apes than humans turned out to be the dominant life force). And even if the question was exactly about that movie, then there is still no reason to believe that other apes would develop a language even closely related to human languages unless it was developed from one of our languages at some previous point. $\endgroup$
    – Mrkvička
    Commented Apr 18, 2017 at 17:20
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, it is fully possible to learn a language from scratch by going to a different country and spending time with the inhabitants (I know two who have done such trips) - but people doing so have needed to spend months living with a host family before they could speak anything near useful. Unless the apes takes the human in to live with them and tries to talk to him, it will be a highly non trivial task to learn the language. I.e., He will likely learn it eventually, but stating that there will be no difficulties to do so because "Apish" is closely related to "Humanish" is a false premise. $\endgroup$
    – Mrkvička
    Commented Apr 18, 2017 at 17:21
  • $\begingroup$ harald, it looks like you've created a few different account. You'll have a better experience on the site if you register one account and use it. See this help page for more info. Thanks. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 18, 2017 at 22:53

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