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Reading time at the zoo: the baboons that excel at English

Baboons raised in a French laboratory have shown an aptitude for linguistics; however, it is the English language they are excelling in, and not the French.

The researchers, based at the Laboratoire de psychologie cognitive (LPC) de l'Universite d'Aix-Marseille have shown tha...
Reading time at the zoo: the baboons that excel at English
Baboons raised in a French laboratory have shown an aptitude for linguistics; however, it is the English language they are excelling in, and not the French.

The researchers, based at the Laboratoire de psychologie cognitive (LPC) de l'Universite d'Aix-Marseille have shown that a group of baboons has successfully learned to discriminate real English words from pseudo words just by looking at their written form.

Although the findings don't prove the baboons can read (as they didn't match the words to any meaning or sound), it is still a significant achievement. It means the brainy baboons are capable of picking up the first step in reading - identifying recurring patterns and determining which letter combinations are words and which are meaningless.

The results, published in the journal Science, suggest that some of the mental processing involved in reading evolved separately from the specialised language centres that are unique to human brains. The study also indicates that the first stages of reading might be far more instinctive than scientists first thought, and that non-human primates could be smarter than we think.

Lead study author Jonathan Grainger explains that English was chosen as the study language as it is 'the language of science'.

The team carried out 300 000 tests on 6 baboons. On average, the six managed to distinguish between real and fake words about three out of four times. The baboon with top marks was 4-year old Dan: he got 80% of the words right and learned 308 four-letter words.

In the experiments, the words or pseudo words appeared on a screen and the baboon had to identify whether they were real words. The baboons were rewarded with food when they pressed the right spot on the screen: a blue plus sign represented made-up words, and a green oval real ones.

'The key is that these animals not only learned by trial and error which letter combinations were correct, but they also noticed which letters tend to go together to form real words, such as SH but not FX,' comments Grainger. 'So even when new words were sprung on them, they did a better job at figuring out which were real.'
Grainger adds that it could be a pre-existing capacity in the brain that allowed them to recognise patterns and objects, and that this could also be the reason underlying why humans first learnt to read.

It seems that the non-human primate brain is without a doubt better prepared than we previously thought at dealing with written words, and that we have grossly underestimated their capacities.

Study co-author Joel Fagot says the baboons have shown 'repeatedly amazing cognitive abilities'.

The aspect of the experiment that was crucial to its success was a change in the testing technique: the baboons weren't placed in the computer stations and forced to take the test. Rather, the ball was in their court and they could choose when they wanted to 'work': the baboons could head to one of the 10 computer booths whenever they wanted. The most ambitious baboons would take the test 3 000 times a day, and the less bookish only 400.

Source: Université d'Aix-Marseille

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Countries

  • France
Record Number: 34517 / Last updated on: 2012-04-17
Category: Other
Provider: EC
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