Reading baboons leave scientists spellbound, may shed light on human learning
2012-04-13 0:00

From: / AFP

Baboons can recognize scores of written words, a feat that raises intriguing questions about how we learn to read, scientists reported on Thursday.

In a specially-made facility in France where they could come and go at will, monkeys learned to differentiate between a real word, such as KITE, and a nonsense word such as ZEVS.

The baboons had access to a large enclosure with several touch-sensitive computer screens, each projecting a four-letter word.

A picture released on April 12, 2012 shows a baboon looking at a computer screen housed in a booth in Marseille. The animals freely enter the booths and complete multiple rounds of the computer-based exercise, in which they see a four-letter sequence appear and then tap one of two shapes on the screen to classify the sequence as a word or a non-word.
Photograph by: J. Fagot , AFP/Getty Images

The animals had to tap one of two shapes on the screen to show that they understood whether the word was a real one or garble.

Choosing the real word got them a tempting reward of food - a pellet of dry wheat that came from an automatic dispenser.

The six baboons used the computers up to 3,000 times a day, notching up an average total of 50,000 "trials" over a month and a half.

They learned to distinguish scores of words, identifying them with an accuracy of 75 per cent, according to the study led by Jonathan Grainger at the Cognitive Research Laboratory at France’s Aix-Marseille University.

There were 500 real words and 7,832 nonsense ones in the data bank.

"This ... is a remarkable result, given the level of orthographic similarity between the word and nonword," according to the paper, published by the U.S. journal Science.

"More detailed analysis revealed that baboons were not simply memorising the word ... but had learned to discriminate words from non-words on the basis of differences in the frequency of letter combinations."

The champion speller was a baboon called Dan, who learned 308 words, around three times as many as his chums.


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