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Baboons display reading skills

16 April 2012 CNRS (Délégation Paris Michel-Ange)

Learning to read is not just to do with speech, but also with the ability to recognize and memorize regular patterns among the letters that make up words. This is the conclusion of a study on baboons conducted by researchers at the Laboratoire de Psychologie Cognitive (Cognitive Psychology Laboratory, CNRS/Aix-Marseille University). Published in Science on April 13, 2012, their results show that monkeys identify specific combinations of letters in words and detect anomalies — a capacity that certainly existed before speech.

How do humans learn to distinguish between correctly and incorrectly spelt words? What mechanisms allow them to recognize, in just a few hundred milliseconds, that “animal” is a word but “azimal” is not? It was long thought that this capacity stemmed from spoken language because children learn spelling based on the oral language skills that they have already acquired, for example putting “m” and “a” together to make the sound “ma,” “d” and “a” to make “da,” etc. Understanding of spelling thus seems closely related to speech.

However, a team of researchers at the Laboratoire de Psychologie Cognitive (Cognitive Psychology Laboratory, CNRS/Aix-Marseille University) in Marseille has now challenged that theory through a study carried out on baboons. Their experiment consisted in showing the monkeys words made up of four letters on a touch screen. The baboons were taught to press an oval shape if the word was spelt correctly or a cross if it was not, and were rewarded with a piece of cereal for each right answer. In just a few days — and after several thousands tries — the baboons learned to distinguish English words like “bank” from similar nonwords like “jank.” More surprisingly still, after memorizing the spelling of several dozen words, the baboons gave right answers for words that they had never seen before. This suggests that they did not memorize the overall shape of the words, although they certainly would have the ability to do so. According to the researchers, the monkeys can detect and memorize regular patterns in the organization of words: they are able to learn frequent letter combinations in English words, and thus detect anomalies, i.e. letters not in their usual place.

As far as humans are concerned, these results suggest that reading is based, at least in part, on our capacity to perceive and memorize regular patterns in the components (letters) of an object (the written word). This ability, neither specifically human nor specifically linguistic, most certainly predated the advent of spoken language in the history of human evolution.

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