[lg policy] Baboons Display 'Reading' Skills, Study Suggests; Monkeys Identify Specific Combinations of Letters in Words

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Tue Apr 17 14:45:36 UTC 2012

Baboons Display 'Reading' Skills, Study Suggests; Monkeys Identify
Specific Combinations of Letters in Words

ScienceDaily (Apr. 16, 2012) — 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, according to a new
study on baboons. New 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.

See video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LbCvHGaejRE


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