French researchers have trained Guinea baboons to distinguish four-letter English words from non-words. The scientists say their linguistic experiments demonstrate that the animals possess a key component of literacy - the recognition of the visual word form. Jim Drury reports.
TRANSCRIPT REPORTER: Baboons traditionally form large troops, prefer arid habitats, and spend much of their time on the ground. But French scientists believe the animals possess another, far more unusual characteristic - the ability to recognise legitimate four letter words. The University of Aix-Marseille team trained six Guinea baboons to distinguish genuine English words from non-words. Scientist Jonathan Grainger led the study, setting up booths equipped with computers and touch screens, in a monkey enclosure on campus. The animals wandered in when they felt like it. JONATHAN GRAINGER, DIRECTOR OF RESEARCH LABORATORY OF COGNITIVE PSYCHOLOGY AT NATIONAL SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH CENTRE (CNRS): "In each trial the baboon would be shown a string of four letters. The baboon touched that stimulus just to show us that he was actually paying attention to it. The stimulus disappeared and then there were two response symbols appeared on the screen. An oval shape on the right, a cross shape on the left. The baboon had to touch the oval shape if it was a real word and a cross shape if it was not a real word." REPORTER: All non-real sample words were built of three consonants and one vowel. Through trial and error, the apes learned that these words were probably not real. For each correct word selected, they earned a reward. Grainger says the results were not based on random guessing. He says the apes averaged almost 75 percent right, with some scoring 90 percent. JONATHAN GRAINGER: "The first time we presented a new word for the baboon to learn, so this baboon had never seen the word before, so should have basically said that it was a non-word because there had been no repetition the baboons were actually responding much more frequently word to the stimulus, so they had actually picked up information about what was a word and what wasn't a word and using that information to accurately respond to stimuli that they had never seen before, and we think that that information concerned particular letters, particular letter combinations, that occurred more frequently in the words than in the non words." REPORTER: The study was intended to explore the evolution of reading. It suggests that a brain can take the first steps toward reading without already possessing language skills, something scientists say has never been demonstrated in non-humans before. Jim Drury, Reuters.