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Baboon Words

April 25, 2012

Baboons can learn to distinguish English words from nonsense letter sequences.

Transcript

BOB HIRSHON (host):

Baboons’ word processing skills.  I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Baboons can’t read, but they can learn to recognize words.  This according to researchers inFrance, including cognitive psychologist Jonathan Grainger ofAix-MarseilleUniversity.  They trained baboons to distinguish real English words from thousands of nonsense letter combinations.  With enough practice, they were even able to spot words they’d never seen before, more often than not.  Grainger says this suggests that we, too, may recognize words on a level that goes beyond sound and meaning.

JONATHAN GRAINGER (Aix-Marseille University,France):

Maybe we use letters as well to identify words, because we’re actually mimicking what we’re already very good at anyway, which is basic visual object identification.

HIRSHON:
In other words, we may see words the way we see tables, cars, or faces – as combinations of parts that make sense in some arrangements, but not others.  I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

With training, baboons can learn to discriminate words from non-words. (Photo courtesy of J. Fagot)