Monkeys Can Read (Kinda)

You may think that the only thing separating some of your friends from monkeys is their ability to at least read. Time for a rethink: new research shows that baboons are capable of learning how to tell the difference between real and fictional English words.

A study carried out by Jonathan Grainger from Aix-Marseille University, France, shows that baboons can read. They can, for instance, identify that "wasp" is an English word, while "telk" is not. Of course, it doesn't follow that these words actually mean anything to them, but it does suggest that their ability stretches beyond purely recognizing shapes. In fact, it demonstrates that the animals have a capacity for orthographic processing—essentially, the mental ability to unite letters into words.

Grainger trained the baboons to recognize English words, and also to tell them apart from similar—but nonsensical—words. They picked it up quickly, according to the research published in Science, and became able to categorize words they'd never even seen before with 75 per cent accuracy. It's worth pointing out that the fake words weren't randomly generated: instead of a string of characters like "gsfn", words were chosen to look similar to real words, like "dran" or "virt", making the process much more challenging.

Stanislas Deheane, an expert in the science of reading, told Not Exactly Rocket Science that "[i]t fits very nicely with my own research, which suggests that reading relies, in part, on learning the purely visual statistics of letters and their combinations." Indeed, the researchers speculate that this is a skill hard-wired into the brain of the animals—and was probably evident long before any human even thought of scrawling a word. [Science via Not Exactly Rocket Science]

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