Don’t Know Whether a Word Is Real or Not? Ask a Monkey!

Reading – the primates are doing it right! A group of baboons was studied by the team of scientists led by Jonathan Grainger of CNRS and Aix-Marseille University, Marseille, France and they found that they can indeed read – and do so quite well.

The Underlying Science

When we read words, we use information we have acquired about those words over years. The information is primarily about the content of letters in the word, but involves many other forms as well, including an association of certain events, colours, personalities, emotions etc. The information relating the letters and how they are arranged in the word, called orthographic information, is the primary step taken by anyone learning how to read. This is the primary source of information that one uses to distinguish between real words and nonsense combination of letters. Humans have achieved a level of sophistication that even allows the concept of intricate spelling, identifying mistakes in spelling and etymology.

The study shows that orthographic information can be developed without any preexisting knowledge. That’s enough of abstract technical talk. In the experimental context, that simply means that the monkeys were really good at discriminating between actual words and nonsense ones.

How the Study Was Conducted

The monkeys were made to feel completely at ease, them being allowed to eat food and participate in the experiment at their own convenience. They could stop and start whenever they wanted. In the testing booths, they were presented with a four letter combination, either a sensible one like ‘WASP’ or something nonsense like ‘FSEV’. They could then tap at a plus sign on a touchscreen if they thought that the word was real, or an oval one if they reckoned that the word was just another combination of letters.

Of course, the monkeys were trained over a period of one and half months before this experiment, which, if you wanted to point out, would be much lesser than what a human child would take to learn words. Especially given the number of words involved. One baboon (VIO) got 81 words and another (DAN) got 308 words out of a total of 7832 non-words with nearly 75% accuracy! I am impressed.

The paper reporting the study appeared in Nature:

This just shows that reading and orthographic skills are not so rare in the primate family. All primates might be taught to read, to different degrees of success. The day is not far away when you’ll be able to chat online with a monkey… or you might have already done that.

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Debjyoti Bardhan

Is a science geek, currently pursuing some sort of a degree (called a PhD) in Physics at TIFR, Mumbai. An enthusiastic but useless amateur photographer, his most favourite activity is simply lazing around. He is interested in all things interesting and scientific.