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Baboons taught to recognize words? Check the fine print.

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File:Portrait Of A Baboon.jpg
baboon, Singapore Zoo/Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

In “Baboons can learn to recognize words” (Nature, 12 April 2012), Leila Haghighat reports, “Monkeys’ ability suggests that reading taps into general systems of pattern recognition”:

Interested baboons touched the screen to identify the letter string as a word or a nonword. A correct answer earned a food reward. Each baboon had a microchip in its arm that allowed the researchers to identify the individual taking the test. The team’s results are published in Science today.

Over 44 days, the animals completed around 50,000 tests. They identified words with an average of 75% accuracy, and learned between 81 and 308 words from the 500 words and more than 7,000 randomly generated nonwords that they were shown.

The main difference between words and nonwords was the number of frequently recurring bigrams they contained. Bigrams are combinations of two letters, such as the ‘it’ and ‘te’ in ‘kite’ and ‘bite’. The researchers minimized common bigrams in nonwords and maximized them in words, so that the baboons could discriminate on the basis of statistical dependence between letters.

In short, they set up a test that did not involve reading for comprehension, then claimed that baboons can recognize words.

The team next plans to try to teach the baboons an artificial alphabet. This would give greater control over the visual information that defines individual letters, Grainger explains, and would provide a more precise idea of how baboons master word recognition.

If they need an artificial alphabet, they aren’t reading for words. But that doesn’t mean, of course, that they couldn’t understand words. Many animals do, when the word is something they relate to. For example, biophysicist Kirk Durston writes to say,

… way back when I was a farm boy, my Quarter Horse quickly learned the meaning of the word ‘gallop’. He could pick that word up and take off like a bolt of lighting, even though the word had no unusual inflection, and when it was imbedded in a spoken sentence. In fact, when I really wanted to move, I would almost always imbed the word in a sentence. Heaven help you if you happened to be sitting on the horse having a conversation with someone and accidentally mentioned the word in the course off a sentence while sprawled half out of your saddle. I also had a German Shepherd that I trained to respond to certain words, taking great care to say them exactly like any other word. If the idea is to argue that baboons must be related to our ancestors because they can recognize words, then we’d better add dogs and horses into the mix as well.

UD News staff once had a cat who would run and hide when he heard the voice of the vet’s secretary on the other end of the phone line. He was an old cat, and had figured out that the next day, the cat carrier would always be parked by the door with him in it …

People do not have words but rather segregated combinations of sounds that are organized and agreed to and so called words. These critters are not using sound combinations to understand or express thoughts. They are just associating these word noises with memorized items. Language is about thinking and not about words. The words are just sounds we make to express our thinking. Animals are too dumb to think beyond the simpl facts around them. Robert Byers

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