• France edition
 
Baboons 'recognize written words'
Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

Baboons 'recognize written words'

Published: 13 Apr 2012 13:17 GMT+02:00
Updated: 13 Apr 2012 13:17 GMT+02:00

Baboons can recognize scores of written words, a feat that raises intriguing questions about how we learn to read, scientists reported on Thursday.

In a specially-made facility in France where they could come and go at will, monkeys learned to differentiate between a real word, such as KITE, and a nonsense word such as ZEVS.

The baboons had access to a large enclosure with several touch-sensitive computer screens, each projecting a four-letter word.

The animals had to tap one of two shapes on the screen to show that they understood whether the word was a real one or garble.

Choosing the real word got them a tempting reward of food – a pellet of dry wheat that came from an automatic dispenser.

The six baboons used the computers up to 3,000 times a day, notching up an average total of 50,000 "trials" over a month and a half.

They learned to distinguish scores of words, identifying them with an accuracy of 75 percent, according to the study led by Jonathan Grainger at the Cognitive Research Laboratory at France's Aix-Marseille University.

There were 500 real words and 7,832 nonsense ones in the data bank.

"This ... is a remarkable result, given the level of orthographic similarity between the word and nonword," according to the paper, published by the US journal Science.

"More detailed analysis revealed that baboons were not simply memorizing the word ... but had learned to discriminate words from nonwords on the basis of differences in the frequency of letter combinations."

The champion speller was a baboon called Dan, who learned 308 words, around three times as many as his chums.

There was no sign that the animals actually understood the meaning of the words.

But the fact that they learned to distinguish one word from another opens insights into the acquisition of reading.

According to a popular theory, we humans learn to recognize words thanks to speech – we process the sequence of letters into words by building on the sequence of sounds in speech.

But the baboons do not speak any human language, which means the speech hypothesis "may be at best incomplete and possibly wrong," said Michael Platt and Geoffrey Adams of Duke University in North Carolina in a commentary also carried by Science.

That leaves the field open for a rival theory: that there are brain circuits which evolved to support other functions – and we share this circuitry with our primate cousins.

One possible candidate is the visual word form area (VWFA), in the occipitotemporal sulcus region of the brain.

If so, the evidence of cerebral versatility is reassuring news for people with reading difficulties.

"The observation that the neural circuits involved in reading and writing are not hard-wired may explain why most people with dyslexia can learn to read," said Platt and Adams.

"The very plasticity that enabled humans to invent reading and writing can be harnessed to overcome dysfunctions in the underlying neural circuitry."

 

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
View from 'La Rue'
Who knew? The French really like Halloween
Turns out the French are actually fans of Halloween. Photo: AFP

Who knew? The French really like Halloween

With Halloween just a day away The Local hit the streets of Paris to find out what the French think of this quintessentially North American holiday. While not everyone agrees, lots of people told is they love it. READ  

French inmate shows off drug stash on Facebook
The inmate posted the videos and photos onto Facebook. Prison photo and Facebook photo: Shutterstock

French inmate shows off drug stash on Facebook

In a series of videos and photos more reminiscent of a holiday camp than a prison, an inmate in southern France has given a taste of his hedonistic life behind bars – including cannabis and mobile phones. READ  

Dozens arrested after clash over dead protester
Police made dozens of arrests at a protest Wednesday in Paris. Photo: Martin Bureau/AFP

Dozens arrested after clash over dead protester

A demonstration against the death of a protester killed in a clash with police itself turned violent in Paris on Wednesday, with some hurling bottles and rocks at riot police. At least 33 people were in police custody after the confrontations. READ  

Drones over French nuke sites prompt probe
The first drone was spotted on October 5th above a plant in deconstruction in eastern Creys-Malville, according to EDF. File photo: Nicolas Tucat/AFP

Drones over French nuke sites prompt probe

France's state-run power firm EDF on Wednesday said unidentified drones had flown over seven nuclear plants this month, leading it to file a complaint with the police. READ  

The Local List
Ten things to never say to a French person
Here's what you should never say in France. Photo: Shutterstock

Ten things to never say to a French person

Ah, France. The land of lazy workers, surrender and adulterers. Come again? Say that stuff to a French person’s face and chances are you've made them really angry. Here we’ve listed some of the worst things you can say to a French man or woman. READ  

French staff sergeant killed in Mali clash
French troops intervened in Mali in January 2013 to chase out hardline Islamists. Photo: Joel Saget/AFP

French staff sergeant killed in Mali clash

A French staff sergeant was killed in northern Mali early on Wednesday in an operation by French forces against "an armed terrorist group", President Francois Hollande's office said. READ  

Russia not to get warship just yet: French minister
Paris faces mounting pressure from Western partners to scrap the deal over Russia's role in the Ukraine crisis. Photo: AFP

Russia not to get warship just yet: French minister

The conditions are not yet in place for France to deliver a controversial warship to Russia, the French finance minister said on Thursday, after Moscow said the handover would take place next month. READ  

These French wines will be great this year
These are the French wines expected to be great this year. Cheers photo: Shutterstock

These French wines will be great this year

A gorgeous Indian Summer helped France reclaim its title as world's top wine producer this year, but the weather also is expected to result in some really good vino. These are wines that should be great this year. READ  

Russians say France will hand over warship
Russia says it will take delivery of a controversial French-made warship. Photo: AFP

Russians say France will hand over warship

Russia says it's due to receive its French-made Mistral warship by November 14th, according to AFP, potentially ending months of speculation over whether France would fold to international pressure to not conclude the deal. READ  

Parisian bars that serve drinkers free meals
Places in Paris where dinner is the price of a pint. Photo: Simon Thomas/Luca Nebuloni/Flickr

Parisian bars that serve drinkers free meals

Hitting the bars in Paris can be a pricey affair, but as part of a unique custom many serve full meals for free to people who buy a drink. The Local has collected its 10 favorite bars that'll feed you for free. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Sponsored Article
Offer: Unlimited airmiles from British Airways
National
Eight Halloween events not to miss in Paris
National
France falls to Germans in nude swim tourney
Gallery
IN PICTURES: Nowhere combines sex and art quite like France
National
Why you should never turn down an invitation to a French wedding
Sport
Discover the route of the 2015 Tour de France. There are a few surprises
Gallery
Ten changes that would make learning French so much easier
Culture
IN PICTURES: 'Glass ship' Vuitton ready to set sail in Paris
International
How a giant 'sex toy' earned an American artist a slap in Paris
National
'Unlike in the US the French don't put the blame on the poor'
Gallery
Cover up and don't be too Latin: French travel warnings for the US
Society
Macholand: The online uprising against sexism in France
Gallery
In pictures: The daily life of the 2,000 migrants in Calais
Culture
Erotic promo video earns the Musée d'Orsay our "Only in France" award
International
'I love the UK, but I could die getting there': Struggles of Calais migrants
National
Seven reasons why everyone should work in a bar in France
National
The cost of expat home comforts: How France compares to Europe
International
Why don't Calais migrants stay in France? The Local went to find out
National
What are the pros and cons of working as an au pair in France?
Society
Is France's generous welfare state about to get a little stingier?
Gallery
Extraordinary images of ordinary life in the poor Paris suburbs
Gallery
10 things expats love and loathe about life in France
National
So why don't many women in France breastfeed?
National
'Stop bashing La Belle France' - French PM tells UK press
International
UK warns Brits of 'high threat' from terrorism' in France
National
VIDEO: 'The Kama Sutra is not a dirty little text'
National
What Rome could teach Paris and vice versa
Gallery
What do foreign countries warn their citizens about when visiting France?
Gallery
IN IMAGES: Eiffel Tower opens new glass floor above Paris
Society
Is it really better to grow old in the UK and the US rather than France?
Gallery
It's that time if the year again: French sportsmen reveal (almost) all
Gallery
So what do the French find really weird about Anglos?
Travel
Paris museums to open seven days a week but unions are not happy
Culture
Caption contest: What happened when Jay Z met Sark O?
International
This explains why the French never seem to get a sense of déjà vu?
National
VIDEO: Here's a view from the Eiffel Tower you haven't seen before
Travel
Do Paris's iconic rooftops deserve Unesco World Heritage status?
Opinion
'France cannot reform, the pilots' strike showed us this'
National
'We just don’t work hard enough in France.' Is that true?
International
France has moved to beef up security in various public places
National
Hiking naked in France does not come risk-free
Culture
10 French customs that confuse Anglos
National
IN PICTURES: A look inside France's 'most notorious' prison
International
Isis urges killing of 'spiteful, dirty' French
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Switzerland

More news from Switzerland at thelocal.ch

Latest news from The Local in Germany

More news from Germany at thelocal.de

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

Latest news from The Local in Sweden

More news from Sweden at thelocal.se