French baboons have been trained to recognize words of four letters according to researchers. The action isn’t technically reading, but may give some insight into the skills used for language.
The test didn’t involve identifying a word’s meaning, but rather deciphering what was and was not a valid word. The baboons were shown a computer screen display containing four letters. They then had to press a button to indicate whether it was a word or simply nonsense, with a correct answer earning a treat.
There were two parts to the process, carried out at Aix-Marseille University. The first was to train the baboons using a sample collection of words and non-words. They were then tested using four-letter combinations that hadn’t been involved in the training.
This meant they couldn’t simply recognize words, but rather had to use linguistic skills to figure out whether they were looking at a real word or not. To make things a little easier, the non-word selections always had three consonants and one vowel, though not necessarily in that order. It seems most likely that the baboons learned that certain combinations of letters in a particular order were more likely to appear in valid words than in non-words.
As a group, the six participant baboons were correct 75 percent of the time, with the best performer scoring around 90 percent. One of the baboons, Dan, managed to correctly identify 308 words.
The results are surprising as baboons don’t have language capabilities as we understand them in humans, and it had previously been thought that the types of skills needed to carry out such as task only evolved with humans.
One theory is that reading isn’t entirely controlled by the “language” areas of the brain, and that it instead also uses a part of the brain known as the “visual word form area”, which recognizes the shape of words. It may be that baboons developed this part of the brain for other users such as quickly recognizing the shapes of objects in the wild such as trees.