The Literary Instinct

Andrew Sullivan —  Apr 14 2012 @ 3:23pm

by Zoë Pollock

A new experiment shows baboons can distinguish English words from jibberish, a big step on the road to reading:

And the monkeys weren’t just memorising the words. They were still more likely to pick a set of letters they had never seen before, if it was an actual English word. [Study author Jonathan Grainger] thinks that the baboons learned to tell the real words from the fakes by using the frequencies of letter combinations within them. They learned which combinations were most likely to be found in real words, and made their choices accordingly. They had gleaned the stats of English, without any knowledge of the language itself.

So is the primate brain built to read?

When we invented writing systems, we co-opted ancient neural circuits that help primates to recognise patterns. This shouldn’t be surprising. Written language is only around 5,000 years old, and millions of people today still cannot read. We can, however, develop that ability very quickly. In the 19th century, when the Cherokee of North America finally invented a writing system for their spoken language, they started learning and using it within a single generation.

Alexis compares the baboon's abilities to Google.