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Word-detecting baboons are a tough read

Studies differ on whether monkeys learn to recognize letter combinations

3:43pm, November 19, 2012

MINNEAPOLIS — Baboons use the order of regularly appearing letter pairs to tell words from nonwords, new evidence suggests.

Psychologist Jonathan Grainger of the University of Aix-Marseille reported earlier this year that baboons can learn to tell real four-letter words from nonsense words (SN: 5/5/12, p. 5). But whether these animals detect signature letter combinations that enable their impressive word feats has been tough to demonstrate.

Monkeys that previously learned to excel on this task are more likely to mistake nonwords created by reversing two letters of a word they already recognize as real, much as literate people do, Grainger reported November 16 at the Psychonomics Society annual meeting.

“Letters played a role in baboons’ word knowledge,” Grainger concluded. “This is a starting point for determining how they discriminate words from nonwords.”

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