Cake and Rake, But Not Zake

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Remember the arduous undertaking of learning to read? You spent hours grueling over sentences like, “My dog is brown. I love my dog. He is a good dog.” Or, if your childhood was anything like mine, making complex squiggles on a Magna Doodle and watching the gibberish gradually evolve into E’s and M’s. Words seemed like a foreign art form, discernible only to adults who had memorized the endlessly long alphabet—“What comes after E? Um, A, B, C, D, E, F…F!”

Babysitting my cousin the other day, I marveled at the reading process. Although my cousin has thousands of words in her vocabulary, she still hesitates at certain letters while writing her alphabet and always thrusts pieces of paper in my face, demanding to know what the mystical figures say. How strange that for years of our life we cannot make heads or tails of the characters, and then suddenly we’re flying through Eric Carl, Dr. Seuss, J. K. Rowling and Tolstoy?

Teen Baboon

(Photo: Richard Bartz)

Astonishingly, scientists have yet to elucidate the mysterious mechanism, though with the help of baboons, they’re beginning to understand how we learn how to read. Recently, researchers in Marseille published a study with the adorable title “Monkey See, Monkey Read.” The experiment was simple. Displaying four-letter combinations on a touchscreen, the scientists taught the monkeys to touch an oval shape if the letters formed a word. If the arrangement had no meaning, the monkeys touched a cross shape.

Just like the process of word recognition for humans, the baboons needed several thousand tries before they began to memorize English word combinations. Rewarded with a piece of cereal for every correct answer—you know they probably got Cheerios—the baboons learned dozens of words. Within a few days the monkeys could not only recognize memorized words, but could correctly discern between true English words and nonsensical ones. While the baboons couldn’t string the words together to actually read—or to type the complete works of Shakespeare faster than the monkeys of the infinite monkey theorem—their remarkable progress in recognizing word organization patterns means scientists might have to think differently about how people learn how to read.

Prior to this study, scientists held a general hypothesis that the phonetic sounds learned during oral language development guided the spelling and reading processes. Children, the idea went, underwent a sort of additive approach to language, putting together, for instance, the hard C sound, the “ah” of an A and a T’s “tuh” to spell out C-A-T. But the baboons’ successful testing suggests that word organization patterns play a greater role than originally thought. Because the baboons accurately identified words they hadn’t seen before, the scientists say the monkeys didn’t simply memorize word shapes. Instead, the baboons used their knowledge from previous tests to identify common letter arrangements. The data suggests that pattern recognition predates speech. Learning to read might not be a strictly linguistic skill, as strange as that sounds.

Of course, I was a little disappointed that scientists hadn’t taught the baboons how to actually read—though perhaps they should try them on “Curious George.” One baboon, however, has excelled brilliantly and can now recognize nearly 300 written words. If that’s more than my little cousin can currently recognize, I’m not saying anything.

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