Much study has been devoted to trying to teach apes language. We know that chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, and gorillas can gain a mastery of American sign language and many of those who have are now famous such as Washoe and Nim Chimpsky or Koko the Gorilla.
But as of late there is a different kind of language study afoot. Not ones to test an animal’s capacity for speech, but rather to understand how our brains (and those of our close cousins) even understand what language is.
To this end, a researcher named Graham Rawlinson has attempted to teach baboons to read. And he’s been doing an impressive job of it. But Rawlinson’s experiment differs from Washoe and Koko’s in that he isn’t actually trying to communicate with the animals. He is not trying to impart any great meaning to their lives. Instead, he’s interested in understanding how we even learn to process written words in the first place. The reigning idea is that we learn speech and symbolic thought first, then later learn to associate it with visual markings. Like, you have to speak before you can read, that sort of thing.
To test whether this was true, Rawlinson started to try training the baboons. The baboons were sat in front of a screen and shown either words (FISH) or a random string of letters (SGHS). If it was a real word, they hit a button. If it was fake, they hit a different one. Correctly telling the difference got them a treat. Not terribly complicated, as far as training goes, and many of the baboons got pretty good at the little game. One learned to recognize more than 300 English words.
Their results don’t seem terribly interesting at first, but consider this. Words are nothing more than a jumble of abstract symbols. A particular symbol, say the picture of an apple, has a pretty obvious meaning, but what if I presented you with nothing more than a circle? A square? A diamond? The meaning doesn’t jump out at you. Worse still, in this test the order matters just as much as the pictures. Square-circle-diamond is different from diamond-circle-square. FISH is a word. HISF is not. How do you tell them apart?
Rawlinson’s baboons suggest that we don’t necessarily need to understand the significance of the word to recognize it as a word. The old idea suggests that language is a derivative of symbolic understanding, but it seems that, perhaps, our brains inherently know that language is just another symbol.