Baboons Read Four-Letter Words, Sort of

by Translation Guy on April 23, 2012

French researchers have discovered that baboons can read four-letter English words without understanding their meaning. Researchers provided the animals with touch-sensitive computer screens that display real English words along with non-word letter combinations, and that reward the baboons that when they are able to pick out real words from a 7038-word list of fake words consisting of random letter combinations.

The test demonstrates that baboons can easily master a critical first step in learning to read: identifying recurring patterns in text. “They are using information about letters and the relation between letters to perform the task without any kind of linguistic training,” said Jonathan Grainger, a psychologist at the French Center for National Research and at Aix-Marseille University in France who was the study’s first author.

The best proto-reader is Baboon Dan.  who can guess when words are truly words about 80 percent of the time, and has mastered 308 four-letter English words.( French researchers used English since it is “the language of science” and also popular on YouTube.)

“Detailed analysis revealed that the baboons were not simply memorizing the word… but had learned to discriminate words from non-words on the basis of “the statistical properties that distinguish words from non-words,” said Grainger. The baboons learned that certain letter combinations meant a real word and certain combinations a fake.

“The key is that these animals not only learned by trial and error which letter combinations were correct, but they also noticed which letters tend to go together to form real words, such as ‘SH’ but not ‘FX,’” said Grainger. So even when new words were sprung on them, they did a better job at figuring out which were real,

So this proves that the shapes designed by really smart primates to represent sound and meaning are easily categorized by not-so- smart primates.  Which figures, since reading has spread like wildfire (in evolutionary terms) among human populations, since no genetic modifications necessary when humans first mastered this skill.

The ease with which baboons learned to recognize letter shapes and combinations also suggests that all primates are pre-adapted for reading, even those that lack language.

In the primate intelligence department, the Guinea baboons (Papio papio) used in the experiment are not exactly rocket scientists. When it comes to brains, baboons are considered, well, baboons. Which proves that at least as far as reading first steps, reading is so easy even a cave man can do it.

Source links:
Real words or Gibberish? Just Ask a Baboon
Reading without understanding: baboons can tell real English words from fake ones
This is Dan. Dan is a Baboon. Read, Dan, Read


  1. Maria says:

    Given the fact that tremendous research has been done with gorillas and chimps, it’s good to see that there is some going on with other primates that isn’t just product testing or meds.

  2. Hnedy Balog says:

    If a not-so-smart primate like a baboon can learn to reacognize over 300 words, what have they done with a really smart one like a bonobo chimp? They should be reading and writing!

    • Ken says:

      If bonobos could write, I bet they would write great bonobo porn.

  3. I always thought that primates has more ability than most give them credit for. Genetically, aren’t all primates closely related to humans?

  4. Jason Gill says:

    I see it know. It won’t be long until the new thing is to call the genius in class a real baboon. May even be nominated for “word of the year” some day. :)

  5. I am a bit discouraged. My 5 year old daughter can’t seem to learn 10 four-letter words after more than 6 months of kindergarten.

  6. the video indicates that the baboons learned to differentiate words rather quickly, but what is the intended outcome? How much money is spent on this research that most likely has no lasting impact on human lives?

  7. Certainly brings new meaning to the phrase “what a baboon.” I will have to re-think my snarky remarks.

  8. Jackie Ellis says:

    This moves the lowly baboon a notch higher in my book. When I was touring one of those African Safari parks a few years back, the baboons didn’t seem to smart. Actually, the way they casually walked in front of the car I would have thought them right in line with the opposum or squirrel for intelligence.

  9. Is teaching primates a smart thing? Have we not learned anything from the Planet of the Apes movies? This is bound to backfire.

LiveZilla Live Chat Software