Monday, August 10, 2009

Monkeys. language, and learning

I've always been interested in studies that evaluate the ability of non-human primates to learn the basics of language. I'll write about the use of sign language by Koko the Gorilla at some point, but for now I'm going to focus on a study which demonstrated that cotton-top tamarind monkeys can learn the basic affixation rule (the proper use of suffixes and prefixes).

It's important to clearly state what the researchers believe that this study. has shown. It's doesn't show that the monkeys have linguistic capabilities such as understanding the rules of grammar, but that they possess an ability to understand patterns of temporal ordering.

The monkeys in the study were familiarized with a syllable that, depending on the group, was consistently used as a suffix or a prefix. In this study the syllable"shoy"was used as the affix syllable during the familiarization stage, and a group of two letter stem syllables such as "be" " ba" and "pu"were also used. there. For example,words for the prefix group would be shoy-be and shoy-ba, and be-shoy and ba-shoy for the suffix group. There was no formal training process, nor were rewards given

During the test phase of the study one syllable words such as wasp and swan were used instead of the nonsense syllables. When the temporal order of the words was switched (i.e. be-shoy instead of shoy-be) the monkeys acted surprised, based on a change in head orientation. The researchers concluded that the monkeys possessed a psychological mechanism for learning and memory that allowed them to determine affixation patterns,but couldn't' link them to syntax, semantics, and linguistic elements as humans can.

The results on this study relate to another important issue to me: the misreporting and and exaggerations that often happen when the press reports on advances in science. An excellent post on the "Motivated Grammar" blog summarizes the results of this study, then discusses a BBC article on it entitled "Monkeys recognize 'bad grammar". That's not what they are doing though - they are demonstrating an ability to learn temporal ordering patterns.

The article also contains a link to the draft of the original research paper.

Here's the abstract of the article:

The BBC article on the study:

Here's another interesting article:

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