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Monkey See, Monkey Read
An orthographic object such as a set of letters, and the ability to recognize such sets as words, is a key component of reading. The ability to develop these skills has often been attributed to the prior acquisition of a complex language. For example, we learn how letters sound and thus recognize when a particular letter makes up part of a word. However, orthographic processing is also a visual process, because we learn to recognize words as discrete objects, and the ability to read may thus be related to an ability to recognize and classify objects. Grainger et al. (p. 245; see the Perspective by Platt and Adams) tested orthographic skills in baboons. Captive, but freely ranging, baboons were trained to distinguish real English words from combinations of similar letters that are not words, and they were able to distinguish real words with remarkable accuracy. Thus, a basic ability to recognize words as objects does not require complex linguistic understanding.
Skilled readers use information about which letters are where in a word (orthographic information) in order to access the sounds and meanings of printed words. We asked whether efficient processing of orthographic information could be achieved in the absence of prior language knowledge. To do so, we trained baboons to discriminate English words from nonsense combinations of letters that resembled real words. The results revealed that the baboons were using orthographic information in order to efficiently discriminate words from letter strings that were not words. Our results demonstrate that basic orthographic processing skills can be acquired in the absence of preexisting linguistic representations.