thomst writes "Seth Borenstein of the AP reports on a story in the April 13 edition of Science (abstract here, full article paywalled) about a study of baboons at Aix-Marseille University in France that demonstrates the primates are capable of distinguishing between short, but real English words and gibberish letter combinations of similar length with an average of 75% accuracy over the course of 300,000 trials. One particularly talented subject named Dan, a 4-year-old baboon, is capable of 80% accuracy. The study's lead scientist, Jonathan Grainger, explains that a simple change in the study's methodology — allowing the subjects to work the training machine at times of their own choosing, rather than on a schedule determined by the researchers, made all the difference. When they are shown a sequence of letters, the subjects must choose between pushing a blue 'button' on a touchscreen (for a nonsense combination), or a green one (for an actual word). If they choose correctly, they get a food reward. Borenstein writes, '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. Grainger said a pre-existing capacity in the brain may allow them to recognize patterns and objects, and perhaps that's how we humans also first learn to read.'"