The apes aren't ready to rise just yet. In fact, the following study was actually conducted on baboons (classified as monkeys because of their tails) and not apes. Nonetheless, it's an interesting development in our understanding of primates and their abilities. Researchers at the University of Aix-Marseille in France were able too successfully teach a group of six baboons to recognize four-letter English words. In the tests, baboons were shown words on a computer screen, some of them real words, other made up ones that didn't follow the rules of English spelling. Each of the tested words used three consonants and one vowel, so the permutations were relatively limited. The baboons were offered two buttons to push: one to indicate a real word, and the other to signify a non-word. Pressing the correct button would yield food rewards. A simple enough Skinner test to condition pattern recognition, right? Well it turned out to be more successful than the researchers anticipated.
After a month and a half, the baboons had learned to recognize dozens of words, with one even able to reliable identify over 300 four-letter words. That's impressive from a pattern recognition and memory standpoint, but not especially notable. More interesting was the eventual ability of the baboons to correctly identify real and non-words that they had never seen before. This doesn't mean that the baboons could actually read or understand what the words meant, but that they could recognize recurring word structures and infer rules for letter ordering--an ability known as orthographic processing. Jonathan Grainger, one of the cognitive psychologists who conducted the experiment, said that the next step is to connect the ability to recognize words with the ability to attach meaning to those words. "We can now look at what happens when baboons are learning words and also associating them with meaning. We have a new paradigm that needs to be explored.”
The study suggests that our ability to read words is a fundamental trait tied to the development of visual circuitry, which is independent on the development of the brain's ability to process language. We recognize word structures the same way we do the shapes of physical objects, like tables or chairs. For the baboons, recognizing that the letter 'q' is almost always followed by the letter 'u' is akin to recognizing that a table typically needs more than two legs to stand.