psychology: monkeys fail hard grammar test

To the dismay of many would-be Dr. Dolittles who’d like nothing more than to talk to the animals, new research suggests that the ensuing conversation might not be particularly sparkling. Marc D. Hauser of Harvard University and W. Tecumseh Fitch of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland report in the Jan. 16 Science that they have found that cotton-top tamarin monkeys cannot understand the complicated rules of grammar that are key to human language. Though previous studies have shown that the monkeys could comprehend very simple grammatical rules, the researchers found once the words are no longer right next to each other, such as an “If . . . then . . .” sentence construction, the monkeys became perplexed. Hauser and Fitch first exposed the animals to recordings of both a simple and a more complicated grammatical pattern through a loudspeaker. Then the grammar rule for each example was occasionally broken. If a monkey looked at the loudspeaker when this happened, it was taken as evidence that it recognized the discrepancy. This capability, the authors write, “is one of the crucial requirements for mastering any human language.”

This news brief appeared in the Discoveries column of the Boston Globe’s Health/Science section on 1/20/2004.
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