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"And the stars are projectors, yeah, projecting our lives down to this planet Earth." - Modest Mouse


6.10.2004

Language Is A Virus 

AP News reports on Rico, a border collie who knows more thann 200 words and is capable of quickly learning new ones. Researchers say this indicates that dogs are actually acquiring language, not just responding to repetitive conditioning.
The researchers found that Rico knows the names of dozens of play toys and can find the one called for by his owner. That is a vocabulary size about the same as apes, dolphins and parrots trained to understand words, the researchers say.

Rico can even take the next step, figuring out what a new word means.

The researchers put several known toys in a room along with one that Rico had not seen before. From a different room, Rico's owner asked him to fetch a toy, using a name for the toy the dog had never heard.

The border collie, a breed known primarily for its herding ability, was able to go to the room with the toys and, seven times out of 10, bring back the one he had not seen before. The dog seemingly understood that because he knew the names of all the other toys, the new one must be the one with the unfamiliar name.

"Apparently he was able to link the novel word to the novel item based on exclusion learning, either because he knew that the familiar items already had names or because they were not novel," said the researchers, led by Julia Fischer of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig.

A month later, he still remembered the name of that new toy three out of six times, even without having seen it since that first test. That is a rate the scientists said was equivalent to that of a 3-year-old.

Rico's learning ability may indicate that some parts of speech comprehension developed separately from human speech, the scientists said.

Katrina Kelner, Science's deputy editor for life sciences, said "such fast, one-trial learning in dogs is remarkable. This ability suggests that the brain structures that support this kind of learning are not unique to humans and may have formed the evolutionary basis of some of the advanced language abilities of humans."

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