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Canine word-learning research published in Science

This release is also available in German.

Dog owners convinced of their pets' grasp of human language may be validated, at least in part, by new research on the word-learning abilities of a German family's Border collie. Scientists who studied a dog with an approximately 200-word "vocabulary" suggest that some aspects of speech comprehension evolved earlier than, and independent from, human speech.

This research appears in the 11 June 2004 issue of the journal Science, published by AAAS, the nonprofit science society.

"You don't have to be able to talk to understand a lot," said senior Science author Julia Fischer from Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

Rico, the nearly nine-year-old Border collie, can learn the names of unfamiliar toys after just one exposure to the new word-toy combination. The scientists equate the dog's apparent learning to a process seen in human language acquisition called "fast mapping." The fast mapping abilities of children allow them to form quick and rough hypotheses about the meaning of a new word after a single exposure.

"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," said Katrina Kelner, Science's deputy editor for life sciences.

The German team first verified Rico's 200-word "vocabulary." In a series of controlled experiments, Rico correctly retrieved, by name, a total of 37 out of 40 items randomly chosen from his toy collection. The authors write that Rico's "vocabulary size" is comparable to that of language-trained apes, dolphins, sea lions and parrots.

Next, the researchers tested Rico's ability to learn new words through fast mapping. F
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Contact: Ginger Pinholster
scipak@aaas.org
202-326-6440
American Association for the Advancement of Science
10-Jun-2004


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