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Rats recognizing human language

Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing links today to “Rats Can Tell Human Languages Apart, Study Shows” over at Yahoo! News: Science.

David Beaver over at Language Log weighs in on the subject:

The researchers, Juan M. Toro, Josep B. Trobalon, and Nuria Sebastian-Galles, are sensible people, and do not take a Dolittlian inter-species communication or new age conclusion from this. Rather, they think it is evidence that in the development of human language, features already present in the mammalian auditory system were co-opted.

I am intrigued by the study, and I have the impression it was carried out carefully and effectively. But personally, I never had any doubt whatsoever that in the development of human language, features already present in the mammalian auditory system were co-opted. Moreover, I’m skeptical that Toro et al‘s study shows this. The problem is that Toro et al don’t actually know which features of Japanese and Dutch were the ones that mattered, the relevant differences between the two languages that are more easily extracted forwards than backwards.

That was (essentially) my reaction (though mine was a more gut instinct response, and not nearly as eloquent as Beaver’s). Obviously, languages are different. They have different rules and patterns. They sound different. Just like you can train an animal to respond to verbal commands or sounds, you can train them to recognize the patterns in language. That’s all that happened here (though, as Beaver suggests, we really don’t know “why” yet).

Doctorow, on the other hand, is interested in the possible applications:

Rats can be trained to differentiate between Dutch and Japanese speech. If this is perfected and the black plague comes back, warring linguistic groups could use this to deploy targeted biowar vectors. I’m sure there are other applications as well, of course. But: Dutch-seeking plague-rats — w00t!

Those poor Dutch, they just can’t catch a break. ;>