All border collie photos property of Baus/ Krzeslowski
the 1.7MB movie:
Here I am, getting tested. First, they ask
me to bring two familiar toys: "tyrex," the blue dinosaur,
then the "weihnachtsmann," the little red doll. Then comes
the "hard" part: They ask me to find "sirikid,"
which I've never heard of before. I've never seen the white bunny,
so I bring it. Everybody makes a big fuss over me.
Courtesy Julia Fischer
Hi. I'm Rico, and here's my pretty picture.
I learn words faster than a chimpanzee!
Courtesy Susanne Baus
They're not real smart. Humans, I mean. I think
they only know 260 words. I know, we've been whining at them for years,
trying to get them to study their vocab, but here's what it's come
to: 260 words. And as far as I can tell, they're all nouns.
Honest. I just got back from the Max Planck
Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. You know,
the place named for that guy who studied some teeny-weeny part of
the atom. You'd think the cream of the intellectual crop would hang
out there. But you know what they did? They put me in a room with
a bunch of toys. Familiar toys, the ones I'm used to mouthing 24/7
when I'm with my owner. She's really nice to me; gives me a lot
of attention, and puts all my toys around the house and asks me
to fetch them.
She asks for them by name.
Anyway, these scientists aren't real swift. They put 10 of my toys on the rug, and my owner asked me to fetch one.
As I said, that's no big deal. So then they
tried to trick me. They set out seven familiar toys, and one I've
never seen. They ask for a "sirikid," a word I've never heard before.
I'm no dummy. I figure new word, new toy, so I go over and fetch the new thing to my owner.
She's not amazed -- after all, she had me show off on TV,
fetching stuff -- but these "scientists" go ape! They act as if
it's a big deal for a smart, motivated dog like a border collie,
to know what's familiar and what's not.
diary, I just don't know. Ever since our ancestors first domesticated
Homo sapiens more than 10,000 years ago, we've been acting stupid
so they would fork over cash for the dog chow. But to think that
these imbecilic animals have started to believe they were
the smarty pants...
Don't think I'm complaining. These folks with
the clipboards scratched and petted me and all. But they had me
do the same trick over and over. I'm as eager to please as the next
pet dog, but how many times do you have to do a trick to prove you
can do it?
Ever since I was 10 months, my owners have
spent hours playing with me every day. At first, they put three
things -- balls and baby toys, but never bratwursts -- around the
house, and asked me to bring one of them, "Wo ist der ball,"
or something. Didn't I mention? They speak German. That's because
they are German.
Anyway, I got better at this lame game, and
they bought about every baby doll in Europe, and gave each a new
name. I'm no dummy. Show me a new toy, and give it a name, and I'm
going to remember it.
Except the scientists didn't believe me. They
put me through these tests. Even if they aren't the sharpest knives
in the drawer, it's smart to put up with scientists, because they
have REALLY good treats, and they don't mind if you slobber a bit
as you scarf them down.
First, they put a bunch of my old, familiar
toys in a room and asked me to fetch them by name. Big deal. Out
of 40 tries, I got 37 right. Well, that got their interest, lemme
tell you. You know what, diary? The researchers said my "language
size was comparable to that of language-trained apes, dolphins,
sea lions and parrots."
Then they tried something slightly less boring.
They put out seven familiar toys, and one new one, and asked me
to fetch something with a name I'd never heard. "Fetch the gezundheit,"
they'd say. And, being smarter than the average scientist, I mouthed
the new toy and brought it over.
If they'd wanted one of the toys I already knew, I figured, they would have asked for it by name. Or maybe I figure new names go with new things...
They got excited. You would of thought I had just invented a brand new kind of dog food.
Then they waited four weeks. I thought they'd
gone out and gotten real jobs, but no, back they come, smiles on
their faces and a "challenging" task on their minds. They showed
me more batches of toys, including a few of the new ones I'd seen
last time around. And in 10 tests, I fetched the new one seven times.
figured I'd learned and remembered the new name, after hearing it
Now, I asked Julia Fischer, who studies something
called evolutionary anthropology, and who seemed to be running these
shenanigans, what was up. She told me about this theory that children
learn new words with "fast mapping" (which is not about finding
the shortest path to the food bowl).
Instead, kids, being as smart as me, Rico,
the border collie, seem to associate a new word with a new object.
Human children, she says, learn about 10 new
words a day, starting at about age 2, and wind up with a vocabulary
of about 60,000 words. Funny thing is, most of those new words aren't
defined for them. No sirree. Just like me, Rico, the bright border
collie, they seem to learn the meaning of words from the context.
Anyway, once she started, Julia Fischer couldn't
stop explaining. The people who study the way children learn language
first thought fast mapping helped for learning words for colors.
Now, she says, "People have thought that maybe it's used generally
for all sorts of names and facts about the world."
Ready for the good part? "Nobody," she added,
"ever considered that it could be also found in another animal."
me while I scratch. Dry skin. That happens when you get old. Me,
I'm 10, did I mention that, diary?
Anyway, Fischer and some other eggheads sent this "study" to a big-time science magazine called, can you believe this? "Science." The magazine sent it to another professor, who wrote that my ability to learn words the first time was comparable to "children and adults who were tested using similar designs."
I found it humiliating to be compared to an
animal that can't herd sheep or take apart a garbage heap, but I
guess that's the price of free dog food.
Anyway, I'm a border collie, and I don't think philosophy is a career that will fill your daily bowl. But Fischer describes what I'm doing as, "Learning by exclusion, establishing implicitly a link between the new name and the new toy, without explicit instructions."
I asked Julia how I, Rico, could learn words so quickly. She said, "Either you know the names of all these seven toys you've seen before, so the new toy must be the one, because you've never heard that name before. Or, this is the novel toy, so it must have the new name. But they both come out to the same result."
Fast mapping, according to the eggheads, seems
part of the basic brain apparatus for learning language.
Sure, some sea lions also learn by exclusion,
but nobody has shown that they remember their words.
I do. And that's the part (excuse my boasting, diary) that really impressed Fischer. "What really blew us away was ... four weeks later, when we tested him again, it was really astonishing, without any further contact or experience, Rico was still able to know what the name was."
Anyway, as I said, I am Rico. I am a good listener -- the best kind -- because I don't talk (although I do growl, bark and whine). And I admit that I don't know some of those big words that Julia uses.
Would you like me to fetch Tyrex the dinosaur, or Goko the white rag doll?
Word Learning in a Domestic Dog: Evidence
for "Fast Mapping," by J. Kaminski, J. Call and Julia
Fischer, Science, June 8, 2004.