Chaser is a female border collie.
And she can understand English grammar.
She can understand the relationships between a prepositional object, verb, and direct object in a four word sentence, like “to ball take Frisbee.”
For those who need a brush up:
A preposition is a word that describes a relationship in space or time — in these examples the preposition is “to.”
A prepositional object is the word after the preposition so the prepositional object is “ball.”
A verb is the action being taken, in the example, the verb is “take.”
A direct object is the thing being acted on, the “Frisbee.”
Chaser started her training by learning 1022 objects by name over three years. She even learned abstract ideas, like “toy” study researcher John Pilley writes:
Chaser also successfully learned the abstract concept “toy,” which was based on function rather than shared physical characteristics. “Toys” were objects for which she had learned unique proper-noun names and with which she was allowed to play. “Non-toys” were similar objects belonging to family members. The physical characteristics of toys and non-toys were not discriminative features of the category — instead, toys and non-toys differed in functionality. Chaser could play with toys; she could not play with non-toys.
To teach her grammar, her experimenter would point to the objects in order as he said the sentence, she learned that when the words of the sentence are switched, say, “to Frisbee take ball” instead of “to ball take Frisbee” the sentence meant something different.
They then tested to see if she could follow commands based on the grammar used in three scenarios. They asked her to follow commands using objects she knows, new objects, and objects that she couldn’t see.
Even when the objects were initially behind her, Chaster successfully understood the commands, Bruce Bower of Science News explains:
Pilley stood at the end of a bed where Chaser sat facing him, with two objects behind her at the other end of the bed. After hearing a command, Chaser turned around and nabbed one of the objects. She then ran to the living room and delivered the item to one of another pair of objects. She succeeded on all 12 trials.
They also tested her understanding of grammar by mixing up the sentence — for instance, “take ball to Frisbee” — she understood in 28 of 40 tests.
“Chaser intuitively discovered how to comprehend sentences based on lots of background learning about different types of words,” Pilley told Science News. She’s also adorable.
The study was published May 13 in the journal Learning and Motivation. She isn’t the first animal to have a basic understanding of grammar. Studies published in the journal Cognition in 1984 indicated that dolphins can also grasp elements of grammar. Apes have as well, including Kanzi the bonobo.
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