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Dogs can distinguish different human languages

A study finds speaking a new language to a dog isn't as difficult as it sounds.
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January 22, 2022
We all know that dogs frequently listen to random sounds whether that be an annoying cricket chirping, a squirrel climbing up a tree or even us humans talking in our daily lives. They may seem to be mindlessly carrying about, but in reality, dogs are picking up on auditory patterns and signals that alert them to any change or action. One of these cases includes the human language.

A neurobiologist by the name of Laura Cuaya was curious about this phenomenon during her move from Mexico to Hungary with her border collie named Kun-kun. Cuaya had only spoken to her dog in Spanish, but now that Kun-kun was in a place where people spoke Hungarian, she wondered if Kun-kun would notice that change.

“We know that people, even preverbal human infants, notice the difference. But maybe dogs do not bother. After all, we never draw our dogs’ attention to how a specific language soundst,” said Cuaya in a press statement. 

As a result, Cuaya and her team of researchers set out to find an answer to this question. The team trained 18 dogs of various breeds, including Kun-kun, to lie still in a brain scanner while listening to speech excerpts of “The Little Prince.”

However, the excerpts were to be played in both Spanish and in Hungarian. The dogs being tested were familiar with only one of the two languages. In that way, the dogs’ brains were tested and compared with a language they are highly familiar with and a language that they are unfamiliar with.

The results were exciting. The researchers found that the different languages triggered different activity patterns within the dogs’ brains. This essentially confirmed that dogs were able to differentiate between multiple languages. The results bring up many new ideas and questions regarding non-human brains and speech.

“It is a very exciting study because it shows that the ability to grasp the sounds and rhythms of a familiar language is something accessible to non-humans,” said Amritha Mallikarjun, a researcher at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center in Philadelphia.

The team also tested the dogs for identifying between speech and non-speech by playing scrambled versions of the excerpts. Once again, the dogs were able to differentiate between nonsensical words and actual language. Coauthor of the study Raúl Hernández-Pérez mentioned the dogs were simply picking up on how “natural” the sound of the speech was to identify the difference.

The researchers also found out that older dogs tended to be able to tell languages apart better than younger dogs. This employs the idea that because older dogs have been exposed to a language for a longer time, they understand how the language sounds better. The results of the study were published in “Neurolmage.”

This study presents a new idea of how other animals could perceive the human language besides dogs. However, Cuaya notes that dogs are unique for their interest in humans.

“The wonderful thing about dogs is they want to cooperate,” she said. “They want to understand us.”

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