Parlez-vous ‘Woof’? Dogs May Distinguish Between Different Human Languages

Thursday, January 6, 2022 — An intriguing new study finds that dogs don’t speak human language, but they know when to move from tongue to tongue.

“We know that people, even pre-verbal babies, notice the difference,” said study co-author Laura Cuaya of Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary.

But after taking her dog Kun Kun from Mexico to Hungary for postdocs, she wondered, are dogs? Are they even bothering? After all, she said, people don’t draw their dog’s attention to what a particular language looks like. Does Kun Kuhn realize that people in Budapest speak Hungarian and not Spanish?

She and her colleagues decided to use brain imaging to verify this. The images that resulted were groundbreaking.

They reveal that dogs’ brains show different patterns of activity for unfamiliar language than for familiar language — the researchers said the first demonstration that a non-human brain can differentiate between two languages.

It took some creative training for the animals.

First, the researchers taught Con Coon and 17 other dogs to lie motionless in a brain scanner. Then they played excerpts from the book “The Little Prince” in Spanish and Hungarian.

Up until that point, all dogs had heard their owners speak only one of the two languages. This was an opportunity to see if their brains reacted differently to a language they were very familiar with and an unfamiliar language.

The researchers also ran mixed versions of the stories, to test whether the dogs could distinguish between speech and non-speech.

No matter what language dogs heard, an area of ​​the brain known as the primary auditory cortex showed distinct patterns of activity. However, there was no evidence that dogs’ brains preferred to speak over jibberish.

“Canine brains, like human brains, can distinguish between speech and non-exaggeration,” said study co-author Raul Hernandez-Perez, who is also a postdoctoral fellow at the university. “But the mechanism behind this ability to detect speech may be different from speech sensitivity in humans: While humans’ brains are specifically tuned for speech, dogs’ brains may simply detect the normality of the sound.”

Dogs’ brains have distinguished between Spanish and Hungarian, as evidenced by activity in a brain region called the secondary auditory cortex.

Scans have shown that age is also important.

The older the dog, the better his brain is at distinguishing between familiar and unfamiliar language.

Each language is characterized by a variety of audio systems. Our findings suggest that during their lives with humans, dogs pick up on the auditory regularities of the language they are exposed to,” Hernández Pérez said in a university press release.

The study revealed that the ability to recognize the regularities of language is not limited to humans, said the study’s senior author Attila Andiks, another research fellow at the university.

However, researchers don’t know if this ability applies only to dogs or includes species other than humans, he said.

“In fact, it is possible for the brain to change from dozens [thousands of] Andyks said the years that dogs lived with humans made them better language listeners, but that’s not necessarily the case. “Future studies will have to find out.”

The results were published January 6 in the journal NeuroImage.


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  • Second University, press release, January 6, 2022

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