Can dogs understand different languages? New Study Investigates – American Kennel Club
Have you ever thought about what you look like to your dog? Unless you’re using words you’ve already taught your dog, you might imagine you sound like the dog’s teacher. Peanuts cartoons – just a bunch of wah, wah, wahs. But the reality is much more interesting when we ask ourselves if dogs can understand different languages. Recent searches in the journal NeuroImage showed that dogs can distinguish familiar from unfamiliar languages and can even distinguish human language from nonsensical sounds.
Recruitment of study subjects
Researchers from the Department of Ethology at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, wanted to study canine brain activity when dogs heard a language they did not know. According to the university’s ethology department newsletter, lead researcher Laura Cuaya’s move from Mexico to Hungary with her dog sparked the idea. Just as Cuaya was surrounded by a new and unfamiliar language, so was her pet Kun-kun, and she wondered if he had noticed the change.
So Cuaya and scientists in his lab recruited 18 dogs, including Cuaya’s, and trained them to lie still in an MRI machine for a brain scan. There were six Border Collies, five Golden Retrievers, two Australian Shepherds, a Cocker Spaniel and four mixed breed dogs. They were all adult animals between the ages of 3 and 11. Two of the dogs knew Spanish and the other participants knew Hungarian.
Story time at the MRI
While the dogs lay in the MRI machine, they listened to recordings of the classic children’s book The little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The narrators, one of whom is a native Hungarian speaker and the other a native Spanish speaker, read the story in an engaging tone in order to sound as natural as possible. Sometimes the dogs would hear a Hungarian recording, sometimes a Spanish recording, and sometimes a computer scrambled recording that no longer sounded like human speech.
As the dogs listened to the various recordings, the MRI machine scanned their brains to measure activity during each condition. However, the dogs were free to leave the machine at any time, and both the trainer and their owner were in the scanning room to help the animal feel comfortable.
Different brain activity
It was then time to analyze the results. First, scientists investigated whether dogs could distinguish speech of any kind from non-speech. And they could. The primary auditory cortex of canine brains showed distinct patterns of activity, depending on whether the subjects heard the scrambled passages or the original recordings. However, this does not necessarily mean that canine brains are attuned to speech like human brains are. It may just be that dogs can tell the difference between natural and unnatural sounds.
Next, the scientists compared brain scans of when the dogs heard a familiar language versus an unfamiliar language. And again, the scans indicated the dogs could tell the difference, this time in another area of the brain known as the secondary auditory cortex. These two regions of the brain are located inside the temporal cortex and researchers hypothesize that they allow dogs to process speech in two stages. The primary auditory cortex determines whether or not a sound is speech; then the secondary auditory cortex tells dogs if it’s a language they recognize.
Older dogs showed greater response
It’s amazing to think that dogs can tell Hungarian from Spanish, especially from words they probably don’t know. After all, the passages of The little Prince were probably not peppered with “sit”, “stay” and “paw”. Amazingly, dogs are the first non-human animal to show this ability to distinguish languages. And they did it spontaneously. No training was necessary.
However, we talk to our dogs all the time, and even when we don’t speak directly to them, they are immersed in our communication. They surely absorb the patterns and rhythms of our speech. This notion was supported by the study. Interestingly, the brains of older dogs showed more activity in their secondary auditory cortex. This suggests that these animals were better able to distinguish between the two languages. All those extra years spent living with people could have allowed them to become more familiar with the languages spoken at home.
Different human tongues have different sounds and patterns, so other animals may also be able to do this. But dogs as a species have lived alongside humans for thousands of years. Perhaps they have developed a special ability to recognize our speech. In fact, a recent study from the same university on the acoustic basis of human voice identity processing in dogs showed that dogs can recognize their owner by voice alone – no sight or smell required.
There’s no doubt that dogs want to hear what we have to say, but future research could explore whether this perception of human language is unique to their species. In the meantime, it seems that, far from resembling the Peanuts teacher, your voice and the language you speak are comfortably familiar to your dog.