Dogs can understand many words we speak. There are approximately 7,000 languages spoken by humans. So, do dogs know when people are speaking a different language than the one they’re used to?
A new study out of Hungary examined whether dogs could tell when people speak different languages. Researchers from the Department of Ethology at Eötvös Loránd University also wanted to know whether dogs recognize the difference between actual speech and scrambled nonsense.
Photo: Raul Hernandez
Laura V. Cuaya (first author of the study), moved from Mexico with her dog Kunkun. She wondered whether Kun-kun, whom she’d only spoken to in Spanish, recognized that people in his new country spoke a different language.
“We know that people, even preverbal human infants, notice the difference,”Cuaya stated in a Statement. “But maybe dogs do not bother. After all, we never draw our dogs’ attention to how a specific language sounds.”
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Kun-Kun, along with 17 other dogs, were previously trained to remain still under a brain scanner. Researchers read them passages from the book. “The Little Prince”They were able to speak both Spanish and Hungarian as well as analyze their brain activity.
16 of the dogs spoke Hungarian and two others knew Spanish words. The dogs were able to understand the story in both languages and could compare it to another language.
Researchers also participated We have scrambled the Spanish and Hungarian versions to see if the dogs recognize the difference between speech & nonsense.
This video will explain in greater detail how the study was conducted:
What Researchers Learned Dogs’ Brains
Through the experiment, researchers found distinct cerebral regions in the dogs’ brains for speech detection and language recognition. Cuaya explained the meaning of this:
“Our results may suggest a hierarchy processing in the dog’s brain to process speech. In the first stage, their brain would detect whether a sound is speech or not. Then, in the second stage, their brain would identify whether the speech is a familiar language or not.”
Researchers discovered that dogs can tell the difference between scrambled speech and speech, regardless of what they are listening to. Raúl Hernández-Pérez, coauthor of the study, said:
“Dog brains, like human brains, can distinguish between speech and nonspeech. But the mechanism underlying this speech detection ability may be different from speech sensitivity in humans: whereas human brains are specially tuned to speech, dog brains may simply detect the naturalness of the sound.”
It was also found that dogs aged over 10 years were able to distinguish between familiar and unfamiliar language. It could be that dogs learn more from people if they live longer.
“I hypothesize that dogs with a closer relationship with humans will better distinguish languages. It could be great if future studies test puppies to control the exposure to a language better,” Cuaya said.
How Domestication Influences Language Processing
Researchers were intrigued by these results and wondered if this language differentiation was a unique ability of dogs or if it is possible for other animals to do the same. The dogs in this study weren’t trained at all to detect different languages. Still, dogs’ relationships with humans differ from many other animals.
“Their brains detected the difference spontaneously, perhaps due to the domestication process. While it is likely that other species can differentiate between complex sounds, it is possible that just a few species are interested in the human language.”
This is just an initial foray into the field of study. It raises interesting questions that could be used to inform future research.
“Dogs are an excellent model because they have been living—and cooperating—with humans for thousands of years. When we wonder if another species cares about what humans do, it is inevitable to think of dogs. In the case of language perception, we can learn, for example, that different brains—with different evolutive paths—can carry out a similar process.”
CNN interviewed Attila andics, the senior author of this study:
“It is actually a very exciting follow-up research question whether the thousands of years of domestication gave dogs some advantage for speech processing.”
Maybe now it’s time for us humans to learn more about what different barks mean.
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