Most pets are clearly familiar with specific terms such as “treat” or “walk”. But they may understand more than you think. Hungarian researchers have found that dogs can distinguish between their mother tongue and foreign languages. They can also differentiate real words from nonsense sounds.
MRIs show how the brain reacts to languages
The study, published in NeuroImage, involved 18 dogs, including six Border Collies, five Golden Retrievers, two Australian Shepherds, a Cocker Spaniel and four mixed breeds. The researchers trained the puppies to stay still. Then they used MRIs to scan the puppies’ brains while the narrators read The little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The narrators read the story in a natural and engaging tone, once in Spanish and then in Hungarian. The dogs also listened to garbled computer audio that did not sound like authentic human speech. Two dogs knew Spanish, while the others knew Hungarian. The dogs’ pet parents were in the room throughout the session to make sure they felt safe and comfortable.
The researchers observed that different parts of the participants’ brains lit up when they listened to a familiar language rather than a foreign language or garbled speech.
They also noted that older dogs were better able to distinguish between languages than their younger counterparts.
Why recognizing human speech is important for dogs
“Dogs are really good in the human environment,” study author Laura Cuaya, a postdoctoral researcher at the Communication Neuroethology Laboratory at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, told NBC News. “We discovered that they knew more than I expected about human language. Certainly, this ability to be constant social learners gives them an edge as a species. This allows them to better understand their environment. »
According to the university’s ethology department bulletin, Cuaya began to wonder if dogs could tell languages apart when she and her dog, Kun-kun, moved from Mexico to Hungary. She wondered if Kun-kun knew that the people around them spoke a language other than Spanish.
Cuaya and his team say this is the first study of its kind to illustrate how a non-human brain can distinguish between different languages.