Picture by Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency(ANA).
Picture by Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency(ANA).

Researchers find that dogs are able to differentiate between a familiar and an unfamiliar language

By Shaun Smillie Time of article published Jan 10, 2022

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Johannesburg - Dogs may not be able to talk, human that is, but they are good listeners, so much so they can distinguish between two languages.

A couple of dogs who were specially trained to lie motionless in a brain scanner have shown researchers that they can differentiate between a familiar and an unfamiliar language.

This makes them the first non-humans known to do this.

The discovery was made all thanks to a Spanish understanding dog called Kun-kun.

It was Kun-kun’s owner Laura Cuaya who began wondering if her dog would notice that humans in their new home spoke a different language.

“Some years ago I moved from Mexico to Hungary to join the Neuroethology of Communication Lab at the Department of Ethology, Eötvös Loránd University for my postdoctoral research. My dog, Kun-kun, came with me. Before, I had only talked to him in Spanish. So I was wondering whether Kun-kun noticed that people in Budapest spoke a different language, Hungarian,” Cuaya explained in a statement.

To find out, Cuaya designed a brain imaging study.

Kun-kun and 17 other dogs were involved in the study where they had to lie motionless in a brain scanner and listen to dialogue from The Little Prince in Spanish and Hungarian.

This at the Department of Ethology, Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary.

“All dogs had heard only one of the two languages from their owners, so this way we could compare a highly familiar language to a completely unfamiliar one. We also played dogs scrambled versions of these excerpts, which sound completely unnatural, to test whether they detect the difference between speech and non-speech at all,” said Cuaya.

When they compared the brain responses to speech and non speech, the researchers discovered distinct activity patterns in the dogs’ primary auditory cortex. Besides being able to distinguish between speech and no speech, they found they were able to notice a difference between Spanish and Hungarian.

This from another region of the brain, the secondary auditory cortex.

The researchers discovered that older dogs were better at distinguishing between a familiar and unfamiliar language.

“Each language is characterised by a variety of auditory regularities. Our findings suggest that during their lives with humans, dogs pick up on the auditory regularities of the language they are exposed to” said Raúl Hernández-Pérez, a coauthor of the study.

The research appeared in the journal NeuroImage.

Through future research, the researchers are hoping to find out how dogs are able to tell the difference between two languages.

As for the dog that started it, all Kun-kun is still in Budapest where he recently saw snow for the first time and enjoys swimming in the Danube river.

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