Dogs can recognize different languages and nonsense words, study says

They listened to a female voice recite a famous line from a beloved children’s book, “The Little Prince”.

“It is only in the heart that we can see clearly; the essential is invisible to the eye, ”says the soft voice, first in Spanish, then in Hungarian.

Then the voice began to recite a series of absurd words.

Two of the 18 subjects knew Spanish but had never heard the Hungarian language. The other 16 knew Hungarian well, but had never heard Spanish. The absurd words were, of course, gobbeldygook, unknown to any of the subjects.

This was an experiment designed to see where and how the brain would light up when exposed to familiar languages ​​versus unfamiliar languages, or natural speech versus scrambled speech.

The result? Sure enough, brain scans showed different patterns of activity in the primary auditory cortex when absurd words were spoken than when natural speech was occurring. He also showed that unique areas of the brain became active when an unfamiliar language was spoken rather than when a familiar word was heard.

These results might not come as a surprise at all – until you realize that all 18 subjects were dogs.

“What’s interesting here is that there was a difference in the brain response (of dogs) to familiar and unfamiliar language,” said Attila Andics, head of the ethology department (the study of animals ) at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. , Hungary, who carried out the experiment.

“This is the first non-primate species for which we were able to show spontaneous linguistic ability – the first time we could locate it and see where in the brain this combination of two languages ​​takes place,” said Andics.

A trip across continents

The idea began when neuroethologist Laura Cuaya left Mexico for Budapest with her dog, Kun-kun, a border collie.

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“I had only spoken to Kun-kun in Spanish,” said Cuaya, who is a postdoctoral fellow in animal studies at Eötvös Loránd. “I wondered if he could detect a different language.”

Cuaya and his co-authors designed a study to find out. They rounded up five golden retrievers, six border collies, two Australian Shepherds, a labradoodle, a cocker spaniel and three dogs of mixed ancestry, all aged 3 to 11 and previously trained to stand still inside an MRI scanner. .

“Kun-kun is happy to participate – you can see tremendous emotion, and he’s getting a lot of attention,” Cuaya said.

“It is important to mention that all dogs are free to leave the scanner at any time,” she said, adding that the owners were present and the dogs “are comfortable and happy.”

They found that dogs had much stronger brain activity in the auditory cortex for nonsense words than natural speech, whatever the spoken language.

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However, when it came to distinguishing between different languages, the researchers found that the brain was illuminated in an entirely different and more complex region of the brain: the secondary auditory cortex.

“Each language is characterized by a variety of auditory regularities. Our results suggest that during their lifetime with humans, dogs detect auditory regularities in the language to which they are exposed,” said co-author Raúl Hernández -Pérez, postdoctoral researcher. at Eötvös Loránd University’s Animal Research Department, in a statement.

“It’s actually quite similar to what we see with very young preverbal infants who can spontaneously differentiate languages ​​before they start speaking,” Andics told CNN.

And practice makes perfect, it seems. The older the dog, the better its brain distinguishes between familiar and unfamiliar languages.

“In previous research, we’ve found that not only how we say things, but what we say matters,” Andics said, explaining that dogs can tell the difference between familiar phrases even when they are spoken. with the same tone and the same manner.

“We have seen that some words are effectively processed regardless of intonation,” he said. “How we say it and what we say matters.

“It’s actually a very exciting follow-up research question whether the thousands of years of domestication have given dogs a speech processing advantage,” Andics added.

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