Dogs are bilingual? Our ‘best friends’ can actually distinguish between languages

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Can your dog understand the difference between English and Spanish? The answer is likely yes! A new study reveals a dog’s brain can detect the different speech patterns between familiar and unfamiliar languages.

Researchers from Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary say this is the first time scientists have shown that a non-human brain can distinguish between two languages.

“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,” says study first author Laura Cuaya in a media release.

“We know that people, even preverbal human infants, notice the difference. But maybe dogs do not bother. After all, we never draw our dogs’ attention to how a specific language sounds. We designed a brain imaging study to find this out.”

What’s going on in a dog’s brain?

dog scan
Dog brains can detect speech, and show different activity patterns to a familiar and an unfamiliar language, a new brain imaging study by researchers from the Department of Ethology, Eötvös Loránd University (Hungary) finds. (CREDIT: Photo: Eniko Kubinyi)

Researchers took brain scans of Kun-kun and 17 other dogs while playing audio excerpts from “The Little Prince” in both Spanish and Hungarian. Each dog heard one of the languages in their owner’s voice so scientists could compare a “highly familiar” language to a completely foreign one.

The team also played scrambled versions of these book passages to test if dogs could tell the difference between actual speech and non-speech sounds.

When the team compared each dog’s response to speech versus non-speech, they discovered distinct activity patterns in the primary auditory cortex of the brain. These patterns appeared regardless of which language the dogs heard. However, study authors add it doesn’t appear that dog brains have a preference when it comes to hearing speech or non-speech sounds.

“Dog brains, like human brains, can distinguish between speech and non-speech. 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,” explains study co-author Raúl Hernández-Pérez.

Older dogs may be more bilingual than pups

When it comes to hearing different languages, study authors found that another brain region — the secondary auditory cortex — can tell the difference between Spanish and Hungarian. Moreover, the older a dog in the experiment was, the better they were able to distinguish between the two languages.

“Each language is characterized 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,” says Hernández-Pérez.

“This study showed for the first time that a non-human brain can distinguish between two languages. It is exciting, because it reveals that the capacity to learn about the regularities of a language is not uniquely human. Still, we do not know whether this capacity is dogs’ specialty, or general among non-human species. Indeed, it is possible that the brain changes from the tens of thousands of years that dogs have been living with humans have made them better language listeners, but this is not necessarily the case. Future studies will have to find this out” concludes senior author Attila Andics.

The team’s findings appear in the journal NeuroImage.

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About the Author

Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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