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Dogs can distinguish between languages, Hungarian study finds

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Budapest, Hungary – Dogs are able to differentiate languages, a team of researchers in Hungary have found.

Led by postdoctoral researcher Laura V. Cuaya and ethology department head Attila Andics at Budapest’s Eotvos Lorand University, the study sought to establish whether dogs could make the distinction between different languages being spoken.

By focusing on how their brains reacted, the researchers played excerpts of My Little Prince in Spanish and Hungarian to over half a dozen canines of different ages and breeds. All had heard, throughout their lives, only one of the two languages.

“We found for the first time that a non-human brain can distinguish [between languages]”, Cuaya, who moved from Mexico to Hungary with her dog Kun-kun a few years ago, explained to Reuters.

“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 out.”

Placed in an MRI scanner for several minutes during the experiment, the dogs were given headphones to listen to excerpts of the famous Antoine De Saint-Exupéry story in the language they knew and the one they had never heard before, as well as scrambled and unintelligible versions of the text.

Their neuro-activity showed distinct activity patterns in the primary and secondary auditory cortexes of their brain, indicating not only that they were able to differentiate between speech and non-speech, but also could distinguish between the familiar and unfamiliar languages they heard.

“Each language is characterized by a variety of auditory regularities,” said Raul Hernandez-Perez, co-author of the study. “Our findings suggest that during their lives with humans, dogs pick up on the auditory regularities of the language they are exposed to.”

The study also found that older dogs were better at making the difference between Spanish and Hungarian than the younger ones.

Sophie Scott, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London, called it a “very nice demonstration of just how much dogs are listening to our voices and how much information they’re pulling out.”

“If you’re wondering how Kun-kun is doing after moving to Budapest: he lives just as happily as he lived in Mexico City – he saw snow for the first time and he loves swimming in the Danube. We hope that he and his friends will continue to help us uncover the evolution of speech perception,” Cuaya said.

The study, “Speech naturalness detection and language representation in the dog brain”, was published in Neurolmage in December 2021.