Did you know that if you normally speak English but then start speaking Spanish, your dog can tell the difference? It’s true. In fact, dogs can distinguish between different languages all together. How do we know? A new scientific study has demonstrated that dog brains can detect speech and show different activity patterns to familiar and unfamiliar languages.
Eighteen dogs were trained to lay motionless in a brain scanner, where researchers played the dogs speech excerpts of “The Little Prince’ in both Spanish and Hungarian. All dogs had previously heard only one of the two languages from their owners, so this way researchers could compare a highly familiar language to a completely unfamiliar one. They also played dogs scrambled versions of these excerpts, which sound completely unnatural, to test whether the dogs could detect the difference between speech and non-speech.
When comparing brain responses to speech and non-speech researchers found distinct activity patterns in dogs’ primary auditory cortex. This distinction was recognized independently from whether the stimuli originated from the familiar or the unfamiliar language. In addition to speech detection, dog brains could also distinguish between Spanish and Hungarian languages. These language-specific activity patterns were found in the secondary auditory cortex of the brain. Interestingly, the older the dog was, the better their brain distinguished between the familiar and the unfamiliar language.
“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 thousand years that dogs have been living with humans have made them better language listeners, but this is not necessarily the case.”
-Dr. Attila Andics, researcher
Journal Reference: Laura V.Cuaya, Raúl Hernández-Pérez, Marianna Boros, Andrea Deme, Attila Andicsdics. Speech naturalness detection and language representation in the dog brain, NeuroImage, December 2021, 118811. Overview/Study: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2021.118811