this is how this team of scientists found out

No, they are not your impressions. Your dog understands you. Or he understands at least if you are speaking to him in your language, the one he is used to hearing from you every day, or a foreign one, with sounds and patterns that are less familiar to him. The finding has been made by a team of researchers from the Department of Ethology of the Universidad de Eötvös Loránd (Hungary) and leaves us the first scientific demonstration that a non-human brain can distinguish between two languages.

The investigation started almost by chance. Years ago, Laura V. Cuaya, one of the main authors of the study that just posted on NueroImage, he moved from Mexico to Hungary to join the Eötvös Laboratory of Neuroethology of Communication. It was not alone. She was accompanied by her dog, Kun-kun, a Border collie that, of course, he was used to his owner speaking Spanish. Upon arriving at his new home in Hungary, Cuaya asked himself a question:Kun-kun would notice that the people around him spoke a different language, very different from the one I was listening to in Mexico?

An experiment with ‘The little prince’

“We know that people, even preverbal human babies, perceive the difference; but maybe the dogs don’t ”, Cuaya thought. To clear up doubts, the researcher trained her Border collie and 17 other dogs for the purpose of brain scans. They all shared another characteristic: they were used to their owners speaking to them in a single language. During the tests several audios were played: excerpts from ‘The Little Prince’ in Spanish and Hungarian, which allowed the team to see the differences when they heard a familiar and a foreign language.

To curl the curl a bit more, the researchers at Eötvös Loránd also reproduced “scrambled” versions of the extracts, modified so that totally unnatural sounds. The objective in that case was slightly different. The scientists wanted to test whether or not the dogs could detect the difference between human speech and completely different sounds.

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What did they discover? The patterns of activity in the primary auditory cortex of the dogs were different depending on whether or not they were listening to speech, a stimulus that was also given regardless of whether the language was familiar to them. In other words, notes Raúl Hernández-Pérez, co-author of the study, “The brains of dogs, like humans, can distinguish between speech and non-speech.” Of course, that peculiarity does not mean that they have a neural preference.

“The mechanism underlying this ability to detect speech may be different from the sensitivity of speech in humans: while human brains are specially tuned for speech, the brains of dogs can simply detect the nature of sound,” he abounds. Hernández-Pérez in a statement collected by EurekAlert.

The million dollar question is: in addition to distinguishing speech, did the dogs know when they were reading to Saint-Exupery in Spanish or in Hungarian, in the language of Miguel de Cervantes or Sándor Márai? Well yes. And the answer, the scientists stress, is fascinating in its implications. “The study showed for the first time that a non-human brain can distinguish between two languages. It is exciting because it reveals that the ability to learn about the regularities of a language is not exclusively human ”, adds Attila Andics, a member of the team.

When examining the resonances, the experts noted that specific language activity patterns were found in another region of the brain, secondary auditory cortex. Not only that. They appreciated that the older the dog, the better its brain distinguished between familiar and unfamiliar language. The conclusion reached by the scientists is that throughout their lives in the company of humans, dogs perceive the auditory regularities – signals that identify each language – of the language to which they are exposed and hear frequently.

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One of the tests of the experiment. Image: Eniko Kubinyi

The new findings, of course, raise new questions. For example, is this ability with languages ​​a rarity of dogs or can we find it in other creatures? “We still don’t know if this ability is a specialty of dogs or is general among non-human species. In fact, it is possible that brain changes from the tens of thousands of years that dogs have lived with humans have made them better listeners of the language; but it is not necessarily so. Future studies will have to find out ”, Andics reflects.

For now, and waiting for the new scientific questions to be closed, Kun-kun seems to have shown us something else just as important: that dogs can adapt wonderfully to places where new languages ​​are spoken. “If you wonder how Kun-kun is doing after moving to Budapest, live as happy as in Mexico City. Saw snow for the first time and loves to swim in the Danube –jokes its owner, Laura V Cuaya-. We hope that he and his friends will continue to help us discover the evolution of speech. “

Images | Peet de Mourning (Flickr) Y a.camacho_photodesign (Flickr)

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