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Can Any Animals Differentiate Between Human Languages?

Updated May 16, 2024
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"Sit. Stay. Roll over." There's a good chance your dog understands these English commands, but do they pay attention to anything else you're saying? What if you suddenly started speaking in French, or Hindi, or Japanese? While a recent study can't tell us exactly how much your canine companion understands, it does suggest that dogs know when they're hearing an unfamiliar language.

Laura Cuaya, a brain researcher at the Neuroethology of Communication Lab at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, created an experiment inspired by her experience of moving from Mexico to Hungary with her border collies Kun-Kun and Odín in tow. The study involved using an MRI machine to scan the brains of 18 dogs as they listened to excerpts from The Little Prince in both Spanish and Hungarian, in the hopes of testing their ability to differentiate between the two languages. Each of the dogs had only ever heard one of the languages spoken by their owner.

After looking at the brain scans, Cuaya and her team got their answer. "In terms of brain imaging studies, this study is the very first one which showed that a non-human species brain can discriminate between languages," said Attila Andics, who runs the lab where the study was done. The scans also showed a difference when the dogs listened to scrambled nonsense speech.

Interestingly, the effect was most pronounced in older dogs, suggesting that they had grown accustomed to a certain language and were surprised at hearing another.

Canine cleverness:

  • Dogs have been shown to be capable of learning more than 100 words and gestures – roughly the equivalent of a two-year-old child.

  • A 2008 study revealed that dogs are capable of "emotional contagion," meaning they can show empathy with a person who yawns by yawning themselves.

  • Unlike other pets, dogs have learned to run to people for help and comfort, interacting with humans in much the same way that babies interact with parents.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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