Dog brains can distinguish between languages ​​-

For the first time, scientists have proved that not only humans can distinguish between different languages: even in dogs, the brain shows different patterns of activity depending on whether the four-legged friend knows the language he hears or not. This is especially true in older dogs who have had a long time to learn the sound of the language. In addition, four-legged friends recognize that the words uttered are actually language. Fragments of mute sounds are processed in a different region of the brain.

Even before human children can speak, they can recognize and distinguish between different languages. Since communication through language plays a key role for humans, our brain has evolved to recognize, systematize and reproduce language patterns. But is this skill uniquely human? How do animals perceive our language? Are there differences between different human languages ​​for our four-legged companions?

From Spain to Hungary

Laura Cuaya from the Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary asked herself this question when she moved from Mexico to Hungary with her dog Kun-kun. “Before, I only spoke Spanish with him,” says Cuaya. “So I was wondering if Kun-kun had noticed that people in Budapest spoke a different language, namely Hungarian.” To find out, she and her colleagues trained Kun-kun and 17 other dogs, silently in one deceptive brain scanner. In this way, scientists were able to track the activity of the animals’ brains by listening to excerpts from the book “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry – sometimes in Spanish, sometimes in Hungarian – on headphones.

“All dogs heard from their owners only one of the two languages, which allowed us to compare a very familiar language with a completely unknown one,” reports Cuaya. “We also played dogs disjoint versions of these passages that sound completely unnatural. This allowed us to see if they even recognized the difference between speech and mute. “

Other brain activity

Outcome: Depending on whether the dogs heard non-verbal passages of sounds or one of the two languages, their primary auditory cortex showed different patterns of activity. In this area of ​​the brain, sounds are processed and classified according to loudness and pitch. From the brain activity in the primary auditory cortex, the scientists could not tell if the dogs heard Spanish or Hungarian, but were able to tell if it was speech or non-speech. However, it is not clear whether this has a qualitative meaning for animals: “While human brains are specially adapted to language, dog brains can simply recognize the naturalness of a sound,” explains Cuaya’s colleague Raúl Hernández-Pérez.

A greater distinction was observed in the dogs’ secondary auditory cortex. This region is responsible for the detailed processing of sounds – in humans, e.g. for recognizing words and melodies as such. The dogs also showed different patterns of activity depending on whether they heard known or unfamiliar language. The older the dog, the more pronounced the differences became. “Each language is characterized by a variety of auditory patterns. Our results suggest that by living with humans, dogs pick up the auditory patterns of the language they deal with. ‘

Unique to Man’s Best Friend?

The study proves for the first time that non-human brains are also capable of distinguishing and recognizing different human languages. “This is exciting because it shows that the ability to learn language regularity is not unique to humans,” says Cuaya’s colleague Attila Andics. Whether this is a dog’s specialty or whether other animals also have this ability has yet to be clarified. “Dogs have lived with humans for tens of thousands of years,” says Andics. “It is possible that it caused changes to their brains that made them better listeners. Future research will have to find out if this is the case. ‘

Source: Laura Cuaya (Eötvös Loránd University, Hungary) et al., NeuroImage, doi: 10.1016 / j.neuroimage.2021.118811

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