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Dogs Can Tell Difference Between Familiar and Unfamiliar Languages

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Dogs may be the only known animals that can distinguish between human languages apart from humans themselves. Credit: Public Domain

Dogs are smarter than you think; according to recent research, dogs can distinguish between languages they are familiar with and those they’ve never heard before.

Researchers scanned the brains of 18 dogs with an MRI machine while the canines heard a recording of a Spanish speaker, then of a Hungarian speaker, reading aloud from the book “The Little Prince.” They were also played a recording of human noises that did not contain or resemble speech as a type of control mechanism.

Dogs can tell the difference between human languages

One set of dogs had Spanish-speaking owners, while the other had Hungarian-speaking owners, and each group had never had any contact whatsoever with the other language.

The scans revealed that dogs can indeed distinguish between unfamiliar and familiar languages — and it incredibly even showed that their brains reacted differently to each language.

Published in the journal NeuroImage, the study was authored by neurobiologist Laura Cuaya, whose research developed out of her experience moving to Hungary from Mexico with her own dog.

The big move made Cuaya wonder if her dog could tell the difference between her own speech, which was Spanish, and the parlance of the people around her, which was Hungarian.

The findings of the study indicate that dogs may be the only known non-human animals that can distinguish between human languages.

Skill likely developed due to domestication

Researchers believe that the answer to the canines’ ability to distinguish known and unknown languages lies in their temporal cortex, a portion of dogs’ brains located near their ears.

The temporal cortex is split into the primary auditory cortex, which filters sounds between speech and other noises, and the secondary auditory cortex, which the researchers believes determines whether the speech is familiar or unfamiliar.

The scans also indicated that older dogs, who presumably have come into contact with more humans and languages than their younger counterparts, had more activity in their secondary auditory cortex than younger dogs.

Researchers posit that dogs have refined their ability to distinguish between human languages due to the millennia-long domestication process, which depended on dogs’ following spoken human commands.

The ancient Greeks loved dogs

Ancient Greeks had a great love and respect for their dogs, cherishing them as companions, protectors, and hunters, as evidenced by several canine tombstones discovered over the centuries.

The great philosopher Socrates himself saw wisdom in dogs.

He claimed that dogs are true philosophers because they “distinguish the face of a friend and of an enemy only by the criterion of knowing and not knowing” and concluded that dogs want to learn things, because by learning they determine what they like and what they do not based upon knowledge of the truth.

Socrates explained that the dog has learned who is a friend and who is not and, based on that knowledge, he responds appropriately, while human beings are often deceived as to who their true friends are.

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