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Dogs Can Recognize Multiple Languages and Nonsense Words: Study

Cute doodle dog on a bed

Just when you thought dogs couldn’t get any more amazing, in comes the latest study proving, once again, that we’ve underestimated the intelligence of our favourite furry companions. 

Much like preverbal babies, or even adults arriving in a new country, dogs can recognize when they are being spoken to in a different language, and even if that language is an entirely made up one. 

Related: Kids who sleep with pets enjoy better quality slumber, study says.

Two dogs from the experiment next to an MRI machine
Eniko Kubinyi

Research out of Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary found that different parts of dogs brains light up depending on whether the pup is hearing a familiar language, an unfamiliar language or nonsense sounds that don’t mean anything in any language. 

Specifically, the study found that dogs could tell the difference between Spanish and Hungarian (one of the most unique human spoken languages). The research also found that the age of the dog mattered too, with the older dogs being better able to differentiate familiar and unfamiliar languages than younger pups.

Related: These are the most popular dog breeds in Canada in 2021: study.

The older dogs had more activity in parts of the brain that sync up with recognizing a familiar versus unfamiliar language. Lead author and neurobiologist Laura Cuaya explains in a press release, that “older dogs have had more opportunities to listen to humans while they talk.” All this listening leads to recognition of unique patterns that make up a language.

What makes this study significant is that it’s the first time humans have been able to show, scientifically, that a non-primate species can have “spontaneous language ability” and discern between familiar and unfamiliar human languages.   

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One of the dogs from the study in an MRI machine
Eniko Kubinyi

The details of the study

For their research, the study authors looked at brain patterns in 18 dogs of different breeds and ages and who had been previously trained to remain still in MRI machines (but who had the freedom to leave at any time). 

Two of the dogs were familiar with Spanish and the remaining 16 were well-versed in Hungarian. As the dogs were scanned, researchers played the pups three different recordings: a Hungarian reading of the famous children’s book The Little Prince, a Spanish reading of the same book and human noises that did not resemble speech at all.

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Each of the dogs had previously only been socialized in one of the two languages (either Spanish or Hungarian). The scans suggest that not only can dogs discern between human speech and non-speech, but that they can tell when the language spoken is a new one. 

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