My French-Canadian friend (not Celine Dion) has a Labrador that seems to ignore me consciously. I talk to the dog, as I do every animal I spend any amount of time with that is more than just in passing, and he’s blank. He’s not dumb, he’s just not connecting, quite clearly. It’s enough to make me wonder sometimes if I somehow wronged him, though that doesn’t seem right either because he is otherwise affectionate and often down to cuddle. Real hot and cold, that one.
However, his seeming part-time apathy immediately melts away when my friend starts speaking to him in French. The ears perk, the head cocks, the mouth opens, the animal transforms into an engaged, connected being. It’s as though his generally soulful vibe finally has an outlet.
Watching his very different reactions to English and French, I wondered if he could tell the difference between the two. Was he unconsciously filing away my English in his brain’s “(presumably French) words I don’t understand” folder, or could he somehow tell that I was on an entirely different linguistic plane than the one his bilingual owner communicates with him in? I thought about this a lot during the holidays and meant to research/ask experts about dogs’ relationship to human language, perhaps even for a piece for our Not So Deep Thoughts column, but then EOY obligations called and it got put on the back burner and simply evaporated, as stuff tends to do during the holidays.
Well, I’m glad I dragged my feet because a study recently published in the journal NeuroImage by researchers from Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary probed the exact question I had regarding how dogs hear different languages. The study has, for the first time, demonstrated that non-human brains can differentiate between languages. Game changer! It just goes to show that if you wait around long enough, smarter and more capable people may end up doing the work that you meant to do. That’s science!
The team has put together a video that explains the study in terms a child could understand (and it’s illustrated adorably to boot):
Laura V. Cuaya, the first author of the study, titled “Speech naturalness detection and language representation in the dog brain,” said that she came up with the idea after moving to Hungary from Mexico. Until then, she’d only spoken to her dog Kun-kun in Spanish and she wondered if he could tell that people in his new country were speaking a different language.
Cuaya and her team found that he indeed can, at least on an unconscious level. Kun-kun and 17 other dogs were administered fMRIs, while readings of The Little Prince in Spanish and Hungarian played for them. (They literally put headphones on the dogs. It was very sweet.) The dogs also listened to scrambled versions of the excerpts. The researchers found distinct patterns in the dogs’ brains that discerned between speech and non-speech and, in a different brain region, Spanish and Hungarian.
Whew! Mystery solved. One of the study’s senior authors, Attila Andics, has a few caveats about the results: “We do not know whether this capacity is dogs’ specialty, or general among non-human species. Indeed, it is possible that the brain changes from the tens of thousand years that dogs have been living with humans have made them better language listeners, but this is not necessarily the case. Future studies will have to find this out.”
Great. Do cats next!