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Dogs pick up difference in human languages as shown in MRI scan

Kun-Kun keeping perfectly still for brain scan while being spoken to in Spanish and Hungarian

The participating dogs in a study on how they perceive different languages spoken by their owner and others required that their brains were MRI scanned while listening to two different languages. They were trained to keep completely still in order for a successful MRI scan to be carried out. It took several months training. My research tells me that the average MRI scan takes an average of about 45-60 minutes for each body part.

Kun-Kun keeping perfectly still for brain scan while being spoken to in Spanish and Hungarian

Kun-kun with earphones looking incredibly cute and obedient. Photo: Raúl Hernández

I found the ability of these dogs to keep perfectly still for, perhaps, 45 minutes more interesting than the results of the study itself. The conclusions of the study, for me, seem banal and common sense.

They discovered that dogs can pick up the differences when a person speaks in different languages. This must make sense because dogs and cats understand the sounds that their owners’ and others make but they don’t understand the language itself. They convert human language into a series of sounds and then interpret those sounds in the context in which they are made. And the context is the rhythms and routines of a dog or cat and what their owner is doing at that time and what they expect to happen at that time.

Attila Andics, from Eostvos Lorand University, Hungary, said:

“Human infants can distinguish between languages before they start to speak. This is part of the very important capacities for being able to produce speech and comprehend language. And we begin to wonder how much it is a unique capacity for humans.”

So, he wanted to find out whether animals had this capacity. The research was inspired by his colleague Laura Cuaya who moved to his laboratory from Mexico. Her dog, Kun-Kun, came with her. In Mexico she spoke to her dog in Spanish. She wondered whether Kun-Kun would spot the difference in language when living in Budapest.

To test it they put Kun-Kun through an MRI scan (see photo above). In all, they put 18 dogs, some Hungarian and some Spanish through the scanner. They had all learned to hold their head perfectly stationary.

They each heard a passage in both languages i.e. Spanish and Hungarian from The Little Prince which did not contain words the dogs might readily recognise such as “walkies” and “sit”.

They noticed a “clear and discernible difference when they were listening to their own language”. The words are those of the journalist reporting this in The Times.

Laura said that the research should be reassuring to dog caregivers because it “suggest that even if they don’t understand they are still listening”.