I am multilingual and consider myself a native Greek and English speaker. People like Ziad Fazah, born in Liberia, famously speak a total of 59 world languages. Can other creatures share that ability, though? Specifically, can dogs understand more than one language?
When Laura Cuaya moved from Mexico to Hungary to work as a brain researcher at the Neuroethology of Communication Lab at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, she encountered a new language. In her words,
When I moved from Mexico to Hungary to start my post-doc research, all was new for me. Obviously, here, people in Budapest speak Hungarian. So you’ve had a different language, completely different for me.
The language was also new to her two dogs: Kun Kun and Odín.
The Little Prince
“People are super friendly with their dogs [in Budapest]. And my dogs, they are interested in interacting with people,” Cuaya said. “But I wonder, did they also notice people here … spoke a different language?”
Cuaya set out to find the answer. She and her colleagues designed an experiment with 18 volunteer dogs — including her two border collies — to see if they could differentiate between two languages. Kun Kun and Odín were used to hearing Spanish; the other dogs, Hungarian.
The dogs sat still within an MRI machine while listening to an excerpt from the story The Little Prince. They heard one version in Spanish, and another in Hungarian. Then the scientists analyzed the dogs’ brain activity.
Attila Andics leads the lab where the study took place and said researchers were looking for brain regions that showed a different activity pattern for one language versus the other.
“And we found a brain region — the secondary auditory cortex, which is a higher-level processing region in the auditory hierarchy — which showed a different activity pattern for the familiar language and for the unfamiliar language,” Andics said.
“This activity pattern difference to the two languages suggests that dogs’ brains can differentiate between these two languages. In terms of brain imaging studies, this study is the very first one which showed that a non-human species brain can discriminate between languages.”
They also found that older dogs brains’ showed bigger differences in brain activity between the two languages, perhaps because older dogs have more experience listening to human language.