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Can Dogs Be Bilingual? The Surprising Answer!

Oliver Jones

By Oliver Jones

pit bull dogs sitting in chairs on a balcony

If you’ve ever moved to a new house, you’ll know how difficult it can be. Moving to another country, where the native language is unfamiliar, poses even more challenges and not only for us but for our dogs too. As it turns out, our dogs can tell different languages apart.

While humans, even infants who can’t speak, can recognize different languages, it’s less clear whether dogs can. But in a recent study published in NeuroImage, it was found that dogs can tell the difference too.1 While it might be unlikely that they understand the concept of different languages, they can recognize the sound of foreign words. Dogs may not be actually bilingual, but they can understand words in multiple languages.

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Are Dogs Bilingual?

If we speak in technicalities, dogs aren’t bilingual. To be bilingual, they’d need to be able to fluently speak a language different from their own. While they can understand words, they’re incapable of speaking in human languages.

However, dogs are “bilingual” in the sense that they can distinguish between languages. They can recognize the language that you speak the most and know when they’re hearing a different one. It’s like how we can differentiate between languages, even if we don’t understand what’s being said.

In the NeuroImage study, 18 dogs were trained to sit still during a brain scan while they listened to “The Little Prince” excerpts in Spanish, Hungarian, and then with the sound distorted. The dogs’ brain scans showed a reaction to both the familiar and unfamiliar languages. During the distorted sound part of the study, the scans also showed that our beloved canines can distinguish between speech and non-speech noises.

close up of golden retriever
Image Credit: thepetsupplier08, Pixabay

How Do Dogs Understand Language?

Dogs learn through repetition and consistency. You can teach them tricks in whatever language you want, provided that you use the same commands. When it comes down to it, though, dogs don’t understand words the same way that we do.

Instead, they rely on tone, the word itself, and body language or a hand gesture. This is why a gesture can help them understand what you’re asking from them when you give them a command. It helps them differentiate between one word and another, even if they can hear the difference in the words themselves.

In the NeuroImage study, it was revealed that older dogs find it easier to tell the difference between languages. This could be due to older dogs having more experience and familiarity with the languages that their favorite humans speak the most.

Can Dogs Learn a New Language?

There’s no doubt that dogs are intelligent. They can wow us with their grasp on commands and even pick up on things that we never intended to teach them.

While we might not be able to teach dogs how to be fluent in another language — or our own, for that matter — it is possible to teach some dogs multiple words for the same trick. This is a good way to challenge your dog once they’ve learned the trick in one language.

There is a risk of confusing your dog, though. Since they don’t understand language so much as recognize sounds and the expected result, throwing in a strange word can do more harm than good. Sometimes it’s easier and far less confusing for your pooch for you to stick with one language.

This is true for service dogs too, especially if they were trained abroad like some police or guide dogs are. Many of them are taught commands in French, German, or another language. By the time they’re matched with their handlers in another country, it’s easier for the handlers to learn the commands in these languages than it is for the canine partners to relearn the same tricks in a new language.

If you do want to teach your dog their commands in another language, remember to only use one language at a time while they’re learning. Combine the word with a familiar hand gesture, and use plenty of positive reinforcement when they get it right.

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Final Thoughts

Although they can’t form words the same way that we can, dogs can tell the difference between a language that they’re familiar with and one that they’ve never heard before. They might not be bilingual in the sense that they can speak and fully understand human languages, but they can tell when they hear different speech patterns.

Your intelligent pooch can even relearn their favorite tricks with foreign commands. Introduce the new word slowly, and combine it with familiar hand gestures. In no time at all, you’ll be able to wow your friends with your bilingual dog’s tricks.

See also:

Featured Image Credit: otsphoto, Shutterstock

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