English is a Foreign Language

Cocked head old boxer

“Quiero hacer lo que tú quieres, pero no entiendo lo que estás diciendo.”  Do you understand what you just read?  Perhaps you’re able to recognize it as Spanish and pick up a few basic words, but not enough to really get the gist of the message. Maybe you know Spanish well enough to have a general idea of what’s being said – something about wanting, understanding and saying.  You may even speak Spanish fluently, or at least well enough to translate this to, “I want to do what you want, but I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

I think this is what our dogs go through on a regular basis.  English is a foreign language for them.  We speak to them all the time, but so often they truly don’t understand what we’re saying.  This is true even when we’ve taken the time to teach them specific words, like “sit” (at least in the beginning).

When I was learning Spanish, it was not uncommon for me to “learn” a new word and then forget it later when I needed it in conversation (or for an exam)!  I’m sure most of us have experienced this in one way or another.  I think in many cases, this is what happens when you look at your dog and give her a cue that she “should” know.  Perhaps she’s heard it before.  Perhaps she’s even responded to it correctly before.  But that doesn’t mean she truly knows it.  It’s hard enough for us to learn a language we didn’t grow up speaking.  In this case, English is not only a foreign language, they’re not even communicating with the same species!  Dogs are certainly capable of learning specific words – one study reports that the average dog ‘understands’ 32 different words1.  However, in many cases, in order for an animal (human or otherwise) to truly “know” a word, they have to meaningful exposure to it over and over again, in many different contexts.  By meaningful exposure, I mean that hearing that word has to have some relevance to them.  If you ask your dog if she wants to “go for a ride” before you take her out or repeatedly refer to her favorite toy by name, those words have relevance to her.  She probably hears “love” or “work” or “money” at least as often as “ride” and “walk”, but they are unlikely to mean anything to her, thus she is very unlikely to learn anything about those particular words.


Toy - cocker

Dog and humans have been living together for a long time (at least 10,000 years), so why aren’t they better at understanding human language?  I believe there are three reasons.

Evolution is slow.

Ten thousand years on an evolutionary time scale is almost no time at all.  In order for change to happen you must first have a genetic mutation that provides some kind of advantage.  It then has to compete will all of the other variations of that trait and eventually (if it’s good enough), fight it’s way to the top.  That process can take tens, or even hundreds, of thousands of years, especially if the advantage of the trait is relatively small.

Language is incredibly variable.

As we all know, human language varies from one geographical area to the next.  Even within countries, language can vary dramatically from one region to the next.  In addition, language varies widely across time.  This variability in language would make it difficult for dogs to develop a predisposition for learning one particular language over another.

There is a lot of “noise”

Humans talk a lot.  This means we are saying things all the time that have little or no relevancy to dogs.  On the other hand, our body language, body orientation and tone of voice frequency do convey meaningful information for dogs (for example, if you’re angry, they learn to stay away).  It makes sense that dogs may have evolved to pay attention to these aspects of communication more than our verbal cues.

Black and white funny face

So, next time you think your dog is blowing you off, think again.  Maybe he truly doesn’t understand.  Even if he’s heard that word before, maybe he can’t quite remember what it means right NOW.  If your dog isn’t responding to a cue, try going back and doing some review (i.e. retraining).  We all benefit from a reminder now and then!

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Picture of Kristina Spaulding

Kristina Spaulding

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About Science Matters

The Science Matters blog provides practical science-based information on dog training and behavior in addition to personal, heartfelt stories about loving and living with dogs.   For a more detailed summary, take a look at the first blog post here.

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