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Rats Distinguish Languages

The Washington Post - January 10, 2005

Rats Distinguish Languages

The ability to recognize patterns in the sound of speech is considered fundamental to the development of spoken language. Only two species of mammals, humans and tamarin monkeys, were known to possess this ability -- until now.  

New research has identified a surprising third -- rats.

Juan M. Toro of the Parc Cientific of Barcelona in Spain and colleagues studied 16 rats, training them to press a lever when they heard a synthesized five-second sentence in Dutch or Japanese.

The rats could differentiate between sentences in Dutch or Japanese, pressing the lever only when they were played a sentence in the language in which they had been trained. The rats trained in Japanese, for example, did not press the lever when they were played the same sentence in Dutch.

In addition, the animals appeared able to transfer their familiarity with the patterns of the language they had been trained in to new sentences -- pressing the lever when they were played sentences in that language even if they had never heard them before.

"It was striking to find that rats can track certain information that seems to be so important in language development in humans," Toro said.

The rats were, however, not as adept as humans, who are able to discern the same sentence when spoken by different individuals, something rats were less able to do.

The research shows "which abilities that humans use for language are shared with other animals and which are uniquely human."

-- Rob Stein

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