In Dijon, Meiyun Xu learns to talk to her dog Coco. The student is preparing a thesis on animal communication. His Border Collie already combines forty words to express his wants and needs.
How about teaching your dog to talk? This is the bet from Meiyun Xu, a young Chinese student from the University of Burgundy. For her thesis on the language skills of animals, she taught French to her Border Collie, named Coco.
11 months old, Coco can now share his feelings and desires thanks to a sound blanket. He started his apprenticeship as a 3 and a half month old. At the start there were only 4 keys: go out – cuddle – eat – play. “For him it’s like learning another language” explains Meiyun Xu. “When I added touches so he could express his feelings (want-yes-no) and notions of time (now-later).”
Coco now combines 34 words (verbs and nouns) to make simple sentences and convey ideas. It can intervene even when it is not requested. “When I work too long without taking care of him, Coco goes to the mat and presses “mom” “work” “done”, explains his amazed mistress.
“The Border Collie is one of the seven favorite dog breeds for language learning, but I discover new things every week. The other day he farted and pressed “ups”. Maybe Coco has a sense of humor!she said with a big laugh.
On social networks, the videos of Coco and Meiyun are causing a buzz. There are 40,000 subscribers to the tiktok profile hello_cocospeaking. He is also becoming a treasure of the media (RTL, Le Parisien, Ouest France …)
But beyond the playful and amusing aspect, Coco is above all preparing to take part in an in-depth scientific study in a lesser-known field that is struggling to fund its research: the linguistics.
Meiyun Xu trained her dog Coco as part of her dissertation in the laboratory of the Multidisciplinary Texts and Cultures Center at the University of Burgundy, entitled “Teaching animals in languages, from arbitrariness to iconicity“.
His research focuses on dogs’ learning abilities and mechanisms. In fact, in the last ten years, researchers have noticed that dogs have as many or even more capabilities than primates: “Several animals have already learned to communicate such as gray parrots, chimpanzees or dogs. By the age of 3, Rico had learned over 200 words. ”
Scientific research has already shown that dogs understand the intonation of sentences at their right hemisphere and the meaning of sentences at their left hemisphere in a way similar to the human brain.
Dogs have greater language skills than primates because they know how to stare and point, which is not the case with great apes.Meijun Xu, researcher at the University of Burgundy
She planned two experiments to determine which type of language is better suited to dogs, iconic or arbitrary. Iconic language matches the object and the word used to describe it, as onomatopoeia or evocative words like “blow” or “nose”. When language was created, this logic was found for many words, but it has gradually disappeared.
Meiyun will therefore test the sound / object relationship through experiments involving forms and phonemes. Will Coco associate the sound “ON” with a round shape and “I” with a pointed shape that humans have instinctively made since the dawn of time? Will a word consisting of repeated sounds be connected by the dog with an object with several similar patterns (a rope with several knots)?
Another experiment will deal with the sound / writing association : “Now that Coco has figured out how to use buzzers, I want to give her two buzzers per idea. One will be plain, the other will be illustrated with a drawing. The idea is to know which one the dog will prefer because previous experiments with other animals have shown that language learning lasts over time when a sound is associated with a graphic. Written records have made it possible for man to evolve, to develop his language, to accumulate knowledgeExplains the PhD student, who should soon begin his studies.
Each experiment, each experiment must be filmed. Meiyun will notice what behavior Coco will have, what object will be chosen, and what her reaction time will be. If the protocol is validated, the 29-year-old young woman will need to integrate other dogs into the study.
My work will allow owners to better communicate with their dogs because studies show that people have trouble interpreting their reactions.Meiyun Xu, PhD student in linguistics at the University of Burgundy
Coco could learn a hundred words. He is already able to say that he is tired or to insist if he really needs to go out to relieve himself: “This dissertation will also be a way to prove the intelligence of dogs and defend the condition of the animals.“, she concludes.
Have you ever seen a talking dog? me yes! His name is Coco.