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She studies what dogs can teach us about our own language | We The People

Meet Amritha Mallikarjun, a cognitive scientist and postdoctoral research fellow at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center.

• Dogged commitment: “I wasn’t allowed to have any pets as a kid. I created several PowerPoint presentations to convince my parents how much I needed a pet, and none of them worked.”

• Evolutionary buddies: “Humans and dogs kind of coevolved together; we almost trained each other over the course of time. In another universe, we may have medium-sized pet bears, but here we are.”

When she began pursuing her Ph.D in cognitive science and neuroscience at the University of Maryland in 2014, Amritha Mallikarjun planned to study bilingualism in babies, inspired, in part, by her own childhood in Exton, Chester County.

“I grew up speaking Tamil, a South Indian language, and English,” she said. “I grew up bilingual and always thought it was cool how babies can learn two languages at the same time.”

But after a few years in the doctorate program, none of Mallikarjun’s experiments were working and she began to wonder if this was, indeed, her calling.

Then, one day at a lab meeting, her class read about Chaser, a border collie from South Carolina who was able to identify more than 1,000 words, gaining her the reputation as “the smartest dog in the world.”

What if, Mallikarjun thought, we ran the same experiments with dogs that we were running with babies? What could be learned?

“I just wanted to do something fun to renew my love of research,” she said. “We didn’t think it would work, but then it worked! And we didn’t change anything from what we did with infants.”

The study led Mallikarjun to formulate more questions and more studies: What do dogs know? What words can dogs understand? And what can they teach us about how the human language develops?

“I found this is the path for me,” she said. “I just needed to add dogs.”

Mallikarjun, 29, of University City, graduated from Downingtown East High School in 2010 and attended Carnegie Mellon University, where she majored in cognitive science and human-computer interaction before pursuing her Ph.D at the University of Maryland. Her doctoral research helped form the university’s Canine Language Perception Lab in 2017.

“One really interesting thing about dogs and infants, when infants are in the 8-to-12-months range, dogs, as adults, know a similar number of words,” she said. “What’s interesting is infants go on to develop a complex linguistic system. Dogs can learn new words, but it doesn’t explode like babies.”

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Among the studies Mallikarjun conducted was one that looked at why infants aren’t great at hearing their name when there’s background noise. One school of thought was that their auditory system was still developing and their hearing hadn’t reached its full potential. Another theory was that perhaps they can’t pay attention because they’re inundated with stimuli.

“With dogs, we can pull these things apart. Dogs don’t have a great attention span, but they are great at hearing, so by giving them the same scenarios we can get a sense of the role of hearing versus the role of attention,” she said. “It seems that the reason infants aren’t that good at this is because it’s hard to pay attention when there’s all this interesting stuff going on at the same time.”

When it comes to communicating with our dogs, we don’t so much share a language as an understanding, which grew as our species evolved together over time, Mallikarjun said. Dogs can associate different human words with concepts, and they’re good at interpreting our body language too, she said.

And if you have a “dog voice” when speaking to your pooch — or…

Read More:She studies what dogs can teach us about our own language | We The People

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