Neuroscientists at the University of Barcelona have discovered that rats can - with a little encouragement - tell the difference between Dutch and Japanese. Sadly, this newfound linguistic ability does not extend to actually understanding what is being said, thereby thwarting hopes that rat-brain-controlled stealth attack drones could be guided onto al-Qaeda strongholds by the dulcet tones of Donald Rumsfeld.
Rather, the said rodents are able to differentiate the rhythmic properties of the two languages - a process which the boffins believe may give clues as to how human babies develop language skills, according to a New Scientist report.
A team led by neuroscientist Juan Toro trained the rats to "recognise either Dutch or Japanese - by pressing a lever in response to a short sentence - and then exposed them to sentences they had not heard before, in both languages". They discovered that while their guinea rats could tell the difference between the languages "as long as the sentences were computer-synthesised or both languages were spoken by the same person", playing the sentences backwards or having them spoken by different people threw the poor animals completely.
Toro says this is because exposing rats to a different voice makes the job "too difficult" for the little blighters. As regards playing sentences backwards, Toro notes that this also throws human infants and monkeys - as previous experiments proved. Toro admitted he didn't know "what exactly is lost by playing speech backwards". We make no comment.
The bottom line is that rats are not apparently developing the ability to speak. Toro reckons they probably have "some mechanism suited for auditory processing in general" which they evolved "to sense sound patterns that might warn of predators approaching or changing predator behaviour". Human speech may too have begun as a similar evolutionary device, Toro concludes. ®
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