Monday, November 23, 2009

English As A Second Language

I spent a lot of years teaching Romance Languages to English-speakers. Now I'm teaching English As A Second Language to my Cavalier King Charles puppy, Bisou.

She came to us at the age of nine weeks already fluent in Dog. Despite looking like she belonged to a different species from my two German Shepherds (pendulous ears, shortish nose, red coat) from day one she fit seamlessly into their society. She understood the (to me) invisible and inaudible warnings from Lexi that told her not to trespass in certain (to me) mysterious areas of the living room. She knew she could leap up endlessly to bite Wolfie's muzzle, but that at certain points in the dialogue she must flip over like an omelette and lie very still on her back. She understood, without the need of a single growl or snap, that she was never to wander over to the big dogs' feeding bowls at dinner time.

Dog is mostly a silent language, composed of signs and subtle moves. A few gifted humans understand a small percentage of these. In Dog, I am at the phrase-book stage—about the same level as Bisou's grasp of English As A Second Language.

She is making progress though. She knows “waitttt!” and “sitttt!” and “outside” and “inside” and “do your business!” followed by “good girl!” and “treat!” She knows “come!” but sometimes pretends she's forgotten. She knows her name, with variations: “Bisou, Beez, Bisoulette.”

As in all elementary classes, I try to keep things simple. “Toy” for the moment must stand for “bone, ball, and tiny bear.” Discriminating among bone, ball, and bear will come in the advanced stages. Her vocabulary right now is composed mostly of nouns, and of verbs in the imperative.

Given the nature of our relationship with dogs, the verbs will continue to be mostly in the imperative. (Most of my utterances to Wolfie are imperatives: get in the car, bring me the sheep, find Bisou!) There will just be more and more of them.

But we won't stop there. Soon I'll throw in some subjunctives (if you were to have a bath you would smell better) and interrogatives (why did you jump on the sofa with muddy feet?) and she'll look at me with her big eyes and act as if she understands every word.

And she will understand every word—just not my English words, but the other ones, the ones that I transmit by posture, tone and smell, and that reveal what I really mean. The ones in Dog.

9 comments :

  1. I discovered, but don't use, that MrB is mostly responding to the subtlies(not a word) of my body language. So if I give my commands mute, he responds to my body. He really doesn't know the words. So dogs speak all languages but understand little verbal.

    I watched our amazing NSO conductor on Saturday night and he respected the musicians by not directing them in Ravel's Bolero but letting them play their parts as they well knew them. But he had such play and fun with them as he gave the musical emphasis that it occurred to me that he probably was/is a great dog trainer. As you know from playing in orchestras, no words were ever spoken.

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  2. mrb, that is such an interesting thought about conducting and dog training. At one point, when Ed and I were deeply into ballroom dancing and I was training a dog, I used to think about the parallels between a "strong lead" in dancing and what goes on in heeling.

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  3. the ones you often don't know you're conveying....

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  4. So true! It's like the faux pas one makes in a foreign language, using the wrong word and conveying a totally unintended meaning.

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  5. I love the image of Bisoulette "flipping over like an omlette" Delicious.

    The daughter of a friend of mine is a young woman so passionate about language that she has playfully formed something called "The Society to Save the Subjunctive". Can't wait to tell her that I know a Cavalier King Charles on the waiting list for membership.

    And...love the analogies between dancing, conducting and dog training - and I suspect that a professional diplomat would have much to say about the importance of gesture and movement as well.

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  6. The subjunctive. That's so funny.

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  7. Now you've got me going on the subjunctive, I'm going to have to write a post about it.

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