I’m learning a new language.
I worked hard at Spanish. I learned a lot of words. But the Spanish speak in such a machine-gun monotone that no matter what they say, I respond with, “¿Excúseme?”
Italian was much easier. The words were about the same as in Spanish so I had a head start. And real Italians all speak as clearly as the people on the Beginner’s Italian recording. Best of all, they don’t automatically hate me for being American, which helps.
I like to be good at things. If I’m not immediately darling at something I usually give it up. I don’t even bother to try any of the languages where the letters are upside down and backwards, the sentences read right to left, or they draw words using a branch.
I have two cats, and Cat is a snap to learn. Basically, there are only two phrases:
- “Rowoo.” = “Be a good chap and open me a can of Friskie Delights Sardine Pâté, would you?”
- Blank stare. = “You are tiresome.”
With those two phrases, my cats and I understand each other pretty well.
I am caring for my girlfriend’s dog Phooey for a few days, and I am getting an immersion course in Dog. I speak a little Dog, from my days working at the Humane Society. I once stopped by the kennel of a particularly beautiful Australian Shepherd, considered among the smartest breeds. He lifted my hand with his elegant nose, and tossed it onto his soft head, as if to say, “Scritch it, would you?” I did, and he was pleased. He repeated the motion, guiding my hand atop his head with his nose. I skritched. “Very good.” Then he lifted my hand again, only this time he set it on the cage door latch. His eyes said, “Get it?”
The trouble I’m having is that Phooey is not an Australian Shepherd, but a purebred Shih Tzu. Not only is his vocabulary much smaller, but he was bred in one of those countries that writes with sticks.
Here’s what I have figured out so far:
- Jumps up on my shin, dances and spins on the floor. Go potty, do tricks, walkies, ride in the car: anything seems to be the right answer.
- Low grumble, then sneezes snot on me. This means something like, “I am not getting through to you!” He never does. By some quirk of evolution, he never runs out of snot.
When Italians speak with foreigners, they continue in Italian as if you understand them. They presume that the beautiful sound of their language will carry the message well enough. Americans reply with either “Gratzee” or “Skoozee.”
The Spanish look at you with an expression that conveys, “Why did you even bother to come here, if you can’t speak our language?” Then they speak to you in English that is better than yours.
The French will say, equally well in French or English, “I don’t want to talk to you.”
When Americans talk to foreigners, we TALK LOU-DER AND SLOW-ER WITH MORE DICK-SHUN, as if the listener were equal parts foreign and retarded.
Phooey and I are currently at a standstill, both of us looking at the other, tilting our heads left, then right. Normally, I like to communicate with animals, but I have a nagging suspicion that if I succeed in learning the Shih Tzu dialect, I’d end up leading the life of a beleaguered hairdresser.