Polyglot [Dog]Nation

Since I moved to NYC in July, I frequently compare life here to life in the burbs. I guess this is natural for anyone, but I think it makes even more sense from a writer's perspective--I'm always listening, always comparing, always filing away impressions and observations for later possible use; you get the picture. Anyway, one of the most obvious differences is the heterogeneity of the city's population as compared to that of the burbs. I go out every day and meet and talk to people from many different countries--from Ethiopia, Brazil, Russia, Colombia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India, Venezuela, Pakistan, Malta, Korea, Argentina, Japan, China, Albania...I could go on and on. And although most of them have accents, they all speak English. 

Although I loved studying languages and studied many languages for many years in public school and college and elsewhere (8 years of latin, 6 years of French, 2 years of Spanish taught by a man who was a native of Portugal, so he threw in some Portuguese as well, 2 years of conversational Spanish provided by my employer, Boston Children's Hospital, one year of Greek), the only language I speak fluently is English. When I've traveled to countries where the native language is one I've studied, I find that after a few days I begin to speak at least a little. But I'm so impressed that people not only travel thousands of miles away from home to come here to live, but also learn to communicate successfully in a language that is not their native one, while at the same time being able to switch back and forth at will. 

In Belgium they speak French and Flemish

In Belgium they speak French and Flemish

For some reason--I sometimes attribute it to the fact that I'm a musician, so I have a natural ear--I've always been able to hear the way a language sounds and am able to copy that when I speak it. The benefit is that I feel I'm doing justice to that language, and I'm happy I can. The downside is that sometimes people hear me and assume that because my accent is good, I am fluent in the language. That happened in Paris, it's happened in Spanish-speaking countries, and it sometimes happens here when I make a feeble attempt to speak to a native speaker of another language. Then I can't fake it anymore. I have to admit that no, I can communicate pleasantries with a good accent, but I'm not able to converse.

All of this became quite clear when I brought Moki to the city. I knew I needed to hire a dog walker for him. The first one, Paulo, is originally from Brazil. His native language is Portuguese. Then Andrés came along, and he's Colombian, so Moki started hearing Spanish. I encouraged these folks to speak to my dog in whatever their native language is. Now that Andrés is away for a while, Katarina is the dog walker, and she's from Russia. So she promised she would speak to Moki in Russian. The super in my building is from Malta. The guys who installed my kitchen counters are from Albania. A friend in my chorus who was born in Kyoto loves dogs (and loves my dog), so she talks to him in Japanese. 

And the really interesting thing about it is that Moki responds to all of them. I just read  some research that claims dogs really do understand words, despite the old rule of thumb that they simply respond to tone of voice or body language. I know that when I say "siéntade" to him, he sits, even though he didn't hear the Colombian Spanish command to sit until a couple of months ago. 

The cool part about all of this is that we are a nation of immigrants--a polyglot nation. My grandparents emigrated here from Romania (I speak not one word of Romanian), and most of my acquaintances (even those who trace their beginnings back to the Mayflower or before) have a similar story about where their parents or grandparents or they themselves emigrated from. Learning about all of these interesting people, even for Moki, involves learning about their origins, their languages, their desire to be here. And I find it very exciting. So, Moki, siéntade, or seedyet, or suware, or zit, or senta, or ulu. Or "sit" in any language whatsoeverIn that respect, in our own individual ways, we are all alike. 

 
 
Moki watching a Belgian Tervuren at the Crufts Dog Show -- but that's in English

Moki watching a Belgian Tervuren at the Crufts Dog Show -- but that's in English