Lessons Learned from Having a Bilingual Dog

Sometimes the way we treat our pets reveals more about our own human relationships.

I'm a Latina (of the Boricua kind) through and through, but when I got a dog, I only spoke English to her. I had my first dog as a grown-up here in the US; I was already mainstreamed in the language and the culture, so when I got Blondie, the prettiest golden retriever mix you ever saw, I spoke to her in the language I used every day without realizing that my sweet doggie was being deprived of learning my birth language.

A boy and his dog/iStockphotoA boy and his dog/iStockphoto

One day we were going over formal and informal commands in Spanish class when one of my students asked, "Entonces, ¿usa usted 'mandatos informales' con su perro?" "Sí, ¡por supuesto!" I answered, but quickly realized that I'd just lied; I spoke no Spanish to my dog at all! As a matter of fact, if I were to take Blondie to visit the other members of my family, she wouldn't have understood anyone. But wait, it got worse. I realized that I did speak Spanish to my dog, but only when I got mad at her. She heard ven acá and ¿qué es esto? in the most angry voice possible every time. Spanish words meant fuete (she knew that one, too!); I was a horrible doggie mama.

Spanish K-9 classes began right away at my house. I started by turning a strident ven acá into a sweet request accompanied by treats. It worked, too. Soon, Blondie had a good vocabulary that included words and phrases like, orejitas, pipita (ears, belly, her favorite scratching spots), ardillitas (squirrels, her favorite live "toy") and ¿quieres comer? (Do you want to eat?). Unfortunately, she decided that re-learning basic commands in another language, like siéntate (sit) or acuéstate (lay down) were no longer in her "contract". She never really took well to Spanish commands, and responded only at her convenience.

Now, have you ever noticed that you speak to your kids like you speak to your dog? Do you speak English with your kids on an everyday basis, only to break out into harsh Spanish when you get mad at them? As you can imagine, that may not be the right way to make your culture and speech palatable to the next generation at home (be it human or canine).

When it comes to talking to pets or to children, I find the following to be true:

· DO speak your second language at home, early and often.

· DON'T use language as a "weapon" to hurt or punish.

· DO treat others with love and respect. You'll receive the same treatment back.

· DON'T deprive them of the joys of language, noise, food and culture. The rewards of seeing these passed on are priceless.

And like my abuela used to say, "¡Eso es así!"

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