Joco Diversions

In Spanish, English or Dog-lish, tone and gestures speak volumes

Jack enjoys his birthday burger and fries. He probably didn’t understand the song, but he understood he must be pretty special to score this meal.
Jack enjoys his birthday burger and fries. He probably didn’t understand the song, but he understood he must be pretty special to score this meal. Special to The Star

I’ve been trying to teach my dog English for some time now, and so far he’s about as successful a student as I can reasonably expect.

Even though Jack can’t speak the language, I think he understands most of the important things the rest of the family tells him. Honestly, that’s not too far behind where I stand with Spanish, and it’s a level of competence that has served me fairly well all my life.

I can get by in Spanish, even skewered a cousin with an off-color limerick of my own composition in the language not too long ago, but I rely pretty heavily on online translators if I have to get the message just right. When I’m on my own, I have to work out ways to twist sentences around my inability to reliably conjugate beyond the present tense en Español.

That means I sound like a caveman when I’m speaking Spanish in the real world, so I don’t have much standing to judge Jack’s complete inability to speak in anything other than barks and howls too harshly. I mean, we both manage to let people know what we’re trying to say.

It was a tweet from the actor Andy Richter last year that got me thinking about trying to help Jack manage to understand more than the usual dog commands. “Every dog that you’ve ever seen riding in a car had absolutely no idea where it was going,” Richter wrote. “Imagine living like that.”

That’s maybe not the worst problem someone’s going to have in my house, but it’s definitely something worth trying to straighten out for a good dog.

And I knew from experience that you don’t have to speak a language to be able to understand it, thanks to all the time I spent with my mother’s parents, whose English was at least as bad as my Spanish.

Learn the most important words – “food,” “come here” and “play” covered plenty of what mattered when I was little – and a kid can use tone and gestures to work out the rest.

I sure didn’t need a bilingual dictionary to know when Grandma was telling me dinner was ready. And whatever words she used when we walked on her favorite beach on a day that’s still vivid in my mind, I know the message in her warm voice was one of love.

Grandpa even managed to convey the complex message that I had to start taking my first car in for more frequent oil changes just by coming out from under the hood with a dipstick coated in pitch-black oil and shouting “sucio!” – “dirty!”

If a handful of important words was enough Spanish for me as a kid, that’s plenty enough English to get a dog through his day.

Jack figured out “walk” as a little pup when I’d invite him out for one after I put on my sneakers in the morning. Seeing how his tail slows down when I tell him I’m putting on sneakers for a trip to the gym instead some mornings lately, I see he’s at least worked out that “gym” means he has to wait for his walk, which is as much as he needs to comprehend.

And when he turned 2 years old a couple of weeks ago, he didn’t understand anything other than his name in the “Happy Birthday” the family sang for him, but he’s bright enough to put the liveliness of our voices together with the burger and fries we set out for him and figure out that he was being celebrated for something.

He definitely understood that whatever we were saying, it boiled down to, “Good boy. I love you.”

That’s all I knew Grandpa was saying underneath words I didn’t understand when he’d spread his hand on my forehead and give me a blessing at the end of every visit to his house. But it was enough.

Richard Espinoza is a former editor of the Johnson County Neighborhood News. You can reach him at