What can cats teach us about learning a language?
First of all, the obvious things.
Cats prioritise their own well-being, not least their physical comfort. Look after yourself. Relax. Stretch as soon as you wake up, even when you stand up or change position. Try not to eat food that’ll kill you. Have you ever seen a cat with a cigarette? The healthier you are, the faster your brain will work. Get plenty of sleep. Give your brain time to process all that new vocabulary. Then wake up!
Make efficient use of your time.
Cats give their total concentration to the task in hand. They break up their day into clearly defined segments … sleeping, eating, washing, bird-watching, sleeping, playing, staring out of the window, exploring, sleeping, standing on your face at 4 o’clock in the morning, cuddling, sleeping … and nothing is allowed to interrupt the chosen activity.
So decide what you’re going to do … and do it. Watching TV without subtitles when you have the house to yourself. Reading the New York Times or The Guardian online. Buying real newspapers and reading them over coffee in a touristy area of your city, listening in to any English conversations you overhear, pretending you’re in London. Insisting on getting that 20 minute Skype lesson every morning before you check your emails, making it clear to your colleagues that this is a part of your working day. (After all, they rely on you to answer all the English phone calls).
I’ve spent a good part of my life in the company of Siamese cats. Their huge, bat-like ears never miss a thing. They also have a vocal range unmatched by any other cat.
Washing the dishes? Driving to work? Photocopying at the office? Training for a marathon? The perfect time to listen to the BBC. Try to always have something English on in the background, whatever you’re doing. Pop songs or political debate, it’s all useful. Hearing a range of accents and voices is important. Pay attention. It will help you learn to voice your needs clearly and without embarrassment, using a wide range of tones. Just like a cat!
Watch for visual clues
One of my rescued Siamese would watch my feet intently when she was new to my household. She was always anticipating my next move.
You may not understand the words people are using but you’ll usually have some context to guide you. Gesture, facial expression, objects …
The exception is the dreaded telephone call where your only clues come from the tone of the speaker’s voice. If he sounds angry, that doesn’t help to calm your nerves! Remember what they say, “you can hear a smile over the telephone”. Keep calm, keep smiling and keep speaking English.
Look for patterns
That first rescue cat to share my home taught me quite a lot about myself. I realised how entrenched my own routines must be when she began positioning herself in specific places as I moved around. She’s going to wash her hands…quick, get behind the sink so I don’t get splashed…she’s turned off the tap…make a dash for the corner so the drips don’t land on me as she reaches for the towel…
English can seem chaotic and illogical at times but there are clear patterns to be seen. The more you read and listen, the better you’ll recognise the similarities in verb forms, vocabulary or sentence structures.
Have a catwalk
Ever noticed how cats always take the same route around a room or a garden? That’s a cat walk. Fashion shows and models came along much later. The catwalk was invented by felines.
You need to have a known, safe set of structures that you can use in any situation. A few complex sentences – switch the odd word and they’ll do for any office discussion – will make you sound competent and fluent in meetings.
The biggest difficulty in group conversations is that the topic can change before you’ve worked out what the last speaker was saying. You never seem quick enough with your comments. Keep a handful of “fillers” in your head: ah, well, I suppose, to give yourself time to think of an answer.
How many times have you sat in a bar while your friends or colleagues chatted away in English? You could just about follow the gist of the story and the last thing you wanted was for them to change to Spanish (or whichever language you share). You wanted to practise your English, didn’t you? But you just couldn’t think of anything appropriate to say, so they assumed you really didn’t understand. In those situations, you need to make the other speakers feel comfortable so that they continue speaking English and you get your practice. Have a collection of words or phrases you can throw into the conversation before the topic has changed from football to Brexit: absolutely, great, cool, I think so, perhaps, really?
Ask for help
Honestly, cats do it all the time! They positively demand service, from food to a thorough massage when they’re in the mood. Have you heard this saying? Dogs have owners. Cats have slaves.
Find a good teacher. Talk to native speakers whenever you can. Use all the free online resources available.
Have we been properly introduced?
One of the key differences between dogs and cats is that the former are inclined to hurl themselves at strangers, licking them frantically (or worse), whereas the latter keep their distance and wait for a formal introduction. This may lead to a nice little massage for your hand as they persuade you to stroke them. If you’re very lucky, they’ll knead you (possibly with their claws extended – not so lucky).
The lesson here? In your eagerness to practise, don’t inflict yourself and your English on somebody who’s busy or doesn’t want to talk, but always take the opportunity to pass the time of day with anyone who’s willing to chat.
In fact, cats are so sociable that they give you the perfect chance to practise speaking English. Just this morning a little tortoiseshell I’d never seen before called out to me before trotting across the road and requesting a lengthy stroking session. Cats love to be talked to. Make use of them! If you have a companion cat of your own, that’s the perfect excuse for walking around at home muttering in English. Only by saying the words aloud will your mouth and brain learn to work together to give you fluency.
Only do what you want to do
Cats will always please themselves. At any given moment, they’re either doing exactly what they want to do or they’re working with unbelievable determination to achieve that purpose.
Think about why you want to improve your English. Think about what you enjoy when you use English. Do you like the sound of the words? The way you feel when you give somebody directions and they understand you? The fact that you can understand the English speaker on the news even before the interpreter has started speaking? Live your life in English. Love English.
Be open to new experiences
If a cat is always on the wrong side of a closed door, it’s because there could be something interesting on the other side. Curiosity is a great motivator.