Animals as Language Partners

I talk to my dog in Chinese. It makes sense, really. He’s a Chinese dog.

He’s not a Chinese breed, but he’s born and raised in China. He may be white, but I’m not racist enough to make that mean English is his language too.

Jokes aside, it’s still not that simple. I’ve been paying attention to my dog’s other interactions, and it seems that my wife, normally not big on the “English practice” thing, talks to him an awful lot in English. (I mainly talk to him in English only when I’m mad at him for peeing on the floor… again.)

Yesterday Brad came over and talked to him in Chinese too. I’m not sure if he was just following my lead or what… I didn’t ask Brad about it, but I wouldn’t expect him to have consciously chosen the language he used to talk to a dog.

In some ways pets make the best language partners. They never criticize, never mishear or misunderstand… they just listen. The speaker is under no pressure to perform, and yet has the attention of a transfixed audience.

I’m quite sure I would not talk to my dog in Chinese if I were back in the States, though. My dog is experiencing the effect of his master living in a second language environment.

Obviously, a pet can never be a true language partner; there’s very little real communication and no negotiation of meaning going on. Still, it’s a nice intermediary step between talking to oneself and actually speaking with a human partner.

It does make me wonder, though: have there been studies on human-animal interaction in a second language acquisition context?

Newton: Depressed??


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. When we got our dog she was already 18 months, at first I talked to her in English, but she never did anything I said (or didn’t do as the peeing on the floor case may be). After awhile I figured that, as the previous owners were Chinese, I should switch to Chinese. Didn’t help the dog’s behavior, but for some reason I never thought to switch back. Maybe the previous owners spoke a local dialect around the house…. damn!

  2. gswafford Says: August 10, 2008 at 8:47 pm

    I’m not sure as whether or not there have been studies on human-animal interaction in a second language, but police K9’s in the United States are commonly trained with commands in a language other than English. This prevents anyone other than the handler from being able to give commands to the dog and it reduces confusion for the dog in situations where commands are being given to the dog in large crowds.

  3. FYI, an infant works pretty well in this role, too.

  4. Good to know. In case I’m ever mauled by a police dog, all I have to do is scream setzen.

  5. I’m not sure why I talked to him in Chinese … maybe I was subconsciously following your lead, but it just felt natural.

  6. “Obviously, a pet can never be a true language partner; there’s very little real communication and no negotiation of meaning going on”

    Hm, sounds like ordinary family life to me.

  7. John,
    After speaking to yourself and “animals as language partners”, obviously “Jesus as a language partner” will be your next post. ;o)

  8. No wonder he can’t understand. That’s obviously a Scottish dog. I had a Westy growing up, and miss him terribly.

  9. John B,

    Heh… hopefully a little more is going on in your kid’s head when you talk to him than is going on in my dog’s. 🙂

  10. Jing,

    Wow, you’re still around! Good to see ya!

  11. Next step on the ladder: parrots?

  12. Funny, I always talk to pets and small children in my native language, never in English or Chinese. It feels more natural for me, and they don’t care much about the meaning anyway (in the case of small children, it also works to prevent them answering something that I don’t understand). People’s reactions are also interesting, some are quite anxious to know what I just said.

  13. I talk to my cat, Hobie, in Mandarin quite often. I tell him “过来!” pretty often, and he ignores it just as well as “come here.” He’s Himalayan, so maybe an Indian language would work better! When I start singing along with a Mandarin song I like, though, I’m not sure whether he’s trying to sing along or is just afraid that I’m dying, because that does get him to start meowing. I’m also trying to teach my 9-year-old brother Chinese, too, so I’ll say things to him in Mandarin every now and then. He knows a little bit from watching “Kung Fu Dunk,” “Secret,” and “CJ7.”

  14. Hi, I just found your site through a search related to the HSK. I am in the U.S., both my cats were born and raised in the U.S., but I talk to them in Chinese all the time! It helps me feel like I’m remembering the things I’ve studied when I try it out on them.

  15. I intentionally talk to infants and animals in Chinese (now that I’m here in the USA — though in China I spoke in Chinese, too). It IS a wonderful way to be “listened to” and to train your mind to use Chinese. And so much is about the tone of voice with little kids and animals anyway!

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