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Saturday, Jan. 10, 2009

JAPAN LITE

The English language is going to the dogs


On Friday nights, I teach private English lessons to five people and three dogs. The dogs are good students: They are very quiet and never bark or interrupt. They always come to class well-groomed, wearing smart looking T-shirts and dresses. Absenteeism is rare, with just one absence due to a veterinary visit.

For the most part, the dogs sleep right through class, making it similar to teaching high-school students. The only difference is that they are blissfully sleeping in the arms of their owners. All the dogs are small and fit conveniently into the crooks of their owners' arms. But since this makes it difficult for the owners to write anything down, I wonder why they don't use baby slings.

My job is to teach the owners conversational English, including English they can use with their dogs.

At first, it was difficult to come up with a new dog lesson plan each week. I started with basic dog commands such as "sit," "beg," "heel," etc. We studied canine vocabulary such as fire hydrant, top dog and doggie bag. We studied famous dogs such as Rin Tin-Tin, Lassie and Benji. We sang the Doris Day version of "How much is that doggie in the window?"

As time went on, I had to get more innovative with dog commands, so I taught them circus-dog English ("Jump through the hoop, Fido!"), rescue-dog English (Dig for the victim, Rover!) and even police-dog English ("Sniff out the drugs, Spot!").

But after a while, I noticed that the owners were not studying English with their dogs at home. They were not teaching their dogs the commands. As a matter of fact, they weren't teaching their dogs anything at all. The dogs knew no discipline whatsoever, not even the martial arts.

Most of the dogs slept in their owners' arms all through class, only occasionally waking up to yawn. Other times they'd open their eyes, watch for a while, then doze off again. With no reinforcement at home, how were these dogs ever going to pass the class?

Don't get me wrong — these dogs love English. They get so excited when their English teacher comes into the classroom. They playfully bark, wag their tails and lunge at me for a cuddle. They like to lick my toes too, which is why I am thankful I teach in those awful plastic slippers they gave me to wear — they proved to be great slobber guards. When I talk to the dogs in English, they react as if they have just won the lottery.

One time I arrived at class early so I could eat my lunch before class started. I opened up my obento on the table and began to eat. Almost immediately, one of my students climbed up on to the table and started walking around. "Sit!" I commanded, thinking this was a great chance for some English review, but the dog just went on investigating my obento.

"Off the table!" I said, another grammar pattern we had practiced. My student, dressed in an ¥8,000 Alpaca sweater, looked at me and wagged his tail. "Off . . . the . . . table," I said, slowly enunciating each syllable to make sure the dog understood. It wagged his tail, then did a nosedive into my obento.

And the owner was sitting right next to me. "Is this normal?" I asked, practically choking from my student's appalling dog breath. "Yes," she said, not understanding what could possibly be wrong with her dog's behavior. After all, these are people who eat off the same fork as their dog. They probably French kiss their dogs too.

In this day of the pampered pooch, when there are more pets in Japan than children, it's no wonder people treat dogs to private English lessons. But just attending the lessons is not enough. They have to be exposed to English in their everyday lives. To learn a second language requires experiencing the language in meaningful, communicative ways. Furthermore, since English is a world language, learning at least the basics should be a requirement.

What was most obvious to me was that the dogs needed to study English harder. If not, how will they ever be able to talk to Irish setters or English sheepdogs?



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