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Languages on the Brain


In college, after I decided not to be an English major, or a comparative languages major, I had to go for an interview with the head of the French department to see if I could become a French major. Sitting there in his office, I could barely put a sentence together, despite being in advanced French classes and doing well in them. The head of the French department was nonplussed and sent me packing, and I ended up as a philosophy major, where they accepted everyone.

Even after that debacle, though, I still felt tied to the languages I’d studied (French and Hebrew), and the languages I wanted to study (Spanish, Latin, Russian, German, Yiddish, etc.). I’m not sure what the draw is for me, because I have no particular talent for languages. My brother still remembers all of his high school French without even trying, or caring, but for me it’s a struggle.

Recently, I’ve been spending even more time and effort on my language studies, as a strange sort of antidote to all of the social work reading I’ve had to do for graduate school. I have computer games and audio cds and textbooks and short stories and poetry collections, in both languages.

The dogs have had to listen to a lot of people speaking French and Hebrew through the speakers on top of my dresser. They stretch out on the bed, or on the floor, and pretend they’re being told a bedtime story in gibberish. Actually, I have no idea how much they understand. It’s possible that when I try to repeat the Hebrew words the computer flashes at me, the poor puppy dogs are shaking their heads and thinking, How can you not know that word yet, Mommy? We’ve heard it a thousand times!


Butterfly is listening carefully.


Cricket, on the other hand, is getting annoyed.

It’s also possible that they couldn’t care less, and barely register that these words are in French or Hebrew instead of in English, because clearly no one is talking about chicken treats or pee trips, so what’s the point?


“J’ai faim, Maman. You are starving me.”

I still have trouble producing words from the black hole of my mind. You would think, with all of the information I’ve stuffed in there over the years, the words would be spilling over the sides, but no, they go in and get sucked into another dimension and reappear only when they’re in the mood. I’m a writer with two master’s degrees, and I can’t think of the word for that plastic thing you use to mix cookie dough, or the metal version of it that can flip pancakes. I run through fork, knife, plate, napkin, flipper, baking thing, until Mom calls it a “spatula” and I say “Yes! That’s it!”

I can, and have, made a fool of myself in public many times when the wrong words popped up, or no words popped up at all. I think some of my nerve pathways must blink in and out of service like an old TV antenna. If I’m in a new environment, or under stress, even the most well-travelled pathways in my brain are hard to find. With the foreign language pathways, just the stress of being asked to remember a word can be enough to shut down the whole system.

Cricket never seems to struggle to find the right word, or bark, for a given situation, but maybe that’s just bravado and she’s desperately wishing for a larger, more comprehensive vocabulary with which to express her disdain. Do other dogs understand her? If she went to Paris, would Cricket be able to understand the dog in a beret, smoking discarded cigarette butts at an outdoor café? I don’t think she cares.


“I have all the words I need.”

Maybe this herky jerky, non-fluent feeling I get from trying to speak in French and Hebrew is what I’m actually reaching for, though, as a metaphor that fits how I feel. My fluency in English doesn’t match the dysfluency of my mind. Maybe the struggle to find words in a foreign language, grasping for words and struggling with grammar, feels more like my internal experience of myself. And maybe, by working through this language learning process, I will eventually be able to feel more whole, or at least feel more like a dog.




About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

96 responses »

  1. I love the picture you painted of the dog in a beret in paris flicking cigarette butts! You should write about an adventure that Cricket and Butterfly go on in Paris; I bet butterfly would run off for a aperitif with the beret wearing dog.

  2. Oh that last photo of Butterfly is just too adorable!!! It is so hard to learn a language and remember all the words and what goes with what- great that you persevere!

  3. But you understand barks so well.

  4. niteb4highschool

    Your pooches are adorable!! Sweet Sam and Hephzibah pretend all the time their only language is Chinese, smart dogs, because I only know English. lol

  5. I have issues with language, my family laughs at me, I don’t mind because it is so often silly, I laugh but I make mincemeat out of words, mostly in English not so much in French. I can definitely empathize, I do so much better with the written word. LOL

  6. My Mom’s first schnauzer, Freda, learned hand signals with everything mom wanted her to do, just like me. Mom was just about to teach her French using the hand signals when Freda went blind with a Cushing’s tumor. C’est si desole!

  7. A philosophy major? You Kant be serious.

  8. I have incredibly frustrating problems with words at the moment, although my neurologist tells me the MS has not affected the language centre of my brain. I cannot, for the life of me, say the word ‘tablecloth’. I want to say it, I can see it in my head, I can even spell it, but uttering it is beyond me.

    I have also entered new levels of malapropisms. The current favourite giggle comes from my decision last year to put together a Christmas hamper for someone living rough.

    Inevitably I refer to it as my Christmas Hamster.

    I have been told many times that hamsters are for life and not just for Christmas…

    • Ha! As long as your loved ones have a sense of humor about it…If it’s not directly from the MS, I wonder if it’s a secondary symptom, resulting from pain or exhaustion. Doctors can be incredibly stupid about certain symptoms.

    • Sharon, that must be incredibly frustrating but like you, I’ve found with my own not dissimilar health struggles that humour helps get me through the tough times.

  9. That last picture is priceless. You may not have the ‘speech words,’ my friend, but you are fluent in the written ones. Another lovely, thoughtful post.

  10. Sometimes I use the French term je sais, instead of “I know” because my beagles do not know that know is different from no. Je sais works around here!

  11. Remember the Farside comic and the dog: they hear: blah blah blah Cricket…or blah blah blah Butterfly. Very accurate. I believe that our brains should only retain what we need. All this stuff we’re meant to keep in there…bah! Why when we now have information at our fingertips? Instead, save your lovely head for other things: the quiet to create these beautiful stories about your sweet puppies and to have space to know when something or someone is good in the world! That’s what our minds should be used for–not to pack it with useless crap. 🙂 If it can’t know languages, well that’s OK, but not everyone could write a lovely blog either! And you can!

  12. I love studying languages (having studied many while mastering few) and think it opens perspective.

    It can also make everything seem a bit arbitrary after a bit (No double negatives? But they’re alright in French).

    For more Franco-animal humor, might ai suggest Henri the cat videos? I have no affiliation with them whatsoever, but think it’s very funny:

  13. Immersion is the best way to really learn another language but don’t worry about making mistakes. When you learned English as a baby you probably said some peculiar things as we all do. 🙂

  14. I so admire your efforts at learning other languages … I am consistent in my procrastination towards learning Spanish, no matter how many times I tell myself that I will do better about learning more than the basics before my next yearly vacation to Mexico! Perhaps because I’m finding myself forgetting some basic English words a bit more than I like (I’m blaming it on stress, not age 😏), I’d rather not add even more words that I can then forget, although using my brain in a different way more might do more good than harm. I will certainly reconsider my hesitation, though, especially if I can use my own pups as my audience as I learn. They will be the perfect non-judgemental listeners … thanks for the inspiration!

  15. Brave Rachel – on peut parle un peu en francais si tu veux?
    Willow est ‘billangue’ – vraiment!

  16. I think our pets understand more than we give them credit for, whatever the language. Our previous dog could ‘sit’ in five languages: French, German, Spanish, Italian and Lithuanian thanks to our foreign students. 🙂

  17. Lovely post, I think with languages you need to use them all the time, or you will have trouble remembering words, just like you are.

    Your dogs are so cute! I am sure they don’t understand the French and Hebrew languages you are studying. I think with animals its not the word, but the sound we make when speaking. My cat knows his name, ‘dinner’ ‘fly’ and ‘ready’ but I think its the way I say them not the word itself. Someone else could say ‘dinner’ and Artie wouldn’t come, it seems to be my inflection, voice!

  18. Those languages are probably your blood memories speaking out — your ancestors come alive in the activities you are persuing. Be kind and patient with yourself. It’s all there. Your puppies are great supporters — I have two dogs and two cats….a nice balance and a fantastic husband. Love and light to you on your journeys of self exploration.

  19. Rachel, love this piece and the photos. Dogs have no language barrier. They seem to understand us, no matter what, don’t they?

  20. Pingback: Languages on the Brain – mudasplantasnativas

  21. Kelev knows best. Languages are hard. 2 at one time is crazy. You are brave.

  22. Ne sois pas triste mon ami, vous avez essayé; et en essayant vous avez réussi! I hope that came across correctly from English to French. I have to rely on the translator ‘tool’ because I neither speak nor write French (except to say things like pardon me, where’s the toilet, and pass the croissants..”) 🙂 I think you’re wonderful and you do ‘speak’ three languages, and you’re trying for more. Take it easy on yourself, you’ll get there. And even if you don’t? The dogs don’t mind. They love us, even if we’re hairless (relatively), walk on two legs and are dang hard to understand — language wise. Woof! 😀

  23. Hi Rachel!

    I love you blog and am tagging you to write a Letter to Your Future Self. Don’t know if you participate in these things, but if you do, the link is at :


  24. That picture of Butterfly at the end of this post is so adorable!!

  25. I went to a cabaret last night where the performer sang in dolphin. It was most impressive. And to continue the animal theme, her name is Meow Meow.

  26. You know, it’s funny. My bachelors degree is in Secondary Education Specializing in Mathematics, and I work with computers. Yes one of my favorite things to do is write. I don’t have an extensive vocabulary, and in fact I’m frequently looking up the spelling and meaning of words on But computers and math tend to be very rigid, whereas writing sets me free.

  27. Don’t worry. I don’t understand a lot of things about my own native language *sobs*

  28. I am the same! Always looking for words. My husband accuses me of speaking without nouns and it is true, many times I halt, desperately looking in my head for the word I need, If I give myself time and stay calm, after a few minutes the word usually comes back to me. I blame the multiple language-mix in my head, but I think I had it already before I had to speak two or three languages in the same day. In my experience, learning to speak a language without being immersed in it in daily life is very very difficult. My spoken French is really non-existing though I can read it and understand most of it… But, kol hakavod for trying! If you ever come to visit, you’ll see your Hebrew will come back to you from wherever it chose to hide 🙂

  29. When you start forgetting words in your mother tongue, it’s because your brain is transitioning to your new language…especially if the sentence formation is drastically different. As someone who had to study language full-time in full-immersion, I can tell you that if you just keep at it, one day all those bits which did not make sense will suddenly fall into place. This will happen forever.

  30. Languages are rough, good for you for sticking with it even though it is difficult. As others have mentioned, I think our dogs respond to tone and body language…unless the word is squirrel or dinner.

  31. I love imagining the dogs wondering when you’ll ever get the word being spoken since you’ve heard it a 1000 times! That made me laugh–especially seeing the cute little faces of your dogs.

    We just took in a foster daughter who is a little learning delayed. For fun we watch Spanish lessons for toddlers. I’ve come to really enjoy it–though I’m awful when put on the spot. I remember that perro is dog and gato is cat. That doesn’t get me far.

    • Actually, language programs for kids are much more fun, and effective, than the ones made for adults. For some reason, people think I should like grammar and theory at my age. Pffft.

      • When I took Spanish in middle school I was so afraid of my teacher. I aced the class because I got the grammar but hated every minute of it. The idea of reciting dialogs before the class mortified me which was a shame because I wasn’t half bad.

        I’d love to learn Hebrew now. Most kids in my town used to go to CCD (catholic classes) but there were a few Jewish kids who went “somewhere else” to learn Hebrew, etc. I thought it seemed so mysterious and cool.

      • “Somewhere else” does sound quite mysterious. maybe that’s the secret!

  32. ramblingsofaperforatedmind

    Thank you so much for always visiting my blog. I appreciate you (and Butterfly and Cricket).

  33. Kemo Sabe says, the older one is the harder it is to remember vocabulary! Keep it up: it’s a great obsession!

  34. I have the same issues, don’t worry – I did 2 years of high school French but can’t speak more than a few words, until I try to speak some Spanish, that’s when all the French comes flooding back! There is something in the loss of nouns thing – myself and my mother have the same issue (but she has age as her excuse). I think it’s a common language problem for many people – do a search for ‘anomic aphasia’ (but don’t panic when you read about it, it doesn’t mean you’ve suffered some sort of injury!). I have terrible trouble with people’s names, especially when tired 🙂

    • My Mom has always had the name amnesia thing, names AND faces. Although, she may just be pretending to struggle in order to make me feel better about my language issues. Mommies are cool like that.

  35. Despite their limited vocabulary, dogs do a great job, communicating their feelings, needs and wishes.

  36. Your dogs are so precious!!!! Sometimes I think my dogs don’t understand what I am saying to them, but then they magically do when I say “treat” or “walk” or “car ride” or “park.” 🙂

    I took Spanish throughout school and when I visited Spain as a young adult, it was as if they spoke a completely different version of the language than what I learned in school. It is nice to know certain words when traveling, but I do think to fully grasp a language, it is best to be immersed in that particular culture. Great post!

  37. I love languages too -even English (have you read Bill Bryson’s “Mother Tongue”?) I grew up speaking Spanish along with English and that has helped with romance languages. (For years I spoke to dogs in Spanish thinking that was “their” language. Some dogs have large vocabularies.)
    I’ve studied French for years so I can have a broken conversation (or at least be an excellent listener!) I think I will try Italian (again) next. Where ever I travel I either take a course before-hand or try to learn the basics on my own (Greek being the hardest I think – or maybe Turkish).
    Keep it up! It broadens our world and makes us new friends.

  38. I don’t speak anything other than English and I have the utmost respect for anyone that speaks more than one language (even if not fluently) because they are more skilled than me.

    But back to the dogs 😉 I find that I understand my dogs different barks – stranger, Grandma, cat and hedgehog all have different barks. Each of my dogs have different voices too – I don’t mind them using them, that’s their job 🙂

  39. From memory, I think security dogs are taught commands in German.
    I was suddenly called on to speak french recently and it mysterious flowed out like a spirit was talking on my behalf. I was pleasantly surprised.
    I think Lady would much rather your language studies. My daughter arrived home from school with a Baritone Horn today. Lady gets anxious with thunder and fireworks and jumped up onto my lap. Not too sure about the big brass beast!
    xx Rowena

  40. Rachel, you need to watch more TV.
    I ask you, Are you planning on traveling to any of these countries anytime soon??
    If not, give it a rest, or mull over Kant’s theological imperatives for a while and get all philosophical. At least Butterfly and Cricket, who strike me as very philosophical, could feel like they’re participating more in your process. 🙂
    Have a great weekend!!

  41. I think, being an introvert, I tend to think too far ahead of what I’m saying when I I speak. Then I get tongue-tied and lose track of what I was trying to say. I don’t know if that has anything to do with my tendency to be chattering along and saying the EXACT OPPOSITE of what I meant, or if that is an entirely different problem!

  42. While I was reading this post I was trying to come up with the word for when you can’t remember the word. And i couldn’t think of it.

    An editor I used to work with told me how he could never understand it when people said they couldn’t remember a word. It had never happened to him. Then one day he was driving with his daughter and he wanted something behind the … and he couldn’t remember the term sun visor.

    He felt like he was losing his mind. Aphasia! That’s the word.

  43. This was fascinating Rachel. I had to read all the comments, you triggered a marvelous discussion. I have been multi-lingual since childhood and have picked up other languages along the way. I have also taught ESL for several years. I can tell you language learning is trickier than any other kind because it is a reflection of the way peoples perceive the world. You last paragraph contains a profound insight, I would say your assessment is right on. I struggled for months with Russian and in exasperation told my instructor “But I don’t THINK like that!”. When I tried Chinese in university it was an instant success. Of course learning all the characters was hard but putting together sentences seemed so easy. It fir the way I put my own thoughts together.

  44. Thanks for liking my post so I could find and enjoy yours. Your dogs are terrific.

  45. I still get fun out of the American style of using “major” to indicate the main subject studied. Maybe because in UK universities mostly we study just one subject, we don’t have that usage. So for me, you’ve confided that after failing to join one foreign army at middle management level, you tried for another…

    There are some really fascinating issues you’ve raised about language and how our minds work. I too forget words from time to time and recover them soon after: the brain has a file-searching function that works away undercover. Forgetting comes more with age. Interestingly, it’s nearly always nouns.

    I also found that when I started to pick up some Finnish (a highly-grammatical language) some of my remaining Latin (another highly grammatical language) vanished.


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