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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Teaching English to a Cat

The other night Lizzie and I were was watching "The Miracle Worker" on TCM. It's one of my favorite films, and in fact, the touring stage production was my first experience seeing professional theatre (at the ripe old age of 10). (Well, I was watching. I'm not so sure about her.)


It sent me on a childhood quest to learn all I could about Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan. My passion for the play included working crew for it as one of my earliest college experiences. (Let me say that cleaning up scrambled eggs from the end-of-act-one food fight was not particularly fun!)

As I was watching the film I was fascinated with how Annie Sullivan was trying to teach Helen both the words and the connection of the words to their meaning, finger-spelling over and over, saying the words aloud, even though Helen couldn't hear, touching her hand to the doll or door or spoon.


Let me tell you, this method does not work with cats.


They appear to have better things to do.

 
And I don't know why, really. All they do is sleep, eat and watch birds. Can't they learn a little? They are being raised in an English-language environment where those words are heard over and over. And OK, their brains are different and smaller and maybe they can't handle all those words. One thing is certain. It bores her.


But I'm not sure Lizzie Cosette is the tastiest kibble in the treat bag when it comes to brains. She's about three. I think she does know her name (when she chooses to acknowledge it). But I'm having a heck of a time getting her to understand "toy" or "fetch" (or even "bring") or chase.


When we're by the bird window she does seem to get excited when I say "Birds!" and run to the window. But I'm pretty sure it's the whispered, gaspy tone of voice. "Birds, Lizzie! Look!" The exclamation marks are key.


She'll sit on two legs for her food when I say "Releve, sil vous plait" or "Uppity Downie." It has nothing to do with the words. Only the bowl above her head.


Rewards don't seem to help either. She's rather bored by the whole educational focus on vocabulary.


No one ever accused Gypsy of being the Alan Turing of the cat world, but I could inject the words "Fancy Feast" in any tone, in any conversation and he would look up with sparkly eyes. It made for a great photo cue -- no cheese for him!


Well, most of the time the eyes were sparkly. Not always! On occasion they looked at me with disdain.


And his sitting was A+!

 
So, if anyone has any hints on this matter (apart from taking Lizzie's little paw and finger-spelling "toy" into it), pass 'em on. Or tell me to get a life, she's a cat, after all. But right now, I'm not holding my breath waiting for her to say "Wah. Wah."

29 comments:

Jeanie said...

I think maybe she has been smart enough to figure out that just being cute gets her everything she wants so that is all that really matters. :)

angie said...

your cat is soooo cute !!! love greetings from angie

Laura Quaglia (Fun With This and That) said...

She keeps you busy How many do you have.Do not have any pets had a dog but they are all too much work and we travel allot Laura

The Artful Diva said...

I always thought you couldn't teach an old dog new tricks - never thought about teaching a cat to read!

Angelsdoor * Penny said...

Jeanie,
It appears that you and I were watching the Miracle Worker at the same time on the same station.
I love TCM..
I think Lizzie DOES understand what you want.. She just does not want to! teeeheee
I adore the photo of Gypsy with Santa's hat on.. Now that's a look!
Thank you for sharing this wonderful post, and giving me a smile.
blessings,
Penny

I need orange said...

When I was taking psychology classes (including behavior modification) in college, one of the most valuable things I learned is that you can't pick what someone else will find rewarding.

No matter how rewarding you think something OUGHT to be, if the one you're trying to influence isn't impressed, the "reward" is either weak, or perhaps just not rewarding to that individual.

This is, of course, true for humans, dogs, cats, pigeons, or anyone you are trying to influence.

I'm sure her lack of interest is not the size of her brains -- parrots and crows are very brainy indeed.

I expect it's at least partly cattitude -- relatively few cats have any intrinsic interest in pleasing others, in comparison to most humans and most dogs....

Gypsy seems to have been a prodigy. :-)

Barb said...

Jeanie, this was funny. Lizzie probably understands everything you say but doesn't care to acknowledge it. I saw a video on Facebook of a cat who was trained to do an obstacle course. She followed her owner's hand signals just like a dog. So - maybe you need to use sign language!

Dr. Kathy McCoy said...

Like you, I saw The Miracle Worker onstage and then the movie when I was a tween and loved it!

As far as teaching Lizzie Cosette....I think she understands more than she lets on. Her reactions or lack thereof simply reflect her priorities...

Gypsy reacted to Fancy Feast and my cats all respond with rapture and instant attention to "dinner" or "whipped cream", licking their lips and dashing for the kitchen. If a word signals food soon to be served, cats understand and act.

I loved your pictures of sweet Lizzie and of the wondrous Gypsy in this fun post!

Lisa from Lisa's Yarns said...

Gypsy really reminds me of Ted, the cat Phil has been pet sitting for. Especially that 'are you kidding me' expression - I see that on Ted's face often! That is funny that Gypsy knew the phrase Fancy Feast and would like up when that phrase was said!

I don't think Ted knows many words either. I think he knows his name and I think he understands when we ask him if he wants a drink of water (he's a spoiled kitty that gets to drink from the sink!) but he might not understand the words and instead knows that he can get a drink when we walk into the kitchen.

Joanne Huffman said...

If you understand her wants and needs and act accordingly, why should she have to learn English?

Cheryl said...

Your cat understands you completely she is just messing with you big time lol
big hugs,
Cheryl

Esme said...

I am very impressed with Gypsy's sitting. Nice straight back. As for Lizie she is being a Lizzie with Catt a tude. Her first photo reminds me of Penelope. Gypsey's eyes are stunning.

Tracy said...

Awwww... this was ADORABLE, Jeanie! Soooo much fun to see both Miss Lizzie and the sweet Gypsy...*sigh*... Our Charlie is the say way. It's all about him, what's in it for him... haha! One moment he seems sooo intelligent, and then the next--fluff for brains. LOL... I think the "problem", which is mine really, is that I tried to teach him like one would a dog, and that took a while to get over as I had experience with dogs before having a cat. Anyway, we've all but given up here, so it's anything goes... within reason. ;o) Happy Weekend ((HUGS))

susieq512.com said...

I think you have it backward. I believe it's the cat's job to teach us. :) We certainly bend over backwards to please them and keep them happy, so I believe they have us very well trained. :)

Lizzie Cosette is beautiful! Those yawns!

The Miracle Worker is one of the first drama movies I remember seeing and being profoundly affected by. I was probably about the same age when I first saw it, and I'm pretty sure I cleaned the library's shelves to learn more about Annie and Helen, courageous women, both! And Anne Bancroft, oh my, so beautiful and talented. The Graduate is one of my favorites, and 84 Charing Cross Road, I really loved her in that. Kind of a tour de force.

Castles Crowns and Cottages said...

teehee.......well, I think you are right. Tone of voice and gestures are a cat's vocab.!!!!!!!!!It is with horses, I know that! Oh this was a sweet and endearing story Jeanie! Anita

Maggie said...

What a whimsical post however dear Jeanie I think you have to get out more!

Nancy said...

Jeanie, you are a hoot...I love this post and seeing all these wonderful shots of your fur babies...So many of these postures remind me of my own Simon...They do love to sleep and eat and watch birds but I know you are loved beyond measure rather words are understood or not...I think they know more than they let on....

Mae Travels said...

I don't think I've ever seen that film at all -- I should put it on my watch list somewhere! Although I'm pretty far past 10 years old. I remember reading a book about Helen Keller at about that age, and finding the whole story very fascinating.

Karen S. said...

Oh my gosh, this is just so precious. Every photo really tells a story. Cats they are so wise, and it's really fun seeing what they do catch on to, of course it's always about when they want to play along with anything right!

Beate said...

What a sweet post! I love it :) It makes me think of me and my Molli - we have like the same type of conversation - only that he completely agrees with Lizzie, yawns, curls up and sleeps while I keep talking to him ;) I think our cats just do not see the point in fulfilling our wishes when they believe we are made to be their servants :) :)
Love all the pics in your post! So cute :)

shoreacres said...

I had no idea Gypsy was a sitter-upper, too. Here I thought I had an unusual kitty!

Dixie has learned "No." She rarely does anything that requires being told "no," but if she does, she'll stop immediately. And I have trained her not to go out on the patio. I can open the door, go out to water plants or whatever, and if I leave the door open, she'll just sit there in the doorway and look.

What a delightful post. You know I always love your cat posts, and this one is no exception. They do add so much to our lives, don't they?

vicki (skiourophile) said...

I think we know that ginger cats are the smartest! Lovely post - you did make me laugh. Also that is the most enormous squirrel at the window - maybe she can talk squirrel?!

Mary said...

She might understand more than you realize, but maybe just being a cat, she'll let you know when she lets you know. lol. You know, on her terms. Love this post. And wonderful photos of your kitties!

Kitty said...

Jeanie, I love your sense of humor. I know of no one else who can analyze cats so well! As for your squirrel, I was talking with a friend today about how a squirrel's tail can tell us how our winter will be. Supposedly, a thick bushy tail means a long cold winter. His tail is both bushy and thin. Does that mean a crazy weather winter for you??












littleRamstudio said...

Cats are so clever they have learnt never to show it to us mere humans. Instead they exploit our love for felines by manipulating us into waiting on them hand and foot!
Heather >^..^<

Bella Rum said...

She's cute and lovable. Not everyone can be brilliant. Some of us are just made for love. :)
.

Friko said...

You what? Teaching a cat?
A cat already knows everything worth knowing and has no need of further instruction.

In fact it’s downright disrespectful of you thinking you have something to teach her ladyship.

Deb said...

I think Lizzie only lets you know what she wants you to know and the rest will remain a secret. It may surface when it is beneficial to her. Cats can be trained to follow instruction but it takes more patience than we probably have. Best to keep your sense of humour and have fun with it. She is certainly having fun with you. ;-)

Marilyn said...

This just made me smile. Just yesterday I was thinking my Joey was not too swift with learning the English language. He will only respond when he wants to respond. There might be a twitch of the ear that tells me he heard me, but he loves ignoring me when I talk to him. As far as fetch, he does do that but it is on his own terms and doesn't know the word. My last cat, Daphne, was the talker and we could carry on quite a conversation. For the most part cats are a persnickety bunch.

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