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Is your cat multilingual?

Updated on July 22, 2020
Shalumba profile image

Current cat mother to Sofie. I have owned a cat every year for the past 15 years of my life. Cannot imagine life without my fur babies.

As a lover of cats, I have always been curious about how these adorable fur balls of nature think and why they behave the way they do. I have had over 15 cats in my life and I have always wondered if they understand when their human speaks to them. According to an article in The Guardian by Davies, N. (2019) Cats can recognize their own names, say scientists, Dr Atsuko Saito, first author of the research from Sophia University in Japan, concluded from her research that cats may understand human cues better than we think.

My current cat Sofie, soon to be a year old in August, has led me to truly believe that cats can not only understand human speech but can understand multiple languages. We are a multilingual home. My husband and I speak English as our main language in our home. My husband is from Germany therefore he speaks German and I am from Zambia and I speak Ila. The cherry on top is that, we live in the Czech Republic and I am currently learning Czech, so who better to practice it on that my beloved Sofie. As a result, we speak English, German, Ila and Czech in our home meaning there is a lot of code mixing or code switching. Code mixing or code switching as described in socio linguistics is a term used when a minimum of two languages are combined in speech either in tags, phrases or beginning or an end of a sentence as defined on Wikipedia. I can definitely confirm that there is a lot of code mixing in my home which has helped me learn some German, helped my husband learn some Ila consequently we are teaching each other some Czech vocabulary.

A perfect example is when I want Sofie to stop doing something, which in this case could be biting my feet. I’ll start off by saying it in Ila “Leka” then switch to English and say “stop it” which she may or may not respond depending, of course, on her mood. When she bites my husband, he says it in German “hor auf”. However, in most cases if she is doing something she should not be doing and we use any of these phrases she will stop. Though some scientists could argue that she is responding more to intonation rather than the language.

The most responsive phrase is “come here” in all of our languages. She has mastered the Ila “Kweza Kono” and the German “Komm her”. No matter where she is in the house or what she is doing any of these phrases will bring her running to you mostly because she knows there is some form of food or snack related to these phrases.

Another phrase we have had to train her on is goodbye for when we have to leave the house. This is to calm her and stop her from feeling overly anxious when she is left alone for some time such as when we are at work, shopping our just out for the day. The German word is “Tschuss” and I say “imbubo” and sometimes we say “goodbye”. One would think this would confuse her but now when she hears any of these words, she either sits on the floor watching you leave or she goes to the window sill to show her disinterest in our departure.

The same is for the opposite. When we come home, we say hello. As a beginner Czech speaker, I can confidently say “Dobry Den” and my husband uses his “Hallo”. She shows her happiness by purring and rubbing herself against my leg as these phrases let her know we are home and not going anywhere for the time being.


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