I think most of you know that I originally came to the U.S. from Mexico illegally when I was twenty-one. When I arrived here, I didn’t speak a word of English, but I was fortunate enough that Jada Pinkett Smith eventually hired a tutor for me. English spelling is another thing — it still makes no sense — but at least our phones and computers take care of that for us now.
I’ve traveled all over the world with my Cesar Live tour and speaking engagements. In many places, the people who come to the shows understand English (and get my jokes). In others, they don’t, so they listen to a translator on a headset. I’ve picked up some foreign phrases along the way, like, “What’s up, Helsinki?” in Finnish, which is “Miten menee Helsinki,” in case you’re wondering.
Through all my travels, though, one thing never needs translation. It doesn’t matter whether I’m in the U.S. or England; Spain, Sweden, or Singapore — when I bring a dog onstage, audiences understand immediately and react the same way. They relate to the dog instantly, no language lessons required. Likewise, when I bring a dog from another country into my pack, communication happens right away and in the same way, no matter where the dogs come from.
This may seem like a very obvious statement. Dogs don’t talk, so how could they have a language problem, right? Wrong. They don’t speak words, but they “talk” to each other all the time, through their energy, scent, and body language. They understand each other instinctually.
In developing human languages to communicate, we have lost this ability. Instead, we communicate with each other intellectually and emotionally. Drop an English speaker in Japan or a Dutch speaker in Mexico, and they would be completely lost.
Interestingly enough, when two people who don’t speak the same language meet, they wind up communicating in much the way that dogs do — through body language and gesture. However, they still intellectualize the process. If you’re asking directions to the nearest restaurant, you’d probably mime reading a menu and then eating to get your point across.
If you’ve ever seen one dog claiming a toy in front of another, you know that they’re much more direct. The dog may lower its head and chest over the toy, claiming the space around it. He may also give a low growl or bare his teeth. There’s nothing intellectual or abstract about it, but it sends the message loud and clear: “This is mine.” When dogs communicate, they do it directly and honestly.
For humans, this wonderful capacity we have for language can also be our downfall. When we intellectualize and emotionalize our communication, we can easily move away from that directness and honesty. We might worry about what the other person thinks of us, or we may question what their motives are. We might also do something that dogs cannot do: Lie to each other.
The only language barrier is our belief that language can be a barrier; that I cannot communicate with you because we don’t speak the same language. The lesson to take from dogs is this: they are the same no matter where they come from or what breed they are — and so are we. We all want the same things even if we call them by different words.
Once we get beyond the imaginary hurdle of those words being different, then we can begin to truly communicate honestly and directly, and we can learn to treat each other with trust and respect or, as they would say in Finland, “Luottamus ja kunnioitus.”