Do Your Cats Know More Languages Than You Do?


Like a good human daughter I call my mom on the weekends. We chat about her life as one of Dallas’ feistiest real estate agents, my life in Honolulu, and of course our cats.

“Tiptoe is being so naughty today, she is sleeping in Whiskey’s bed and won’t give it up!” my mother tells me. Then, more often than not I’ll hear a scuttle of “meows” in the background, followed by my mom’s disjointed, hand-over-the-speaker voice, barking at her gang of cats in Chinese.

“Tiptoe! [words words words] okay? Don’t be [words words]! Oh, Mama Cat, do you [words words] here? Here [words words], Mama.”

Mind you, aside from the cat names, the above exchange is entirely in Chinese, Cantonese to be exact. And as much as I’d like to consider myself mostly bilingual (I can understand most Cantonese, and speak it very poorly), what my mother says to her cats escapes me. I don’t know if it’s the choice of words, or the speed at which she talks to them, but those cats understand some things I simply do not.

I’ve recently come to the grim realization that my mother’s cats are more bilingual than I am.

How often, while visiting my parents in Texas, have I wandered into the kitchen one morning, still groggy from jet lag, to find my petite and kooky mother holding court amongst what we have affectionately dubbed “the Kitchen Cats.”

We call them the Kitchen Cats because since I left home almost 15 years ago, all available space in our home — my room, the guest room, the kitchen we used to eat in as a family — has been re-dedicated to my mom’s fur children.

The kitchen, the hub of our home, has become cat central. Beds, scratchers, food and water dishes and toys occupy every available surface, and on more than one occasion my husband has walked into the kitchen late at night only to return quickly saying, “I interrupted the cats. They did not want me there.”

Anyway, one does not interrupt my mother when she’s having her “morning meetings” with the cats. She conducts these meetings mostly in Cantonese with her cats, and I’m embarrassed to say that while I have to piece together what she’s saying to them, they understand her perfectly. They all but raise their paws when she asks who wants to “visit” our enclosed backyard and “help” my dad do yard work.

All the while I’m still scratching at the recesses of my puny human brain, trying to figure out which words meant “backyard” and “help Dad trim the plants.”

They sourly wonder what I’m still doing in their house.

The next order of business is food, of course.

From what I gather, each cat gets a specific treat for their specific diet. What exactly those treats are still eludes me, as my mom pulls from various tupperware containers marked “CATS” she keeps in the fridge. She does this because more than once my dad or I have opened up an inviting looking container to snack on, only to find that the “dip” for our chips was a special “egg treat” (again, translation eludes me) for Baby.

“Ay-yah! Don’t eat that! That’s for BABY!” my mom yelped and snatched it from me. Baby, her cranky little cross-eyed Siamese, screeched at me from her vantage point on the cat condo.

When it’s snack time, the Cantonese that my mom’s cats are so fluent in really picks up. In Cantonese, she inquires who’s … deserving? Helpful? Cranky? I’m not quite sure. They respond in what I can only assume is fluent Cat-tonese, and she divvies out their special treats. Sometimes the dialogue gets quite intense, with say, Mr. Goldie, my mom’s enormous yellow cat, being extra vocal that day. All I can usually patch together is, “Mr. Goldie! [words words] good! [Words] greedy [words words] chicken!”

Then Mr. Goldie addresses my/his mother more politely and gets a treat.

On more than one occasion I’ve asked, “WHAT IS HAPPENING HERE?” My mom and her cats simply laugh and carry on. Sometimes, I call to one of the kitchen cats and ask them, “Would you like a turkey treat?” And while they perk up at the sight or sound of their treat container, and maybe one of them recognizes the sound of the word “turkey” or “treat” in English, it isn’t until my mom asks me to use the Cantonese word that the cats really become interested.

I’m convinced that in regard to a certain lexicon, the cats have greater Cantonese vocabulary than I do. It makes sense. With me, my mom switches between Chinese and English, knowing after 32 years of dealing with her Cantonese-challenged daughter, what I will and will not understand.

But she does not have that filter with her cats. Through her intonation, word association, and frankly the stubbornness that at least SOME of her children would be bilingual, her cats both fully understand what she says to them in Chinese, as well as what she says to them when she has to interpret for their idiot human sister.

I’ve definitely caught myself, when my mom says something cat-related in Cantonese, watching Baby or Whiskey to see what they do so I can deduce a translation.

I really wish it wasn’t this way. As an adult, my one of my greatest regrets, as is with many children of immigrants, is that I learned to better speak and understand my ancestral mother tongue. But growing up in America, honing my Cantonese was never a priority. I’m lucky that I know so much of it through osmosis — like I said I can understand most conversational Cantonese, “egg treats” aside — but try as I might, my adult brain is much slower to grasp the independent formation of sentences.

So until I finally break down and sign up for those Cantonese classes I know I should take, the fur children have a slight advantage.

But I’d better hurry up. Knowing the mix of bemused tolerance they have for me and outright adoration they have for my mother (and her treats), it’s only a matter of time before they start talking back to her in perfect Cantonese.

Does your cat seem to know about certain things more than you do? Tell us what they are in the comments!

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