Struggling to learn Mandarin? Unhappy with English? Why not learn a niche language, such as Elephant? Nirmala Topno did, and it made her a star.
At age nine, she discovered that elephants in her part of India speak a language close to Mundaari, a tribal tongue in rural Orissa. I guess this makes more sense than if she found that they spoke Michael Caine-style British slang: "Wotcher, guv, got any bleedin' peanuts, wot?"
Today, Nirmala is 17, fluent in Elephant and in big demand. In summer, a herd of wild, killer pachyderms entered Rourkela, an industrial town, and refused to leave. Up went the cry: "Call for Nirmala." The teenager entered the town, said her prayers, and approached the elephants. "This is not your home," she told them. "You need to go back where you belong."
"Okay, right-o, terribly sorry," they replied. Nirmala and her team walked the 11-strong herd many kilometres back to the jungle. This is astonishing, especially when you consider that I cannot get my own kids to move two metres from the TV to the dining table without shocking levels of bribery and corruption.
I learned this tale from Hong Kong reader Sunita Chau, who sent me links to newspapers, one of which included a dismissive quote by "an expert" who claimed elephants wouldn't really be able to converse with a human girl.
What rubbish! Lots of animals talk. Remember Fluffy the dog who appeared on America's Funniest Home Videos, saying "I want my momma"? Or the YouTube clip of Russian cat Marquis who reacts to a stranger entering her home by saying "Oh, no, no, no, no", which is exactly what I feel like saying in that situation?
Granted, most animals fail to speak actual meaningful sentences, but then so do most humans. The most common comment I see under YouTube videos is "you're stupid" spelt "your stuped".
I know someone who visited Kosik, the famous South Korean talking elephant. Kosik can say things like "yes, yes, yes" and "lie down", two phrases which I'm told form the bulk of the vocabulary of sex-obsessed Seoul-singer Psy.
It is well known that in Africa, elephants classify humans by language. If pachyderms hear you speaking the Maasai warriors' tongue, they back off, thinking "elephant killers". If you speak Swahili, they calm down, thinking "friendly farmers". If they hear you speak English they relax completely, thinking "idiot tourists who hold their cameras backwards and fall off safari jeeps".
Animals are smarter than many people. Did you see the recent news report about a dog that found a human leg in a forest? The pooch realized it was important, and took it to a human. The human buried it in his garden without telling the police. Now which one had the brains?
My pet dog not only talks with her mouth but has very expressive eyes. I once tried to teach her to play "fetch", but she made her thoughts perfectly clear by sighing and rolling her eyes at passers-by, as if to say: "My master spent ages searching for a stick and now the idiot has thrown it away. See what I have to put up with?" I guess she had a point.