Floridians know their Spanish. A trip to Walmart is to hear perfect Spanish, Spanish in all its iterations. So when I moved here, I thought I’d give this Spanish thing a go. To say I’m pretty good at languages is an understatement. My family moved to Germany when I was two, and you should have heard me jabber away in German by age five. I was a baby prodigy!
In fact, my confidence in language learning was so high at that tender age that I refused to speak German after we left. My parents tried to keep me speaking German, but I refused, knowing that I’d already learned it. So what was the point?
When I began learning Spanish through Duolingo, my skills were on full display. My computer screen kept pinging with awards. Duolingo even sent me emails about how I needed to keep up my winning ways. They must have never seen such proficiency. But I stayed humble so as to keep up my humility streak, for which I’ve been winning awards for years.
After a week, I was 14% proficient in Spanish. So when work took me to Mexico City, I was surprised at the lack of language-learning in this part of the world. I kept asking where the bathroom was, an extremely simple phrase (“Como es el baño?”), and folks kept looking at me cross-eyed. Mexico needs Duolingo.
Language proficiency runs in my family; my dad has worked on translating large portions of the Bible from ancient texts. If the Bible is a conspiracy, my dad’s in on it. Note to self: Keep eye on dad. With language-learning in my blood, I knew that I was to become a language rival to C-3PO from Star Wars, Data from Star Trek, and pretty much every fictional robot there ever was.
Stuff like this had happened to me before in grad school when the philological stars had aligned. For example, me versus ancient biblical Greek and Hebrew. I was so good at Greek that my advanced Greek teacher brought me blackberry cobbler every week (true story). I suppose she wanted to see if the sugar could enable me to bring a dead language alive again. I crooned ancient Greek. She was so overwhelmed she went to get me some ice cream for my cobbler. I think she just needed to cool down.
In ancient Hebrew class, my teacher was a little more severe. He looked just as I would imagine Moses looked. His face was perfectly encircled by great white tendrils of hair and beard. Think Einstein’s hair blown back by a holy gust.
He was a fantastic teacher if you already knew the language. “Students” would raise their hands and ask about some abstract exception to the rule in the language, and he would spend the rest of class discussing it with that individual. Meanwhile, the rest of us were poised with pens in hand, waiting for the third letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Now, we were thinking about more violent uses of pens. Even my prodigious language abilities were tasked by this class where I learned precisely nothing. I should have been using Duolingo and pinging.
Unfortunately, Moses was to be my examiner to graduate from grad school, enabling me to become a grad-grad. He was unable to be there for the written exam, so he had me take it alone. This was before the age of “Hey, Google,” so to cheat on this test would have taken a trip to the library, a keen understanding of the Dewey decimal system, and looking through ancient archived tomes. Being allergic to dust, I decided not to cheat.
After skimming the instructions, I cracked open the test to see four ridiculously long passages. Three of them I’d seen before and one I hadn’t ever seen. So I dug in. Moses was going to bless me with his rod (perhaps that thought was foreshadowing). But I ploughed on, translating perfectly all three of the uber-long (see my German work) passages with pizzazz (Italian I haven’t even studied).
I’d done such a good job on the three seen passages that by the time my three-hour exam was over, I didn’t even bother with the unseen one. I’d been popping one M&M with each word I translated and was feeling a bit jittery. But I felt sick when I went back and read the instructions again, “Be sure to only take 45 minutes on each passage and then move on to the next.”
Knowing this could mean trouble, I called Moses, and he pronounced judgement upon me, “Thou art unlikely to become a grad-grad, for you did not obey my instructions thus breaking the covenant. Tomorrow, come and see me and my brother, Aaron, at the office of meeting.”
Next morning, I met Moses and Aaron in their office. I was doomed. Hell hath no fury like having to read obscure passages of Hebrew before a Moses glowing with anger. But obscurity quickly became my friend. The passages were so obscure that Aaron, ever the peace-maker, kept giving me the definitions for the words that occurred less than 100 times in the Hebrew bible. In the end, I only had to translate like four words: and, the, walk and give.
Much to Moses’ chagrin, I passed, and my belief in skimming instructions and my inherent language gifting was restored. Aaron even pried Moses’ smiting rod from his fingers and blessed me with it.
So what does all this have to do with learning Spanish in Florida? Well, I skimmed the instructions about my assignment for this column. It said something about writing funny stuff about life in Central Florida, but I forget. It probably said something along the lines of write about whatever you want to write about because you are such a prodigious and praiseworthy genius par excellence (French) that we will print whatever your blessed hands write. Well, it is written.