Have you ever noticed how it’s considered a novelty to be bilingual here in America, but it’s completely normal, or even expected, to know at least two languages in other parts of the world? This always really bugged me, and I’m still upset at my younger self for not paying attention in Spanish class. Especially now that I work a low-level position at this financial company, my superiors love to give me dirty looks every time I’m unable to make conversation with our numerous foreign clients. I’ll bring in coffee, ask if they want anything in it, and do my best with “sucre, gracias” or “nein, schwartz”. All the while my boss is babbling away in some language I don’t understand and glaring at me as I pour cream into their mug.
Finally fed up with my obliviousness, I decided to download one of those language-teaching apps. Once I opened it, it presented me with a selection of languages to choose from, and I went down the line and selected as many as it would let me. German, Spanish, French, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Hindi, Russian, and Korean. I figured, one lesson of each language a night, and soon I’d be able to at least comprehend some of what people at work said, and look good in the process.
One month in and I was more confused than ever. I was trying to speak Chinese to the Germans, saying “si” and “nyet” in the same sentence, and bothering everyone, including myself. Eventually, after a particularly disastrous meeting, one of my bosses motioned for me to follow him. We entered his office and he shut the door behind me.
“Sit down, Ellis.” he said. I complied. He took a deep breath. “Ok. I know you’ve been trying very hard to learn to speak with our global clients,” (...but? But? Where’s the but?) “But. You and I both know that things aren’t going very well, and you’ve been disrupting work for weeks. And you know we’re making an exception for you. We make sure to be clear that all new hires must be multilingual,” (Lie! That’s a lie! All they did was ask what my college GPA was and shake my hand!) “and your ducking of this hiring policy is bringing more harm to our customer relations than you may realize.” I wanted to argue, or cry, but all I did was nod. “Listen. We’ve got three representatives from ChainCorp visiting for a special presentation on Monday morning. If you can brush up on your remedial… everything, and give a good performance, I’ll stop nagging you. If not, well, we may consider giving you an extended break to study your foreign language… unpaid, of course.” He pat me on the shoulder, stood up, and left the room.
For the entire bus ride home, all through dinner, as I brushed my teeth, and in bed, I practiced on the app. What did the representatives from ChainCorp speak? I couldn’t remember, so I stuck to… all of them. I did this all day Saturday as well, from sunup to sundown. My dreams were filled with images of conjugation, accents, and past perfect forms.
I woke up to an email. It looked like it was from the same company that made the app, and it read:
Dear Ms. Ellis,
I represent an experimental research division of [company name], where we strive to make it as easy to learn languages as humanly possible. Based on your recent activity, you seem to be as passionate about language learning as we are, which we love! But it’s also a bit worrying, as not many people would spend twelve straight hours studying unless they had a lot on the line.
This is where I believe we could help you.
You see, we are looking for someone willing to come into our clinic and try a new language-learning therapy that has never been fully tried before. We know it’s on very short notice, but would it be possible for you to come in this afternoon to try it out? We assure you that it’s very safe, and you’ll be compensated for helping us out.
Please reply as soon as you can if you think this will be possible.
Without thinking, I replied with a “yes”. There was no way I’d actually be ready for tomorrow’s meeting at this rate, and I’d even be getting paid! What did I have to lose? Plus, this “therapy” would probably be something like sticking me in front of a screen and flashing words in front of my eyes, maybe with some diodes stuck on me. It probably wouldn’t do anything, but I was desperate at this point.
Very shortly after, I got an email back. It contained the address-- one I didn’t recognize, across the city --and the time-- 4pm. It also contained instructions not to eat for at least six hours before the procedure. I felt my stomach rumble. Easy enough, I’d neglected to even eat dinner last night. I waited around nervously for several hours, before hailing a cab to the clinic.
Instead of being in a high-rise or shiny glass building in a financial area, the address led me to a half-underground door in the red light district. I looked all around at the flashing neon and decaying brick, sure this couldn’t be the right place. But sure enough, a small plaque by the door assured me that this was the location of the “Experimental Research Division” of the company. I was a bit weirded out, but maybe, somehow, for them, it was a good location.
My thoughts were interrupted by the door swinging open. I hadn’t even knocked.
“Ms. Ellis!” said a short man, with combed brown hair and wearing doctor’s scrubs. “Welcome, please come in! It’s dusty out there, isn’t it?” He coughed a couple of times, and laughed. “Please take off your shoes and hang your coat right here, you’ll want to get comfortable.” I stepped inside and did just that. As I hung my coat on the wall, I glanced around the small room, which was divided in half with metal shelves and a plastic curtain. From what I could see, it looked more like an engineering workshop than a therapist’s office or classroom, which was what I’d expected. A table had unfinished bits and pieces of machinery spread over it, which a woman immediately scooped up and put into a bin the moment I looked at them. She, and the other six people mulling about, were also wearing scrubs.
“Please walk this way,” said another person, parting the curtain, “and lie down on the table. We’ll be with you in just a moment.” I shakily walked into the curtained-off area. In a complete contrast from the other one, this area was clean and sterile, with white walls, and a few small, empty tables in the corner. In the center was a flat, narrow bed, with a light green plastic sheet on top. Directly above the bed, mounted on the ceiling, was a smooth, circular contraption. It looked almost like a tiered wedding cake, except upside-down, huge, and with a domed top. Shakily, I climbed onto the bed, and looked up at the thing. Maybe it was a light, and it would flash in a way that made me spontaneously comprehend Spanish? Nah, who was I kidding? My fear was almost immediately confirmed when the first doctor walked in, rolling an IV stand and wearing… surgical gloves.
“E-excuse me,” I said, “I don’t think I understood when I agreed to this, is this, uh, surgery?”
The doctor stopped and shrugged. “Wellll… yes, I guess. It’s minimally invasive, incisionless surgery. You won’t even be put to sleep, this is just to help you calm down a bit.” He pointed to the IV needle, and approached me with it. I shuddered. The rest of the staff entered the area and stared at me. “Thank you so much for helping us out with this,” he said, kindly, “I’m sorry if we were unclear, but we assure you, this will be quick and easy, and you’ll soon have solved your language problem as well!” Damn. In the moment I’d completely forgotten about that. Was it worth it to get this freaky procedure? I didn’t even know what was going to happen. But, if I didn’t, I’d definitely be losing my job. Damn. I stuck my arm out for the IV.
A moment of pain passed, and I felt my whole body relax. A different doctor rolled my head over and used a marker to make two dots on the left side of my head. I heard a click, a beep, and the device on the ceiling opened up. It definitely wasn’t a light. A long metal arm descended from it, with several tubes running down the side, connecting to three long sharp prongs on the end of it. I prayed they weren’t needles, but the closer they got to my head, the more my hope fizzled away. “It’s this or no job, this or no job, this or no job,” I repeated in my head. I closed my eyes. One click sounded, and a sharp pain smashed into me as the first needle entered my throat. I tried not to cry out.
“Insertion into larynx successful.” said a voice. The pain slowly decreased, but the needle remained in place. Next to my ear, I heard a whirring sound. Was it a…? It sounded like a drill. Even through the cloud of anaesthesia, I felt this the most. Two spinning, drill-like needles made their way through my skull, one right behind my ear, and one near the temple.
“Wernicke’s Area connection established. Broca’s Area connection establ--”
Suddenly I had no idea what the doctors were saying, only garbled nonsense. I opened my mouth to ask what was happening, but all that came out was more of the same. Nothing even hurt anymore, I was just floating in a confused haze of words that didn’t mean anything.
Then it subsided. The pressure on my head and neck was gone, and I peeked my eyes open to see the machine tucked away into itself and all the doctors leaning over me.
“How do you feel?” said the first one, “Can you read this?”
He held up a piece of paper, with Chinese text printed on it. It was a poem, probably for children, about a white bird. “Yeah, uh,” I said, “it’s about a bir-” All the doctors cheered and high-fived, before quickly regaining their composure. “How about this?” he held up another page, this one with the lyrics to a Russian love song. “‘She’ll always love me, this I’m sure,’” I read aloud. Through the fog in my brain, I felt no motivation to ask what had happened, simply read and recite. “Wonderful,” he said, “Now, you’ll need a full 24 hours for the anaesthesia to wear off and for the procedure to safely set in, so we’ll leave you to your rest.” That made me snap out of it. I sat straight up.
“Wait!” I said, and all the doctors took a step back, “I can’t stay here for 24 hours! I need to go to work!” I began to shimmy off the bed, but several doctors stepped forward to restrain me.
“Listen to me,” said the head doctor, sternly, “this isn’t about getting your paycheck. This is a matter of your brain healing properly. This is a matter of our work going successfully! Do you hear me? If you leave now and go out into the world, you risk damaging your brain, permanently!”
“Don’t care,” I mumbled, feeling groggy again, but still physically full of energy, “can’t lose my job.” I pushed past everyone in my way and stumbled to the door. “Plus, I didn’t sign a waiver.”
And I left.
It was dark now, and the neon colors swam in and out of my vision. The hilly city street now seemed nearly vertical, causing me to immediately fall to my knees and drag myself a block. I’d left my shoes and jacket, and it was freezing. I had to get home. My phone buzzed in my pocket-- one new email.
You were correct, we have no legal power to stop you, but we beg that you come back and allow yourself to rest in a controlled environment. You’re risking---
And then the words turned to mush. I looked up from my phone to see that all the signs around me, on businesses, buildings, advertisements, were all the same. A woman walked past me, looking down at my hunched form with pity. She said something I didn’t comprehend. It didn’t seem like a foreign language, in fact, it didn’t sound like words at all. I tried to respond, but like before, only gibberish came out. She looked sympathetically at me again, and continued walking. After several more blocks of crawling and a few more similar exchanges, I gave up, curled up in a bus stop, and fell asleep. The last thing I saw was the word “SCHEDULE” switching between readable and nonsense as the small holes in my head stung in the cold night air.
“Excuse me, ma’am… ma’am! Are you alright?” A uniformed man with a broom stood over me, clearly concerned to see a disheveled, slightly bloody businesswoman sleeping in one of his assigned bus stops. “Yeah, I’m. Ugh!” My head felt like I’d been shot. I slowly sat up and looked at the man. “Hey, what time is it?” He checked his watch. “It’s 10:30,” he said, “but, uh, you look pretty messed up there. Want me to drive you to the hospit--” “10:30? Jesus, I am so late, I have to go!” I quickly stood up. “No hospital, but… could you drive me somewhere else?”
The janitor was clearly worried for my safety, and frankly, I was too, but my whole career was at risk. “It’s this or no job”, I whispered to myself. He dropped me at the front of my building, wished me luck “at whatever is so important”, and I ran inside. I dashed through the lobby, past the bewildered receptionist, into the elevator, out onto my floor, and slammed open the door of the conference room. My boss was standing right inside, in the middle of his presentation. He stopped and stared at me, for a whole five seconds. He saw my unpinned hair, wild eyes, the red spot on my neck, dust-covered clothes, tights covered in tears, and lack of shoes. I stared right back.
“Sorry I’m late.” I said, panting, “Something came up, but I did my best to make it on time.”
He kept on staring.
“I could have just skipped this completely, but you know, it’s this or no job. Es ist das oder kein Job. C'est ça ou pas de travail.”
“Are you trying to tell me,” he said, slowly, “that you look like, like this, because you were up all night practicing foreign languages?”
“Es este o ningún trabajo. Libo eto, libo net raboty.” I couldn’t stop speaking, it was reflexive, like a hiccup. “È questo o nessun lavoro.
Yah ya to yah hai ya koee kaam nahin hai.
Igeon jig-eob igeon anigeon.
Kore ka shigoto ga nai ka no dochira kadesu.
Zhè shì gōngzuò háishì méiyǒu gōngzuò.
It’s this or no job.