Thing a Week 13: The Bilingualing

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When I woke up this morning I knew something felt different, but the sheer magnitude of change both in myself and in every other person in the world had been completely lost on me until I’d arrived at the office to find all of my coworkers — or, well, those who actually came in today — wide-eyed and excitedly gesturing between one another, enthusiastically speaking at what looked like a million words per minute from the other side of the office.

John, Tim, and Sarah were each talking in turn, it looked like, and the excitement in their voices floated audibly through the office, picking up in volume as I approached the glass-encased conference room tentatively but curiously; I didn’t know quite yet that others had experienced the same sort of feeling I had this morning, but each in their own way.

It was Sarah’s voice I could make out first, but something was off about it. It took several more long strides through the sea of cubicles before I realized what was wrong: I couldn’t understand what she was saying.

Sarah, a young blonde from Tennessee, who’d dropped out of college during her sophomore year to have an accident that turned into an unpaid — well, more accurately, it was her doing the paying — full-time job, which forced her into the awfully-compensated secretarial position she currently held, was speaking in another language, or so it seemed. The words drifting through the air came with sounds I’d never heard before: deep throat sounds that almost sounded like primal grunts, staccato clicks that I had no idea human beings could even make, and an awful amalgamation of syllables that I sincerely doubted would ever be possible (or encouraged) in a real language.

It was a strange feeling seeing and hearing gibberish coming from her lips; she didn’t seem like the kind of girl to goof around and make up languages.

By the time I stepped through the break room door Sarah had fallen silent, staring off into space as if watching some captivating theatrical performance in the ether, completely oblivious to anything going on around her — John, now speaking in what sounded like an angry German voice, though gesturing wildly and letting the occasional laugh sneak in, nor I, her direct supervisor entering unannounced with quite the opposite of a smile on my face, could break her from her reverie.

“What’s going on,” I started, feeling my voice uncharacteristically crack underneath me, before I was rudely interrupted by Jacob from accounting speaking up, pointing even more rudely to announce my entrance to those who somehow hadn’t noticed quite yet.

“What’d you get,” he asked excitedly, without waiting for an answer before adding on, “I got Irish. Féach?”

I must have furrowed my brow, because whatever dumb office prank they were all attempting seemed to have been lost on me.

“What,” I said dumbly, glancing back into the empty office where no one was getting work done from.

“Your language,” Jacob clarified, still wearing an excited tone that was unusual for the otherwise calm and collected old man he was. “What’d you get?”

The room fell quiet, waiting for an answer, but I had none. I shook my head and repeated, “What? If this is some kind of joke…”

I was interrupted, this time by Sarah again, who started speaking at first in her made up language, then shook her head and instead said in English, to everyone except me in the room: “She doesn’t know.”

As grins spread across the room, I nervously asked, “Know what?”

“You don’t feel any different this morning,” Jacob prodded, “as if you’d, maybe, experienced something new?”

I had felt weird all morning, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what exactly was wrong. My stomach was fine and my head was normal, but something did certainly feel off.

“What do you mean,” I asked nervously. “Something new?”

“Everyone — literally everyone, everyone in the world as far as people are saying — woke up this morning able to speak a second language,” Jacob explained. “I got Irish,” he stopped to repeat Féach, as if it explained everything, and then excitedly added, “Is féidir liom a rá is cuma cad ba mhaith liom!”

“German for me,” John added, proudly.

“I have no idea what my language is,” Sarah chipped in. “Actually, there’s a lot of people that don’t know what their language is; we were just about to upload a clip to reddit to see if anyone could identify it.”

“Your language,” I interjected, still confused. “I’m still confused. How did everyone learn a second language?” Furrowing my brow once more, I added, “Overnight?”

There was silence in the room for a moment, as if everyone were trying to decide if anyone else was more fit to answer that question than they were, but everyone was equally in the dark how this miracle had happened. What they did know, however, was that it had happened, and until anyone had any reason to believe otherwise, they would keep it classified as some kind of miracle.

Still entirely unsure of whether this was all just an elaborate ruse — though, admittedly, an impressive one — I inquired the obvious: “How do I find out my language?”

“It’s a weird feeling,” Jacob interjected again, “and so far it’s been different for each of us, but for me it was trying to describe something — that painting there, actually — without using any English words. I’ve never studied Irish a day in my life but when I opened my mouth and let the words flow out I could tell you without a doubt it was leor, or suimiúil, and yet it still doesn’t feel like it’s me saying each word.

Tim stood up and picked up a newspaper that had been laying next to him and added, “For me it was reading. I was having a bit of a read on the morning commute when I momentarily dozed off and closed my eyes, and I noticed the words in my head weren’t in the language they normally were. I’m not sure if that’s helpful for you or if you picture words when you read, but they may not be in English anymore!”

He tossed me the newspaper he’d picked up and I glanced at the header: September 19, the Newtonian Times. One of the many copies we brought in for employees to peruse on their office breaks.

“Just picture one of the headlines in your head or something,” Tim coached.

I would have done what I was told, but as I glanced down at the newspaper to skim the headlines, I found myself suddenly dizzy, looking at a newspaper in another language but effortlessly understanding the entirety of it.

Iuventute armata rapinam arbitratus ad museum, I read slowly and out loud, only briefly glancing up to see the ecstatic and interested faces worn by my coworkers.

“That was easy,” Tim joked, clearly impressed at how quickly I picked up my language. “Hold on, read one of the headlines into this.”

He brandished his phone, quickly swiped a few times, and then held it out to me, screen showing nothing but a giant, red microphone icon that I assumed meant it was ready to listen.

Nihil autem pretiosum abreptis,” I kept reading, only pausing when the microphone beeped and turned white, which prompted Tim to withdraw his phone and wait for it to load before looking up and exclaiming, “Greek!”

“Greek,” I blindly repeated, completely bewildered at the entire ordeal still.

There was a round of cheers from my coworkers and Tim announced, informally — of course, “Jane can speak Greek now.”

I stared forward, still not convinced this wasn’t some incredibly elaborate joke.

“She’s only ever spoken Greek to me,” Jacob joked, but the joke fell short.

“They were calling it The Bilingualing on the news this morning,” Sarah piped in, capitalizing on the awkward silence. “Nobody knows how it happens yet, but everyone knows a second language now. It’s insane.”

My hand instinctively reached into my own pocket and withdrew my phone as I blandly repeated, “Everyone,” thoughts running elsewhere. I hastily unlocked it to call Ryan and ask about his language, but noticed he’d already attempted the opposite: six missed calls and five voicemails.

I smiled to the group as I turned around toward a quieter part of the office and they knew what I was doing before I even explained, “Apparently my husband is pretty excited too; he called six times.”

There were a handful of polite laughter, but it faded as I quickly walked away, keyed in my voicemail PIN, and put the phone to my ear. Someone called out something foreign, but I didn’t understand.

“Hello Mrs. Baker,” the recording spoke quietly, “this is Belinda Dawson at South Elementary, and I’m here with Penny. She’s not in trouble or anything, but I’m going to have to ask you to come pick her up from school today, we’ve had some issues with whatever it is that’s happening with languages everywhere, and we think it’d be better if she were at home until this chaos resolves. Again, as soon as you’re available it’d be best if you came and picked her up; I’m here if you have any questions, or you can give me a call at the school’s number. Thanks.”

As the message ended, I started making my way towards my desk to pick up a stack of papers to run through in case there was any waiting for Penny. The next message started playing automatically.

Joh-eun achim, aleumdaun sonyeo,” Ryan’s voice played through. “How are things going at work? I assume you’ve heard about this crazy second language stuff,” — he paused for some reason, perhaps to try and stifle the smile sneaking into his voice — “but I just wanted to check in and see what language you got and chat. I’ll try again over lunch, have a wonderful day! Saranghae!”

Even through the phone Ryan’s smile was contagious, and I realized I had a big, stupid grin on my face as I passed by the front reception desk on my way out. Through eight years of marriage he still managed to make me smile every day, and I made a mental note to grab some steaks — his favorite — after picking up Penny. Hopefully he can take off the day given the circumstances, but if not I can surprise him with them tonight.

My smile only widened at the thought, and the third voice mail began playing as I made a beeline through the parking lot towards my van.

“Hello again Mrs. Baker,” a familiar voice repeated in the same quiet tone as before. “It’s Belinda again at South Elementary and I just wanted to give you and your husband another call; Penny’s still here and looking for a ride home, and it’d be very good if you could arrive as soon as possible. Please give me a call if you can’t and we can make alternate arrangements.”

She may have said thanks before hanging up, but I noticed a van about to pull out into me at the parking lot exit and had to honk, drowning out the phone’s comparatively quiet sound momentarily.

As I successfully exited the parking lot (first) and started heading down Emery street to South Elementary, the fourth voicemail began playing.

“Mrs. Baker,” the same voice said, this time more urgently, “I’m going to preface this by saying Penny is absolutely fine and in no trouble, but for the safety of the other students I had to release her over to the police department for safe-keeping. She just left with sargeant Bard and was doing fine and will be completely safe with him, but you’ll want to head over to the station to pick her up instead of at school.”

I jerked the car violently to make a turn last minute, missing a few words of the voicemail in exchange for not missing 38th street, which meant I’d be at the police station at least a few minutes earlier than if I’d missed the turn. I was still a good twenty or twenty-five minutes away, but a couple minutes shaved off would hopefully mean less stress for Penny.

“ — can talk about it whenever you call, but nobody here really knows what is going on. Again, I’m sorry we couldn’t keep her here, but after the second fire I had to call the police. If you have any questions, I’m here to help. Good luck.”

By this time my thoughts were racing faster than I was and I released the deathgrip I had unintentionally placed on the steering wheel, muttering to myself incomprehensible bits and pieces repeated from the voicemail, trying to make sense of why Penny would need to be taken in and why or how the other students’ safety had been threatened.

I increased my speed and sped around a young girl whose speed was significantly impaired by the cell phone in her hand as the fifth and final voicemail started playing.

“Uh, hello,” the voice started with a strange tone, as if unsure of what to say but not worried about coming up with words on the spot. “This is officer Monroe and I’m calling because you’re listed as an emergency contact in a Ryan Baker’s cell phone. I’m sorry I have to leave a voicemail, but I’m here with him at the Maiden Family Hospital and he’s in critical condition after a very serious car accident.”

My heart stopped, but my car didn’t. Penny wasn’t in immediate danger, but Ryan was. I could call a friend or a cab or someone to pick up Penny, but I needed to be with Ryan right now.

I could take the next left up to the hospital and be there in ten, so I threw my turn signal on and swung into the left lane, too preoccupied in thought to respond to a honk even if there had been one.

I felt the car slide out from under me with a grating metal screech and time slowed down as I was tossed back, spinning, into the rest of traffic. Whether people were actually paying attention to what was in front of them or not, probably nobody had enough time to react anyway before slamming into me or the cars that had already collided, leading to a substantial pile-up comparable only to the same thing happening everywhere else in the world today also.

I was no longer conscious to hear it, but the rest of officer Monroe’s voicemail played softly through the cracked phone next to my body on the concrete, with him just adding that, while Ryan was indeed in critical condition and could go either way at any time, he had been stable for the past hour, and that arriving a couple minutes earlier was no reason to endanger yourself as well.

“Drive safe,” Monroe concluded, and the phone went silent.

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