Exhibit A: I was recently considered for a photo job that would have taken me to Mexico City to cover this weekend's open house for the new visitor's center at the LDS temple. As it turned out, the missionary department preferred a Spanish speaker for the task, which makes sense. As exciting as the job would have been, I can't help thinking that I would have wound up lost in a back alley somewhere, using desperate hand signals to convince a man with a gun that my bag wasn't filled with thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment.
Exhibit B: With Mexico City crossed off the itinerary, I was free to drop by the Bountiful Temple on Saturday night, and somehow I wound up assigned to a group of Spanish-speaking ordinance workers. I'd been through the routine enough times that I just decided to run with it, and was able to fake my way through without tipping anyone off that I didn't speak the language. As I finished up, one of the ordinance workers shook my hand in gratitude and said something to me in Spanish. For all I knew, he said, "may the flames of a thousand dragons rain vengeance on your ancestors," but he seemed pretty sincere, so I just nodded my thanks and went on my way.
Aside from encounters like those, I live in a world of English. I speak it, I write it, I even teach it. I justify my bubble by noting the considerable amount of time and energy I have invested perfecting the fluency of my single language, but I can't help but think somewhere down the road I'm going to have to bolster my linguistic resume.
One of the biggest reasons I have never become bilingual is that I was called to a stateside LDS mission. While my friends wrestled with new dialects in France and Russia and Taiwan, I enjoyed a different kind of multi-cultural experience in South Chicago. Of course, it's easy to make jokes about urban or even Midwestern accents (imagine the cast of the old "Da Bears" SNL sketch blessing the sacrament every Sunday), but the reality is that language was the least of the barriers I had to deal with in the Windy City.
Not that I was relieved to be spared the total cultural immersion. Prior to my mission call, I was a devout drinker of the "fortune and glory" Kool-Aid when it came to my mission destiny. As a starry-eyed 17-year-old, I became convinced that when my time came, I would be sent to break new ground in Vietnam, serving my two years out of a series of primitive mud huts, spending my days hacking through obscure jungles with a machete in one hand and a Book of Mormon in the other, spreading the Gospel while "Gimme Shelter" and "All Along the Watchtower" played softly in the background. It was an image born of naive idealism and too many late night viewings of "Apocalypse Now."
In a way, I think I was more surprised that I wasn't given a European assignment, since I had spent two years in junior high under the hand of Madame Sharpe, the Centerville Junior High French teacher. I even won an award for those efforts, though I never continued my education past the minimum two-year requirement for high school graduation.
I can guarantee that learning a second language would result in more international travel for Team Terry. To date, the sum total of my foreign experience is Canada-based:
- In the summer of 2000, I drove across a bridge to the Canadian side of Niagra Falls and ate at their Hard Rock Cafe.
- In 2005, I made a series of fact check calls to Canadian businesses on behalf of Rand McNally, who was compiling a guide to highlight tourist attractions in Canada.
- Two years ago, I helped translate several Allen Communication instructional courses into Canadian for use by Canada-based clients.*
Add it all up, and toss in the caveat that if I ever decide to get a PhD, the vast majority of programs require a two-year equivalent fluency in a second language, and it becomes clear that my English-only days are numbered. I just don't know what language will complete the countdown. But whether it comes in Spanish, French, or Klingon, somehow it's going to happen.
*This is not a joke.