I was 5 years old when I immigrated to this country. I did not speak a word of English. I spent the better part of my first year rebelling against my adopted homeland, ignoring the basic rules and speaking only Russian. I was held back in kindergarten. Imagine the pride on my parents faces as the teacher let them know that I had made virtually no progress in my first year in school.
In fact I was so convinced that rather than learn English everyone around me would just learn Russian that I had begun to teach it to my bus driver, who was only too happy to have a child not cursing at him or shouting obscenities in a language he understood. My arrogance unrivaled, I would proudly respond to questions in Russian regardless of whether or not I understood them. Rather than learn a new skill, I insisted that the universe revolve around me.
Until I was introduced to Word Muncher.
I would have undoubtedly continued my obstructionist attitude towards the English language, and its virtually incomprehensible creation, the “th” sound, if not for the invention of video games. It was my second year in ESL, and my teacher, whose name escapes me, sat us down in front of the two (which seemed rather extravagant at the time) computers to take turns playing Word Munchers. It should tell you everything you need to know about my past, present, and future, that I cannot remember the name of the teacher who fought me tooth and nail till I finally came around to speaking English, but remember every element of Word Munchers.
Word Munchers, like its sister game Number Munchers, featured a green frog who was supposed to eat words that sounded similar while avoiding troggles, brutish monsters designed to eat the frog, or at the very least fuck up his rhythm in matching words. From the very first day that I played I was hooked. My frog had the life expectancy of approximately three words (as there were only three lives, and guessing wrong or death by troggle cost a life) but that did not alienate me to the game in the least. This was my first color video game, and I was mesmerized. At five I had almost no interest what so ever in learning English, but video games appeal universally, and sure enough as the frog’s life increased so did my vocabulary.
Twenty-five years later, I am enthralled by the English language and its nuances. I never mastered grammar (in part due to a disorder I have) but I relish anything that is well written in my adopted tongue.
I still look to the magic of computers, and gadgets to solve my problems, but now it is “How can I carry multiple books around with me at once?” I still stare blankly at a screen recipe for hard boiled eggs as if the internet has somehow come up with a better way to boil the water. Yet while it was technology that introduced me to this magnificent tongue, it is also technology that has destroyed it for me.
“So you like science fiction?” I ask my date with a twinge of noticeable excitement.
“O-M-G, YES! I loved the Hunger Games books, and the new Star Treks are amazeballs,” she replies.
My ears bleeding and my brain bubbling, my eyes dart around for the exit, as I frantically fumble for a way to switch topics away from the one I had brought up. A generation of computers has turned us all into troggles. We blindly wander around on a path butchering this language as if we were the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run.
“So, I had this epiphany,” she continues, much to my dismay, “We should watch The Lord of the Rings tonight.”
A suggestion (or apparently EPIPHANY) coming out of nowhere and with no regard for the complete lack of interest I was radiating at her. In fact so independent was this thought from this date, that when I stammered something about how Lord of the Rings is awful, she entirely ignored it. At this point I was no longer being talked to, but at, and with every poorly designed sentence I felt a little bit of humanity fall to the ground and slither out the front door.
I thought about climbing out the bathroom window, before remembering the particular establishment we were at does not have windows in the bathroom, and that an escape was foolhardy.
My mind wandered while I politely nodded in agreement to her retelling of the plot of Lord of the Rings. I cursed the architect of the bar, for not seeing fit to devise a second exit. I cursed the waiter who seemed to think that just because I was nodding along to her opinions, I was not also in desperate need of another drink. I cursed my date for her failure to notice the signs of utter disengagement in my grunts and one word replies to her soliloquy on some shit called an Ant, that is also a fucking tree. I cursed and resented myself for assuming that science fiction in fact meant science fiction. I cursed Tolkien for not writing better, more appealing books. I cursed at the universe and the lack of earthquakes in the northeast. At least if the earth moves in an inappropriate way it would give us a new topic of conversation.
The bartender (a man who has seen me on a few dates as this bar) asks me if we want another drink, and is noticeably taken aback as I ask for just the check. My date seemed puzzled, but not unhappy at the prospect, perhaps assuming I was going to invite her over to watch Lord of the Rings.
“It’s late, I have to work in the morning, but it was lovely meeting you,” are the three lies I stammer out. It is 10pm, I don’t have to be at work till noon, and meeting her was many things but not at all lovely.
As I walk home I stare at the sidewalk. It looks like the perfect grid, and I wish I had brought some chalk. Perhaps if I write all the similar sounds down on the pavement and navigate my way home by them, I will be able to spot and avoid all the Troggles…