Mrs. Francoise: Drop Dead!

March, 2013

I am reading with glee about the new generation of software products that translate spoken language in real time via your intelligent phone and other devices. Not since the Universal Translator of “Star Trek” and innumerable other scifi works has the realization of such technology come to pass.

In college I first stumbled-over and then majored in anthropology. On the plus side, I not only loved it, but as a new major at UMass, the entire department had just four professors. So we undergrads – there were just 60 Anthro majors in a university population of 11,000 – were treated to a graduate-level education wherein it was typical for an undergrad anthro class to be comprised of perhaps twelve students, seated around a table with the professor speaking in a seminar format. Anyone who today is student 351 out of 420 at the back of a college amphitheater taking Anthro 201 can surely imagine the difference.

The downside was that Anthro required two years of a foreign language. Why? Because – while English is the official language of science and engineering -- the Humanities and Social Sciences required reading and perhaps conversing in a foreign tongue. I had taken Latin in high school -- based upon the recommendation of a school principal born in 1895 -- that Latin was key to all newer languages, especially for a lad interested in science and I was the top student in my class in biology. I had struggled through three years of Latin, a struggle that came to mind years later during Navy Deepwater Survival Training, in which an aspiring aircrewman is required to swim one mile wearing a flight suit, steel-toed boots, a helmet, and a huge, uninflated life vest.

Tragically, Latin was not allowed as a foreign language in college; it had to be a modern language. I stumbled into French based upon my mom’s experience (my mom had a genius IQ, the gene for which had apparently run screaming from my near-fertilized egg). As good as my mom was with language, I had been born dyslexic. Of course, in the 1950s, if you had trouble learning in school you were either stupid or lazy or both. The first day of the 7th grade saw me assigned to Division 7/2. The divisions were numbered on the premise that this would keep the kids ignorant of how they truly ranked. By lunch of the first day, every kid in the school knew that 7/2 was the Retarded Division. In those days they weren’t big into today’s mealy-mouthed “Differently Abled” or “Students Experiencing Negative Self-actualization In Their Enhanced Learning Environment”. My mom and dad saved me. That year my mom taught me how to read and my dad taught me how to do basic math. By high school it was a different matter. I finished high school with good grades (except for Latin) and headed off to college.

A word about dyslexia. It scrambles all unfamiliar characters or combinations when you try to read them. Language. Math. Chemistry (bye-bye, zoology major). “And*it*absolutely*will*not*stop*until*you*are*dead!” Oops. Sorry; that’s from “The Terminator.” But that’s how it can feel. Evrey time you raed a sentenc or paragrahp in a new lanugage, the letters kerep chanigng palces. E=CM2.

Good Luck with that course of study. And it never, ever leaves you; you just get better at dealing with it. I have been a scifi fan since my mom first started reading to me my first comic books: “Colonel Tommy Tomorrow;” “House of Mystery;” Kurok, Son of Stone.” Each year I buy a book, “Year’s Best Science Fiction.” It is edited by a Gardner Dozios. Except it isn’t. I had been reading “Gardner Dozios” for thirty years. Last year I realized the name is really “Gardner Dozois.” Big deal, you say? Fine. YOU try reading French.

A low point in the week was French Language Lab. Three times a week we had to listen to a tape regaling us with the adventures of American engineer John Hughes in Paris (“J’uh ma’ple Johhn Huurrgh.”) I grew to hate this guy with a passion. I stumbled and bumbled through that week’s tape, knowing that the teacher would then purposefully humiliate me in front of the rest of the class (“Mr. Ip, you are not very bright, are you? Isn’t he a clown, class? Why are you wasting the class’ time?” -- all this as I was made to stand in front of the blackboard, blushing scarlet). I resigned myself to somehow passing four semesters of French or die trying. It took me eight semesters – including three “Fs” and summer school – to do it, but I succeeded. French also butchered my cume but what could I do? I graduated. I triumphed.

Today we have an ever growing number of ever more capable online language translators. Perhaps only a fellow dyslexic with a similar history can truly appreciate what this really means. It means no longer will kids with a language disability have to be tortured year after year by cruel, sociopathic instructors. It means freedom from having to learn a language to write or speak it. As dyslexia has become known and understood, so, too, the meaningless of forced foreign language study can be embraced. This does not mean to condemn studying the humanities or social sciences, for they, too, add to our civilization as a whole. But as a life-long adherent of science fiction, I gratefully embrace new technology that can help improve the quality of life for its members, dyslexic or not. And for you Mrs. Siri, Mrs. Daley, Mrs. Francoise, and Mrs. Blankfield, I do so hope you roast in Hell. Without translators. The demons will surely understand your screams.

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