I think that probably the best ability any human being could ask for would be the power to understand and speak in any language, fluently. How awesome would that be? And you wouldn’t even need to have ever heard the language before you use it. You’d just listen to two people talking and you would know exactly what they were saying. You could jump in at any point in the conversation and just completely amaze whoever is talking with your grip on their own native tongue. And not only would you speak it competently, but you would be able to speak it better than the two native speakers having the conversation. You’d speak every language better than anybody else. You would be able to interrupt people mid-conversation and correct their grammar. It would be beautiful the way you would speak. It would be the most perfect speaking of a language that anybody has ever heard.
I can just imagine myself standing on the subway next to somebody talking to somebody else in some exotic language from a very faraway land. The language would be a very distant dialect of a very niche Creole spoken only by a few scattered communities throughout some very remote mountains in some place that’s really difficult to find, even if you have a map, a GPS, and five local guides that you’re paying way too much for, but, even though they’re ripping you off, the US dollar is so much stronger than their “currency,” so you can’t even tell that you’re being sold to at a disadvantage. And the two people on the subway are thinking to themselves, we have to be the only people in this city that speak this language. And, actually, they’re not thinking it, they’re saying it out loud. Because they are that sure that nobody has even a slight chance of understanding them, so they never think anything at all. All of their thinking is done by their mouths, because why not? They can say whatever they want.
But I’ll be standing right there, listening to them boast about their total anonymity, their freedom to express themselves and opine and make fun of everyone else without even having to worry about anybody else even making an effort to try and figure out the topic of their conversation. And I’ll just stare at them, right at them. Right at one them, right in the eyes. And I’ll hold my gaze until it gets really uncomfortable for everyone standing around us. The two of them will have stopped talking to each other, and the person’s friend might say something to me like, in English, “Hey buddy. What’s your problem?”
And I’ll answer back in his native dialect. “Nothing’s the matter. Nothing at all. Just listening to some friendly conversation. By the way, you should watch out for your reflexive pronouns. I’ve noticed you used them incorrectly three times in the past ten sentences.” And I’ll watch as the blood drains from both of their faces, as they stand there in shock. One of them will say, “But … how could you … that’s impossible … I … I,” and he’ll probably just pass out from the insanity of the situation. Because how would I be able to know their language? It wouldn’t make any sense. And I’ll just stand there and smile. And then I’ll just get off at the next stop and walk away. And they’ll probably try to follow me, “Wait!” they’ll shout, “We need to know! Who are you?” But I’ll lose them in the crowd, leaving them to wonder for the rest of their lives, to try to make sense of that random guy on the train that somehow spoke that crazy language better than they did.
That’s what I would do on my first day with this ability. I would have all of these other plans with what to do on my second and third days, but something is going to go horribly wrong, something I hadn’t considered before I had imagined myself acquiring this special talent. I’ll be walking down the street after I get off of the subway, and I’ll hear all of these whispers that, at first, don’t seem to make any sense at all. And the intensity and the volume of this babble will ebb and flow and so I’ll just try and brush it off and tell myself that, hey Rob, you’ve just evolved further than any other human being, just try to take it all in a little bit at a time. And that might calm me down for a second, but the whispering will get louder.
And then I’ll realize where it’s coming from. Every time I pass an ATM the noise gets stronger. Every time I’m standing too close to somebody’s cell phone or computer, I’ll pick it up loud and clear. And I’ll have realized all too late that when I had been granted the ability to understand any language, I’ll have forgotten that computer codes and binary and trinary codes consist of their own unique sets of languages. And it will be overwhelming. I’ll have a panic attack and I’ll feel like I’m actually going to die right there on the street so I’ll try to yell out for help, but it’s all going to come out like, “000111101011101101010010010010010010010!” and everyone will stop and look at my like I’m a lunatic. A group of people might form around me, asking me if I need help, thinking that I’m having a stroke or a seizure or an acute crazy episode but the group will be too diverse in origin, and I’ll be responding to a Chinese guy in Swedish and to a Lithuanian guy in Klingon and when the cops finally come and try to make sense of the situation, I’ll start babbling at them in HTML5, which, they’ll mistake as some sort of a terrorist message, and I’ll be arrested and locked up and held indefinitely without ever even being charged. And I’ll be in solitary somewhere, which, after the nonsense I will have went through on the street, will at first seem like a welcome moment of peace. But then I’ll hear it, faintly at first, but ever present as usual. And I’ll realize that the roaches in the corner of the cell are talking incessantly, not about anything intelligent, nothing I could make a decent conversation out of, but about crumbs of food and drops of water and shadows that they can hide behind. And they’ll just talk and talk and talk and they won’t shut up. And the lock that they use to keep me behind bars is computer controlled, and it keeps saying out loud, “system: locked; system: locked,” without pause.
And I’ll sit there and cry and pull the hair at the sides of my head and …
You know what? This doesn’t really sound like such a good ability after all. Except for the part in the subway. That would have been cool. But worth all of the resulting torment? I don’t think so.