When the aliens mother ship finally arrives, Pramjeet Singh will be the only one who can talk to them. He’ll make lots of money and they will put him in charge. The rest of us will be sent out to labor in the fields, and if we complain, Pamjeet Singh and his UFO buddies will say, “Shut up and eat your pudding.” But we won’t understand, because our brains just don’t work that way.
Learning a new language rewires your brain. Could learning a new language make you crazy? I have known some linguists who were completely off their nut. Others seem to exist on some intellectual plane that the rest of us could never achieve and can’t quite understand.
The crazy people are always the most fun, so let’s start with them.
When I was studying in Germany, we had a student from Estonia, call him Valdma. At the school, we chose a three language combination, including our mother tongue, as long as all three languages were used in the EU. Because Valdma’s home country, at that time, was not yet a member of the EU, he couldn’t used Estonian as his mother tongue. So, instead, he chose another language, I don’t remember if it was Russian or German. He passed the mother tongue exam and began his studies. I don’t remember what Valdma’s official language combination was, but he spoke and wrote eleven languages fluently.
Like many Eastern European intellectuals at that time, he had already earned a PHD in his home country, but his degree was not recognized, so he came to Germany and started over again as a freshman, in an undergraduate program. I guess that would be enough to make most people crazy.
Most of the time, Valdma would sit in his room studying. He also prowled the large medieval library, which occupied the upper floor of the castle, where our university was located. It was a scene right out of “Name of the Rose.” You were in a particularly remote and dark corner of the library, your back to the massive cold stone walls, frantically looking up a list of vocabulary, such as chemicals used in frozen foods, in three languages, and suddenly, there was Valdma staring at you.
To say he snuck up on people would have been unfair, since his stench generally preceded his presence by minutes, if not hours. During the two years that our studies overlapped, he was never known to have taken a shower or change clothes.
Once, to break the tension of having this Slavic madman staring at me, I almost managed a weak, “hello.” But like a deer that had been frightened by the shutter of your camera, he disappeared, running back into the dictionary section.
I think some students didn’t even believe that he existed. Sadly, the only proof we had was some grainy black-and-white photographs of him dancing with the Yeti.
Rumors said that Valdma would use his student card to get into the library, then steal massive, priceless translation dictionaries, hiding them under his many layers of unwashed clothing. Since no one was willing to strip search him, he could easily spirit these volumes back to his room. He would then lock himself in his room until he had memorized the entire dictionary. Afterwards, he would make another public appearance, return the book, steal a new one, and so on. In this way, it was rumored he had memorized an entire shelf of dictionaries.
As enticing as Valdma’s life may sound, it wasn’t all fun and games. He was apparently in love with a German student, named Nena, who he began stalking. He managed to get inside of her room, while she was at classes, and leave her an original French poem he had written. He had placed the poem, a long with a single flower, on her bed, hoping to win her over. Instead, he creeped her out, and she called in the authorities. Germany often takes to light an approach towards insane people who pose a threat to others. I guess they were trying to overcompensate for Hitler’s “final solution.” So, they allowed Valdma to stay at the university.
Valdma thought the reason Nena had been angry was because she preferred poems written in Spanish. He spent the next several weeks learning Spanish to absolute fluency, and left her a new poem.
At this point, Valdma must have started a new, particularly difficult language, because he disappeared for a while. We all knew he was in his room memorizing dictionaries, but beyond that, there was no word of him. Months passed and I had been hired at a local language school as a teacher. One morning when I came in early for an eight o’clock class I passed Valdma on the stairs. The school secretary was a village woman who loved to gossip.
I once asked her about one of the other teachers, who was also a student with me at the university. She smiled, “Oh yes, the Herr Prost is a very intelligent man.” Then she looked around, to make sure no one was listening, and she whispered. “He drinks. And his wife goes with other men.”
When I asked her about Valdma, she was so happy to be able to really gossip. She poured us both a cup of coffee and spilled the beans.
“Herr Valdma was hired here because he can teach any language a German businessman would need to learn.” Not to mention the fact that he probably worked for half of what I was charging. “But, we will have to fire him. Students are complaining about his smell.” She made a face as if she had just bit into a toilet sandwich. Then she lead me to the bathroom and showed me where the normally spotless sink was completed coated in crud.
“We suspected that he sometimes sleeps spends the night in the classroom. He apparently bathes in the sink, and now we will have to call someone to unclog it.”
Most people were horribly repelled by Valdma, but writing this story, nearly twenty years later, I regret that I didn’t go out of my way to speak to him. He would have been an interesting guy to get to know, if you could get past the smell.
On some level, on many levels, I have always respected and envied him. I wish I could be half as intelligent or have half of his discipline. And, I have always wondered, was he already insane, or did the study of too many languages make him that way?
Among the students I studied with at Germersheim there were a number of people who were just borderline insane, or normal crazy.
Once a notice appeared on our student bulletin-board. “I will be beginning studies at Germersheim in October. I am looking for conversation partners for: German, English, French, Italian, Swedish, Chinese…” These are only the languages I remember, but the list was much longer. He also included a chart of how well he spoke each language. He rated himself advanced or fluent in many of them. The ending of the note was as interesting as the beginning: “I can’t pay you money, but my family owns a beautiful villa on the Sicilian coast. If you are willing to work as my tutor, you could come live in the villa for the summer. My family will give you food and lodging.” Signed, Luigi.