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Tongue Mining

3,235 words

My eyes sting, threatening to water. Sweat beads on my upper lip. I don’t think anyone said not to blink or touch my face. Just remain still, so the camera can focus on my eyes.

The word BIRD appears. Plain white font on a black background projected onto a fabric screen. My gaze flicks to the upper right corner, and then back to center. MOUNTAIN comes next. Upper left. The man beside me coughs. I don’t look. That could throw off my results. But I’m distracted. It takes me longer to place MOLE in the lower right.

The words disappear quicker, less time to read. I hear sharp inhales. Tension fills the room. “Relax,” says the woman monitoring the test. She paces slowly between the rows of desks, making me feel like a schoolchild, even though I’m probably older than her.

I break down and wipe the sweat, and I’m able to breathe steadier. The words begin to fly naturally. TREE upper right. STUMP lower left. CLOUD upper left. BAT upper right. Just as the monitor said, I relax.

I tell myself not to think about whether the object is high or low, animate or inanimate. The meaning is contained in my English- speaking mind, I just have to let it come out.

Then something flashes on the screen. PUTIK I think—I didn’t have time to reread it before it disappeared. I’m lost for a moment, but suddenly a voice in the back row says “Buwisit!”

I try to keep focused forward, more words are coming, but I hear a scuffle and raised voices. The man who shouted insists he misread and doesn’t speak Tagalog. The monitor points out that nobody mentioned Tagalog until him. When a chair scrapes loudly against the floor, I turn around. Two men, with a symbol matching the one on the monitor’s lapel across their broad chests are physically removing a panicked elderly man from the room. He’s cursing now, in English and what I assume is Tagalog. Resisting, like if he could regain his seat it would undo all of this, and he could still take the test.

Then I realize he’s reaching for his earbuds and glasses lying to the side of his desk. Like all of us, he had to remove them to start the test. “Please! Just let me take my—”

The monitor cuts him off. “These devices are not yours. They are the property of AllTok.” She strides across the room and collects them. “By refusing to abide by the rules of the test, and by concealing language fluencies, you have violated our terms and conditions. Your subscription to our translation service is terminated.”

He tries to object again, but soon he’s out of the room. The monitor closes the door, and all noise from outside is silenced.

“Sorry for the disruption, everyone. Please turn to face the screen and we’ll resume.”

I look at the others. They mostly look as scared as me, but one tall blond man’s face shows indignance. We make eye contact, and my meek, cowed expression seems to motivate him further. He stands.

“No. I’m not taking this. You can’t treat people that way, dragging him out like he’s some criminal.”

“AllTok reserves the right to expel testers who disrupt the process. You all saw him grab me when I asked him to leave on his own.” 

I’d seen nothing. I don’t know if anyone else had.

The blond guy goes on. “I’m a paying customer. I don’t need to put up with this treatment.”

“Of course not,” she replies calmly. “This test is completely voluntary, as you were informed when your attendance was requested. You’re welcome to leave at any time. Simply leave any AllTok devices with the front desk on the way out, and your subscription will be terminated.”

And there it is. She has us. Or they do. The corporation behind that symbol on her lapel. Because no one would voluntarily give up their AllTok. They’d venture into the world with no translation tech, without the ubiquitous glasses and earbuds. Maybe at work the next day they’d discover their company was Russian and their boss gave instructions in Arabic. Maybe at home they’d find out their partner spoke Mohawk. Half the signage in the city is probably in scripts they couldn’t name, much less read.

The blond man’s face still looks defiant, but he swallows whatever he wants to say and sits down, facing the screen.

We all turn and re-center our eyes on the cameras, as the monitor scrubs the test playback, and we start at BIRD again. My eye-actions become jerky, trying not to think about the Filipino man. At least I can vindicate his loss by succeeding, now that I know the real point of the test. They don’t care whether we correctly identify objects as high or low, animate or inanimate. The start of the test was mental training, getting us to react instinctively to these concepts, so that when non- English words appear we’ll respond without thinking. They aren’t testing fluency in English. They’re hunting for it in other languages.

And maybe my participation wasn’t random selection like they claimed. A flash of Gramma’s old place. The box she made us put all our electronics in when we arrived. Songs and games in French as a child, stories about Champlain or the coureurs de bois when I was older. But I haven’t used my French in years, not since Gramma died. The test won’t pick up on that. Certainly not if I can help it. I banish Gramma’s living room and concentrate.

Sure enough, after PUTIK, every few words something appears that I don’t know, often can’t even read. Even if I think I recognize something, I stare defiantly straight unless I’m sure it’s English. Anyone else trying to fool them in the room has an edge now, but it still won’t be easy. The words are getting trickier. SNOW falls from high to low. BRAIN, could be animate, or an inanimate part of an animate whole. I have to think before I can place MINE as something low and inanimate. I first thought of the other meaning, ownership, to which neither of those ideas applies.

LUNE—my eyes flick up and left slightly before I steady them. If I hadn’t been expecting traps, I would have looked. A fluent French speaker, already programmed by the start of the test to go up and left for something high and inanimate would have had no chance. I hope I didn’t react too much. Surely English speakers know lune. They have lunar and lunacy. I try not to think about it. More words are coming.

Apparently, I succeed at the word recognition portion. At least, the monitor doesn’t say anything to me before moving on to the written composition. I stare at blank paper on which I’m supposed to write a response of a few hundred words to their prompt: describe a wedding you attended in the form of an email to a friend.

Pens move all around me, but I feel stuck. Images of various weddings flash through my mind. My cousin on the beach. My sister at the old farmhouse. Or I could invent a wedding. It shouldn’t matter, they’re not judging my memory, just my writing. Except now I know that’s not really the point. Or at least, not the only one. They don’t just want to evaluate my English. They also want to know if I secretly understand anything else.

I glance around. The projection screen is rolled up, exposing writing on the blackboard behind it. Some of it looks like a lesson, a list with bullet points. Some could be student graffiti. I turn quickly back to the paper before I have time to take anything in. It wasn’t in English. It may be part of the test.

I should write in an Anglophone way. Use a variety of sentence structures to showcase English’s versatility. Maybe drop in some impressive vocabulary. But trying too hard might seem suspicious. Everyone around me is already writing. It’s not that hard to write a hundred words in your native language. Simple, off-the-cuff writing is probably best. I squeeze out some details from my cousin’s wedding mixed with a movie I saw last week. Reading back, it feels clunky. Maybe that’s okay. Just because you’re fluent in a language doesn’t mean you can spontaneously shit out beautiful prose, especially in as synthetic a situation as this. I write a few more trite sentences and start counting words.

The monitor collects all the papers and directs us to the next hall over for the oral communication portion. Everyone instinctively puts their glasses on and earbuds back in. We move with the slow shuffle of a group no one wants to lead. I have time to check the blackboard. The writing in other scripts and tongues has resolved into English. I read some of the crassest and most abusive insults I’ve ever seen. The original phrases would have been tough to ignore for someone who understood them. I chuckle and glance around. No one else notices.

We sit in low, plastic chairs waiting to be called into one of the small rooms. When my name comes up, I’m surprised by the man waiting for me. I’d prepared myself to see the monitor from earlier, but of course she couldn’t run each individual test. My expectations of the tight-haired, schoolteacher-y woman run up against a smiling, balding man in his fifties. A red face and well-fed build, plus a twinkle in his eye, suggest a sort of bon-vivant. I mentally chide myself for using the phrase. But there can’t be any harm in loan words. I don’t know if French speakers even say ‘bon-vivant.’

He gestures for me to sit. I reach for my earbuds, but he says to leave them in. He verifies my name and AllTok user information, then asks how the written component of the test went. I explain my struggle with what to write, how long I hesitated, worrying about the content of the response. Apparently, it’s a common problem.

“The setting is so much like a school classroom that people feel they’re going to be graded on clever ideas, when really, we’re just looking for comfortable use of the language. The same goes for this test. No need to stress about what you say, we’re just establishing whether you speak naturally. So let’s chat.”

He takes out his earbuds, and I do the same. He’s explaining why it was important that we talked briefly before taking them out. Something about hearing changes in vocal quality or vocabulary but I don’t follow, because halfway through, both of our earbuds are out, and I suddenly hear a regional accent. I’m not sure where from, maybe Northern England. I wonder what he’ll make of my accent, now that the AllTok isn’t filtering it out for him. He looks expectantly at me. “We can talk about anything at all.”

An awful pause follows, which he breaks by bursting into laughter. “Sorry, that was mean,” he admits. “I love how universal it is. Take the most talkative people in the world, ask them to speak, and they have no idea what to say. Why don’t you tell me where you’re from?”

As I describe the small town I grew up in, I get more comfortable. He must often ask people about their home to put them at ease. I wonder if that gets boring. I meet people from all over the world in the city, AllToks having eliminated one of the biggest barriers to integration. But for him, always testing English speakers, they must have a much more limited range of backgrounds.

“It might surprise you how many places people learn English as a first language. The British Isles and North America, but also in Australia and Pacific Islands, Africa, South Asia, the Caribbean, there are pockets of it everywhere. That’s without all the people trying to pass it off as their mother tongue.”

“We saw someone ejected for that during the word recognition test. Why would they do that?”

“Silly, isn’t it? The whole point of AllTok technology is everyone can use their own language. A major selling point when we first pitched to governments was preserving minority languages while giving their speakers the same opportunities as people with one of the big, colonial, international languages.”

I notice he didn’t answer my question. “So why do they object?”

“AllTok only translates into the wearer’s first language. People raised multilingual get a choice, but you can’t get translation to English if you didn’t grow up speaking it.”

“But why would someone choose English over their first language?”

“Oh, there’re some complaints that the AI interface, designed by Anglos and first adopted in the US, has been trained to perceive the world with an Anglocentric Lens, whatever that’s supposed to mean.” He’s frowning at the table as he speaks. “It’s all nonsense. There’s more data coming in from Mandarin than English these days. Honestly, I think English has become sort of fashionable. But not knowing all our customers’ fluencies messes with data collection. It lowers the quality of the translation,” he hastily adds, as if clarifying what’s important. “We wouldn’t want the AI to start thinking that the way non-native speakers use English is normal!” he chuckles.

I decide to push a little further. “Outside I saw a few people picketing the building.”

A few is understating it. They outnumbered those of us coming in for the test. People of all ages holding signs, shouting. None had worn AllToks, so most of what they said as I walked in was gibberish, but my glasses decoded the signs:

My words are not AllTok’s property 

You’re a police camera now

Mining your Tongue to Sell to my Ears

Monopoly on Translation = Monopoly on the Truth

The bearer of the last one stepped in front of me, shouting. I realized I could understand him. His shouts were English.

“. . . is a multinational corporation, States have to work together to regulate it. But AllTok translates international law! They’re writing their own rules while they harvest your voice as data and decide how you interpret everything you hear or read. They are your oppressors! Your mind is being colonized!”

I’d pushed past him without really taking in what he said. Voices that aren’t filtered through the AllTok speakers sound a little fainter, less real, when the earbuds are in. But his wrinkled, angry face stuck with me.

“Something about oppressors colonizing the mind?” I say to the monitor.

“We don’t tell anyone what to do,” he starts off, angrily. “We offer a service; they’re free to use it or not. How could we possibly be oppressors?” Then he laughs again, but it doesn’t have the full- throated ease of the first time. “We’re a private company, we’re not the State. We exist to liberate people. There was a time when national governments could make language competency a requirement for citizenship, employment, or access to services. Not anymore.”

“Just a bunch of nutjobs I guess.”

He concurs, reassured and happy to finish with the subject. He asks me some more about where I grew up before saying he’s heard enough.

“So did I pass then?”

He chuckles. “There’s no passing or failing, we just want to evaluate our customers’ facility with the language to better meet their needs.” 

I stand up and shake his hand before heading for the door. I fiddle with my earbuds and thank him. Thoughtlessly, he answers, “Merci à vous.” I turn back to him, frowning and ask him to repeat himself. He shakes his head. “Never mind. Thank you.”

I exhale deeply as I make my way out. They were specifically checking me for competence in French. And I don’t think it was to better meet my needs.

The crowd of protestors has gone when I leave the AllTok office. A few police cars parked nearby suggest it might not have been their idea. As I turn the corner the same wrinkled face from before confronts me. He has a stack of papers in one hand, and holds one out to me with the other. I turn my head, and my AllTok glasses with their built-in cameras, away from him. Without looking I take the paper, and stuff it into my bag.

At home Louis asks how it went. I tell him it seemed fine, and mention about the Filipino man getting thrown out. He doesn’t know what to make of it either. I say nothing about the French. When he heads for the kitchen, I continue to look after him, but I reach blindly into my bag, and move the crumpled paper into my pants pocket, still not looking at it. In the kitchen, when Louis is facing the other way, I feel around inside the junk drawer until I find a small flashlight and pocket that, too.

In bed later, we say good night, before taking off our earpieces and glasses, mounting them on their chargers. When I hear Louis’s breath coming deep and regular, I reach down to my pants on the floor and retrieve the paper and flashlight. I turn my back to my glasses, ostensibly deactivated while charging. Then I duck under the covers and unfold the paper.

It’s covered in writing. Dozens of scripts I don’t know, even the stuff in roman letters is mostly meaningless to me. At the bottom there is one phrase written over and over in different languages. I spot the French: Vous voulez résister? Apprenez une langue. And then the English: Want to resist? Learn a language.

How could learning a language be resistance? I think back to practicing French. There were fun games, then boring memorization of conjugations and genders. It got better when I could read books or have conversations and started noticing the differences embodied by the languages. It felt fun, naughty maybe, to learn the swear words—Calisse! Tabarnak!—but never like an act of rebellion. I was just hanging out talking with Mamie.

Mamie. I hadn’t thought of her by that name earlier when I had my AllTok headset on. Gramma, what my parents called her in English, not what I’d addressed her as in French. The screen from the word- recognition test flashed into my mind. In ten minutes they could train my brain to react in a specific way to certain concepts. How many hours of wearing glasses and headsets had it taken to implant Gramma and erase Mamie? Or not erase—harvest, to use later with native French speakers.

“Mining your tongue to sell to my ears,” a sign had read. No wonder they couldn’t stand even a passing competence in a language to go unreported. The service they sold, and all the power and influence that went with it, was built from the voices of linguistic minorities.

I suddenly notice an absence. Louis has stopped snoring. I look up. He’s ducked under the covers as well, and his dark eyes are wide, staring at me and the paper in the torchlight. I position it between us. “Can you read any of this?” I whisper.

Kisa ou di?” he whispers back. It almost sounds like French. I don’t quite understand. But I want to.

Jack Morton was born in New Brunswick, Canada. He studied theatre and writing at the University of Toronto and carries a Nidan black belt in karate. He currently writes out of Toulouse, France. You can read more of his stories in the Woodward Review, Expanded Field Journal, or let him read one to you at Vast Literary Press.

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