Language Wordplay in The Twilight Zone

It was a rainy weekend here in Taiwan, so I spent a lot of time watching videos and browsing around Youtube. I came across an episode of The Twilight Zone from 1985 called Wordplay. As the name suggests the episode is related to language, and as I watched it really struck a chord with me as a language learner.

The protagonist, Bill Lowery, is a salesman who has been tasked with remembering the names of the new set of medical supplies he is to sell. He finds the task difficult and even has trouble pronouncing the words.

Throughout the next day he starts to notice that the words people are using in regular conversation don’t make any sense in the context. A neighbour refers to the breed of his dog as ‘encyclopedia’. A colleague asks his advice on where to go for ‘dinosaur’, referring to lunch. He asks his wife to define the word ‘lunch’ to him, to which she responds that it’s a colour.

Eventually, all the words in the English language have changed in meaning, and Bill can’t understand anything. The episode ends with Bill reading one of his son’s picture books. He looks a picture of a dog and repeats the word ‘Wednesday’.

The episode resonated with me because if you think of the story in reverse, it’s very similar to how you begin when you start learning another language. Especially if you go to live in the country and immerse yourself, like I did when coming to Taiwan.

Playing the story in reverse, Bill starts to learn new words. First learning the word for dog ‘Wednesday’, but the majority of the language he can’t understand. He is unable to communicate with people, relying on gestures and the reactions of his wife to other people speaking. Gradually he learns new words, such as ‘lunch’, ‘dinosaur’ and ‘encyclopedia’ until eventually he is able to have a conversation.

Obviously this is a lighthearted look at the process of learning a language, and doesn’t take into account the etymology of the words used – though maybe in this alternate world it does make sense. The best thing is Bills frustration when he is unable to communicate and people look at him bewildered as he shouts in English expecting people to understand him. Anyway, if you’re learning Chinese, or any language, you should get a kick out of this episode.

Watch the episode on Youtube: