The walls around Tyler Fisher ’02 ’03 serve as a panorama of his multicultural transformation. A painting of Seville, Spain, hangs as a reminder of the place that changed his perspective as a 19-year-old UCF student. Over here is a 364-year-old multilingual dictionary, which Fisher purchased in the U.K. for the throwback price of five dollars. There’s a first-century oil lamp from Judea — he’ll even let you hold the clay artifact — g-e-n-t-l-y. Just as rare as the lamp are Fisher’s framed master’s and doctoral degrees from Oxford, where Fisher studied as a Rhodes Scholar, the only UCF graduate to do so. The associate professor of modern languages returned to his alma mater in 2018 to share his love of cultures and, maybe, build upon his own distinction.
I don’t want to be the only Rhodes Scholar from UCF. It’s an honor to be the first, but the time has come for some company. That’s one of the reasons I came back to UCF. When I was a freshman, a professor told me, “Think of what you want your big story to be. Organize your activities around that theme for the next four years and you’ll have a great narrative for the Rhodes committee.”
Around that same time, I saw a poster on campus. It was for a language course in Seville. I’d never been out of the country, except to Canada where my mother grew up. Going to Spain seemed like a chance to put my rudimentary high-school Spanish to the test. Mostly, though, it just looked interesting.
The first hour opened my eyes to the richness of the Spanish language. I’d arrived during siesta time and my host mother stood there looking out the window at a pigeon hobbling around with a broken wing. She talked for an hour about what the bird must be feeling and how other pigeons would treat it. I only understood bits and pieces, but in those moments she captured my international imagination. I thought, “This connection through language is what I want.”
Mistakes only add to my love for language. On the back end of my studies in Seville, I met up with a UCF music class in Normandy, France. Our instructor had the task of shifting between French and English with her Turkish accent. While we were in this remote village she announced, “Tomorrow will be a donkey shoot.” Amazing, I thought, because the French loathe animal violence. Sure enough, the next morning I heard hoof beats. But when I looked out the window I saw a troupe of travelling actors arriving in the village for a play based on the story of Don Quixote, which our instructor had pronounced as “Don Key-shoot.”
Staying with a host family is the best way to travel. It allows me to combine academic work and magical personal moments. In Madrid, I’ve taught families English in return for a place to stay. It’s as close as possible to living the life of a local.
There’s only one thing as culturally immersive as language. Food. I remember hearing a scream from another American student staying with my host family in Spain. He’d pulled a pig’s foot out of the soup pot with a ladle. He refused to touch it, so I ate it. Like I said: cultural immersion.
I was afraid to wear blue in Iraqi Kurdistan a few years ago. For centuries, outsiders’ accounts had mistakenly reported that the Yazidis of Kurdistan consider the wearing of blue to be a taboo. So I carefully removed any blue clothing when I went to live and work among the Yazidis. Turns out, I was often the only person not wearing blue. The fear of blue was a myth, and I never would have uncovered it had I not merged my research with travel.
There’s a huge misperception about learning a language through travel. I had this idea as a student that I’d learn Spanish by osmosis, by simply being in Spain. For all the benefits of immersion, however, learning a language takes intentionality. If you expect it to be effortless, you’ll be as discouraged as I was at that time.
You can experience language immersion next door to UCF. We have students tutoring kids at multilingual elementary schools and volunteering with the Haitian Consulate. As an undergrad, I played piano at a Spanish-speaking church. I knew the hymns, but had to work really hard play fast enough. It prepared me for the speed of the language abroad.
My current passport looks strange. I recently had to get a new one, and right now it’s empty. So I’m looking forward to filling it up with stamps because they’re reminders of lessons you never forget.
In early 2020 Penguin [Random House] plans to release Fisher’s new book, Gypsy Ballads, which is his Spanish-to-English translation of Federico García Lorca’s masterpiece, Romancero gitano.