Scaling the language barrier

During our first month of PST, while we were beginning to learn Albanian, a certain male volunteer had an memorable language mix-up with his host family. He was at his host home and needed to use the bathroom. He walked to the bathroom, noticed that the door was ajar, assumed it was empty and walked in. Mistake.Anchorman original when you arrive at site

His host mother was sitting on the toilet. In panic and wanting to quickly apologize he exclaimed, “Faleminderit!” and left the bathroom. One problem: Faleminderit means thank you.


When learning a new language, especially in an immersion context, these embarrassing mistakes are common. Living immersed in another language is a wild experience. More so than I ever anticipated. Below I’ve highlighted a few of the biggest challenges.

1.Confusion abounds.

Did you think that playing charades growing up was just for fun? Wrong. It was serious training, preparing you for the day you became a Peace Corps Volunteer. Your first few weeks in the Peace Corps will involve a lot of pantomiming. And this leaves a lot of room for misunderstandings.Ariel Language learning ariel charades.gif

During Pre-Service Training volunteers live with a host family, but you are dropped off knowing almost zero Albanian. I remember one of the first couple days when I tried telling my host mother that I had to use the bathroom using gestures. She immediately brought me to the bathroom and started teaching me how to use a toilet. She thought I was asking how a toilet works.

A couple weeks later I was eating dinner with my host family and they kept trying to feed me more. I was full, but I couldn’t remember how to say that in Albanian, so I decided to get creative and attempt a joke in Albanian. I motioned to the table and then to my belly and said, “I’ve eaten so much it feels like I’m pregnant!” Or that’s what I thought I said.

My host family suddenly became very serious and wouldn’t make eye contact. Dang it. They  now thought I was actually pregnant.

A week later I got my period and when I told my host mother she practically jumped for joy. I’m refrained from attempting any jokes about babies since then.

2. You improve little by little, but its easy to get discouraged.

A lot of people put “Become fluent in another language” on their Bucket List. The Peace Corps is the perfect opportunity to force yourself to cross that off the list.

Or is it?

Language learning is a much slower process than people expect. There is a major misconception that if you are immersed in a language you will miraculously pick it up within a few months. After all, you’re learning the language 24/7, right? Wrong.Indiana Jones- Tell me again how much fun I'm having

I’ve talked to several friends back in the U.S. who have said, “You must be fluent by now, right Brit?”

Nope. Sorry to disappoint, but I’m not even close. And I probably won’t reach fluency by the end of my two years either. I’ve actually remained camped out at the same language level for the past eight months or so.

Because I’m a very visual learner, I made a little graphic to illustrate the reality of language learning:

EXPECTATIONS

Language barrier NAIVE

People think of the language barrier as this obstacle you have to overcome. But through diligent study and daily practice, fluency can be achieved. So you hit the books, practice conversation, improve your pronunciation, and see yourself making significant progress…

Language barrier Part 2 with trophy2

Language barrier Part 3a

REALITY: Unfortunately, after weeks of study you find out that you are not even close to fluent. You are just a novice.

Then you look at all you still have to learn…

Language barrier Part 4a

Fluency paradise? Sorry bud, it’s not that simple. Welcome to Language-Learning Purgatory.

Language barrier GIF

I’m not trying to discourage people or PCVs who want to learn a language. But the truth is that most of us reach a certain level where we can comfortably survive, and then we camp out. For me that has been in the “Intermediate-High” region.

Similar to my stick-figure graphic, I created these charts to  show the reality of language learning, just in a less imaginative way:

Language EXPECTATIONS

Language REALITYAs you can see, at first you experience rapid growth. For every hour you spend studying you see noticeable improvement in the language. But as you progress the return on your investment decreases. Instead of jumping up a level after 15 hours of study, it now takes you two months.

During Pre-Service Training you have structured language classes multiple times a week, where you learn alongside others. At site that all changes. You are on your own. It takes a lot of motivation and self-discipline to continue hitting the books.

At the end of PST our language skills were evaluated and this was the rough distribution of scores:

LPI Chart updated

The intermediate zone is where Peace Corps wants you to be before you end up alone at site. At that level you know how to get by in day-to-day scenarios and how to make polite conversation. It’s also where a lot of people hit their plateau, because we can continue there for the rest of our Peace Corps service and do just fine. (For more information about the LPI you can see my post about PST from August.)

Now that I’ve gone off on a language-learning tangent, I’m realizing that I have a lot to say about the language barrier. I’ll therefore let you take a break and post the second half separately. Stay tuned for some more stories about the dreaded language barrier! I promise to make Part II graph-free!

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