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:


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 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!


The ugly truth behind a beautiful photo

I recently uploaded pictures on Facebook from my trip to Albania. A friend sent me a message saying how jealous they were that I am living such a fun and adventurous life. That comment prompted me to write a brief post about the trip, because even though it was a privilege to travel with my school and see Albania, it was actually one of the hardest weeks of my Peace Corps service so far.

Trip- Durres
The view from Kruja Castle.

Allow me to explain by presenting the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of my trip to Albania:

The Good

  • It was FREE: Every year the secondary schools in Kosovo organize a trip to Albania for their 12th grade students. As a 12th grade teacher I was invited along as a chaperone. Who could say no to a week-long, all-expenses paid vacation in Albania? The transportation, room, meals… everything was covered. The meals were spectacular and we even got free drinks from the hotel. Of course it was a school trip, so the teachers were not drinking in excess, but the wine with dinner and daily macchiatos were still a treat!
  • Albania is GORGEOUS. We had sunny weather all week and were able to watch the sunset over the Adriatic Sea almost every night. I will definitely be visiting Albania again. (And I did! Check out my post about my trip to Albania with friends.)
  • Sunbathing on the beach.  We spent a few hours at the beach every day, sunbathing in the sand and swimming in the sea. I even got a decent tan!
  • Bonding with teachers & students. The trip was a great opportunity to get to know the other teachers, even with my limited Albanian. There were also some fun moments with the students.
    Trip- Students at castle2.jpg
    Some of the 12th grade students and I posing outside of the Kruja Castle Museum.

    When we visited the city of Kruja I walked with about 50 of the students up to the city’s castle ruins. There we found a museum with half-price admission for the students. The condition of entry? At least one teacher had to accompany the group. But there was only one teacher around. Me. The museum curator approached and asked (in Albanian) if I was their teacher. I replied in Albanian, “Yes, I am their English teacher,” feeling proud of myself for understanding him and being able to respond. He then said, “Okay, before we enter the museum I’m going to need you to explain these three rules to the students…” And there ended my understanding of what he was saying. Here I am, supposed to be the adult in charge, and I have no idea what is going on. I just played along and to my great relief no students got us kicked out of the museum. I still have no idea what those three rules were, but I guess none of us broke them!

The Bad

  • Trip- CastleMy Albanian is lacking: When volunteers arrive at their permanent sites, they quickly realize how little of the local language they actually know. It’s easier to be optimistic about Albanian when you are surrounded by other Americans struggling to learn alongside you. I was feeling pretty good about my language abilities at the end of PST.Even in Gjakova things have not been too bad. Day-to-day interactions in Albanian are incredibly draining, but at least I am able to speak some English with my host sisters and escape to my own room when I need to.

    On this trip there was no escape. I was surrounded by Albanian speaking teachers and students 24/7. Everyday I spent several hours sitting around a table with the teachers as they rapidly chatted about the most recent gossip, politics, financial issues, and a number of other topics that I am completely unable to discuss in Albanian. I was lucky if I could pick out a few keywords. This led to me awkwardly sitting there in silence most of the time. Frequently a teacher would turn to me and say, “Why are you being so quiet Brita? Say something!”

    Then everyone is staring and expecting you to contribute to a high-level conversation in a language you just started learning three months ago. It’s rather unpleasant.

  • Trip- beachBug bites: It was a hot week, so we slept with open windows. By the end of the week I was covered in red bug bites, including at least ten bites on my face. Now I’m being whiny… but still, bug bites are never fun.
  • Broken toilet: Right before the trip began I had just gotten over nine days of diarrhea. (Yeah… I wrote a post about it.) Unfortunately I developed the opposite problem, not having a bowel movement for six days. I guess the upside is that I did not need to frequent the bathroom, because our toilet had cracks and holes in the porcelain bowl and would not flush… not a pretty sight.

The Ugly

  • Memorable showers: Our shower consisted of a hose hanging from the wall with only one temperature: frigid. We also discovered when I first “showered” that the single drain in the bathroom floor was totally clogged, thus flooding the bathroom. For every other shower I had to wash my hair leaning over the toilet with the hose. Looking back, it’s actually kind of funny, but at the time I was not laughing.
  • Harassment from students: I will probably dedicate an entire post to this in the future, so for now I’ll just say that disrespect and inappropriate comments from my male students has been a big issue. Being an American woman in her twenties working with 12th graders at a school that is predominantly male has its challenges.
  • Being called fat: People in Kosovo speak much more bluntly about physical appearances than Americans. This has led to my feelings being hurt from time-to-time, but never so much as my week in Albania. Obviously I was feeling a bit anxious about being at the beach for the first time with hundred of beautiful, thin Europeans. Turns out my fears were justified. When I first removed my cover-up at the beach the teachers openly looked me up and down and then commented that I was fatter than they expected. Some even pointed out the parts of my body where I need to lose weight. I was also mocked for being so shockingly white. I felt like I was under a microscope, and some of the comments were very hurtful.(I’ve since realized that this is primarily cultural. Even the most caring and sensitive Albanians I know talk about weight with incredible openness. It is not mean, just honest commentary. Maybe Americans are overly sensitive.)
  • Trip- Sunset
    Sunset over the Adriatic Sea.

    No Wi-Fi: This complaint makes me sound spoiled, and you are probably thinking, “Really Brittany? You’re in the Peace Corps, remember?!” But not being able to connect with other Americans or my family during the week made the feelings of isolation more difficult to bear. You don’t realize how much you rely on the internet for your mental/emotional health until it is taken away. Being the only foreigner and being unable to communicate makes you feel very lonely. Not being able to cry to your mom when you are at a low-point makes you feel even lonelier.

So let this post be a reminder that things are not always as they appear. This is one of the fundamental issues with social media. We photoshop our lives and put forth an image of ourselves that crops out the crap. We post the best photos of ourselves doing the most exciting things, making our lives seem much more glamorous and enviable than they actually are. It’s easy to feel jealous when you can’t see the hard stuff. You see a smiling picture of me sitting on castle ruins, but if you had high powered zoom you’d see the bug bites on my arms, the grease in my hair from not properly showering, and the puffiness around my eyes from crying earlier that day.

That’s the case with life in the Peace Corps: It’s an eye-opening, perspective-building cultural experience full of rich memories and sublime moments. But the flip-side is that it is hard. Sometimes people yell at you for not knowing enough of the local language. Sometimes you get called fat. Sometimes you get diarrhea for weeks. Sometimes you find yourself feeling isolated and miserable.

There’s a reason the Peace Corps has been called “the toughest job you’ll ever love.”

I conclude with a picture of this macchiato I was served during the trip. Its traumatized facial expression perfectly sums-up the confused emotions of my week in Albania.
Trip- coffee

PST August: Training Ends, Service Begins!

For an overview of Pre-Service Training, visit this page.

PST August3

The month of August included the final three weeks of training and our first week at our permanent sites all over the country. This made the month a busy one, but I will try to summarize the major events.

1.Language Group Day-Trips
         All summer our group of 36 has been divided into seven languages groups. Gjakova 2We had class in these groups almost every day, so you really get to know each other. Gjakova 1Each group was assigned a city in Kosovo to visit for a day-trip, where we were told to explore and make cultural observations. My group lucked out by being assigned Gjakova, which is my permanent site! Unfortunately this meant taking a four-hour bus to the opposite corner of the country (costing less than 7 Euros!) and then back in the evening. We spent five hours taking in the sites of this beautiful city, visiting the oldest mosque in Kosovo and a cultural museum.
Each group then put together a 30-minute presentation on the city they visited to present to the other trainees and Peace Corps staff. We focused on the effects of the war on Gjakova, because it is the city that suffered the most intense violence against civilians.

2.  The dreaded Language Proficiency Interview (LPI)

Ten weeks of language learning culminates in a recorded 20-minute Albanian (or Serbian) interview that measures our knowledge of the language. It is like our PST Final Exam. The Peace Corps’ goal for trainees is that they reach Intermediate-Low by the end of training. If you do not reach this mark you are not kicked out, but you are required to find a language tutor and to retake the LPI in three months.LPI Chart

Most volunteers score Intermediate-Low or Intermediate-Mid on their LPIs. Out of the 25 volunteers from last year, a few did not pass, receiving Novice-High, and only two scored Intermediate-High. We were given our scores the day before PST ended, and I was pleasantly surprised by mine! I don’t know the precise breakdown of my group’s scores, but I know that between 3 and 5 scored Intermediate-High and a handful did not pass (out of 36 of us). For more stories about the challenges of learning Albanian check out my post Scaling the Language Barrier.

Host parents at Swearing In
My PST host parents at the Swearing-In Ceremony.

3. Packing and Goodbyes
The final week was an emotional one in my host home. My host mom cried several times, especially in the final 24 hours. Even my host dad cried twice. At one point my host mom grabbed my shoulders and said in Albanian, “Please do not forget me, my daughter!”

Oftentimes volunteers move to their sites and fail to stay in-touch with their PST families. In a culture where families are everything, volunteers can really hurt the feelings of their host families by moving-on and cutting ties. I am going to try to stay in-touch with my PST family and visit them every couple months.

4. Surprise Speech!
During our second to last week of training we were informed that two of us would be selected to speak at the Swearing-In Ceremony. We were told to nominate one male and one female volunteer from the group of 36, and to my surprise, I was selected to be the female speaker! 

I was honestly a bit terrified. Giving a speech in front of important government officials, TV cameras, and the President of Kosovo?! That would be nerve-racking enough, but here’s the kicker: We were asked to give the speech in Albanian. 

I considered asking them to select someone else, but then I realized what a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity this would be. Sure I’d be nervous, but how could I turn down the chance to give a speech to the President of another country? Speakers at ceremony

The male speaker selected was Brett, who also happened to be in my Albanian group. (Our language teacher was so proud!) We decided that instead of giving two separate speeches and feeling like competitors, we would write it together and deliver the speech as a team, taking turns speaking. I could not have asked for a better partner for such a daunting task.

5. Swearing-In Ceremony
PST is like our version of basic training, and the ceremony is pretty formal. We dress in our finest and are addressed by our Country Director, the new U.S. Ambassador to Kosovo, a couple government officials, and President Atifete Jahjaga. We then take an oath of service. To read more about the swearing-in ceremony, check out this post about it.

After the ceremony we all said our goodbyes to our PST host families and were dropped off at the Prishtina bus station. We then made our way on our own (with 150 pounds of luggage) to our permanent sites.

It was an surreal afternoon. Suddenly you arrive at your permanent site, all alone, and you realize that this will be the next two years of your life.

6. First week at your site

In Kosovo all schools start on September 1st, so after Swearing-In we had one week to adjust to our sites and host families before beginning teaching. This week reminded me a lot of the beginning of PST. You are on this stressful sort of high, trying to figure everything out with your family and school.

DSCN1799 (2).JPG
On a picnic with my Gjakova host family

I visited the high school where I will be teaching each morning for meetings with the director and other teachers. I also met with my counterpart to discuss curriculum and classroom structure. This week also included talking to my host family about financial matters (rent is provided by the Peace Corps) and dietary needs.

Overall the week was an overwhelming one. It was a lot of meeting relatives and neighbors and teachers (and trying to remember complicated names). But things will calm down as I get adjusted, and in the meantime I will keep exploring my new home of Gjakova!

Gjakova (2).jpg
The view from a cafe overlooking the city of Gjakova on a beautiful August day.