Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Out of the (Language) Lab

For the past two years, I have been taking classes in a language that is very useful for me to know for my research and international collaborations. In four semesters of taking this class 5 days/week, I have done a lot of homework, taken a lot of quizzes, and done a lot of reading, listening, and speaking. Then I went to a country in which this language is spoken. In fact, I am there right now.

I was nervous about going to this country for the first time since I took the language classes. What if I had made no more progress than I had been able to make previously on my own using books and CD's? What if my two years of language classes had made me an expert at doing homework assignments in a textbook but had left me unprepared to comprehend and communicate in this language in the real world? I have long been able to communicate at a basic level in this language, but this basic level has been deeply unsatisfying, hence my decision to take formal classes.

As soon as I got off the plane, I could tell the difference in my comprehension level, and this has been confirmed as I have spent more time here. My comprehension level is not 100%, but it might be somewhere near 80%, and that's a huge difference from the last time I was here.

My speaking abilities are not as good, but I knew that. Spending time here has helped a bit, and I am optimistic about improving with more time here (and more classes next year).

I have been having fun surprising people who don't expect me to speak the language, and have tried to convince a few people (strangers who started talking to me because it is obvious that I am a foreigner) that I am from a mid-sized provincial town in this country. I picked a town that city people have heard of but that is a place that someone who looks and dresses like me would be unlikely to be from. The response is always entertaining, then I laugh and explain, and then they laugh.

There are some rather conservative parts of this country, and in these places, the culture clash is more startling and less entertaining. In these places, men will shake the hands of my male colleagues but will not even look at me or speak to me, much less shake my hand. [Don't even bother with the 'You're probably imagining it' comments. I have been spending substantial amounts of time in this country nearly every year for the last 15 years and I have a significant dataset of unequivocal experiences, ranging from trivial to serious]. My language skills are of less use in those places, though it is still helpful to be able to understand what people are saying.

So, in answer to the question (which I asked myself) of whether two years of language study at a university can be useful, in my case the answer is definitely yes. I am sure I would learn more/faster if I were immersed in this language more, but it's hard enough making time to take the class. Based on my experiences on this trip, I am very happy with what I have learned in my classes and how useful the course experiences have been. In fact, I am about to send an email to my language instructor telling her exactly that.

Note: I am not sure of my internet access after today, so I will likely off the air for the rest of the week, returning some time next week. This is post #500, so maybe it's time to take a short break anyway.


Schlupp said...

FSP, if they don't shake your hand, it's just because they are so SURPRISED, you know. And this is YOUR fault, because you do apparently not announce your gender as openly as you should in your papers. Really, shame on you for embarrassing the poor guys.

At least, that's what my male colleagues explained to me when they noticed the behaviour of some visitors towards me. (It was obvious enough for them to notice, I did not point it out. Also, one of the weirdos openly said that my gender was the reason. And I do not think it's paranoia to take his word for it.)

The other thing was that some of my colleagues who would usually be very much against religion, were absolutely prepared to accept the explanation that someone might choose not to obey the dietary rules and go to the cafeteria but still not talk to women. After all, it would be very impractical and weird not to go to the cafeteria with the others, right? Mind you, I do not think that religion was the point in this case (the guy who openly said that my being a woman was the problem), but it hurt that my colleagues - the reasonable and nice guys - thought it plausible that a same person would consider "being able to eat in the cafeteria" a more important component of professional behaviour than "basic decency to female scientists."

Anonymous said...

Ooh, and you won't tell us what language/country it is. (shakes fist at anonymous blogging) :)

Enjoy your trip!

Dr. Bad Ass said...

This is interesting. I've been studying German on my own (using CDs and books, and my husband who is fluent in German) but I'm not making as much headway as I would like. I've considered taking classes, since I can take one class per semester on the university. You've helped me see possibilities for that, so thanks.

Anonymous said...

I love being able to understand people when they don't think I can. Sometimes, people don't realize I speak English, so that can be interesting when traveling. It is enlightening to hear Americans talk when they don't think anyone can understand them (a bad assumption in many many places).

I also have marginal familiarity with two other languages, and both also offer entertaining opportunities for eavesdropping (usually in America, where folks who speak the languages assume that no one else understands.) One of them is my native language (which I have forgotten, mostly), but which I can understand, at a child's level, in an automatic way, without realizing the person is not speaking English (my fluent language). So, that one can be a real double-take.

It's cool. I'm glad you've been able to enjoy the fruits of your labor in learning a language.

(It's really hard not to see your coyness as a puzzle to solve, though, figuring out what language and country we're talking about!)

Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde said...

Congratulations on numero/nombre/Zahl/other 500!

EliRabett said...

You have a sabbatical coming up, yes?? In any case, if you do go there for a sabbatical get involved in other things outside the lab, the local cafe, reading groups, local choral groups, bands, etc. In my case it was the soccer club.

This plugs you directly into the local area much more so than the Uni