I got passing grades in French all 3 years in high school and couldn’t speak a word. I did the same with Spanish in college. After spending two years in Niger as a Peace Corps volunteer I tested advanced high in Zarma (the ACTFL oral exam). If I can learn a language, and learn it well, anyone can. Learning a new language felt like learning to see a new world. It was easily the most challenging and rewarding experience in my life. I’m thrilled to be in a time and place where I can do this again!
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Peace Corps language trainers are amazing. Community-based training combines a small class experience with host family life and all the time in the world to practice what you’ve learned from day to day. Seriously, you sit under a tree with good friends all day playing with new sounds and then go home to try them out with your new family. And you get paid to do this. Its not always easy, but the rewards are immediate: prices fall as you learn to negotiate, family relationships grow with each new word, and all the little oddities and difficult misunderstandings come to light once you learn to ask about them.
Peace Corps Senegal requires each volunteer to test Intermediate Mid in one of three oral proficiency exams. I am happy to report I reached that level the day before yesterday! I hope to reach intermediate high before swear-in. I’m glossing over a lot, but there’s no reason counting specific frustrations and hardships: they’re different for everyone. What I didn’t know in Niger, that I know now, is that confidence is everything. The confidence to go out and practice in town instead of reading alone in your hut each evening makes a huge difference. Willingness to make an absolute fool of yourself helps. You’ll do it anyway, might as well look like you’re enjoying it and learn something while you’re at it.
Here’s a video that illustrates Peace Corps community-based training. We learned vocabulary related to neem lotion making (lotion made from neem tree leaves will ward off mosquitoes in the evening hours before folks jump into their mosquito nets), and then asked some local women if they’d like to learn how. As you can see, its hilarious. We have NO idea what we’re doing, the women find the whole thing wildly entertaining, and in the end, they run out and tell their neighbors. I watched one woman leave the compound and summarize the whole experience in something like 30 seconds to another woman, who then promptly stormed into the compound and demanded we repeat the demonstration. The lotion costs nothing, the leaves are everywhere, and recent statistics gathered by Peace Corps volunteers in Senegal have attracted national attention: the stuff works if you use it.
This might take a while to load but its entertaining..enjoy!