Friday, January 30, 2009

The Nana

I am sitting in my lovely room in the home of my host family. It is in a nice section of the downtown area of my city. I like my family. They are a mother in her '50's, her son, who is 21 and in the army and my host mother's mother, my nana, who is 84. However at this moment, my nana has gone wild. She is flinging herself against the locked door of my room while she screams at me in Azeri. (She can also scream in Russian).

I am worried, because my nana has bad eyes and high blood pressure. I don't want her to hurt herself.

It all started when I wanted to shower. In the winter, it is not at all certain that a shower is available. It depends on if the water pipes are frozen. I asked her if it was possible to take a shower. She took me to the bathroom and began pointing to all kinds of hardward and pipes and going into a long explanation, none of which I understood. I told her that it was fine if I could not shower, just let me know yes or no. She started over angrily with her unintelligible explanation. I asked the yes or no question again. Finally I said fine and told her I did not need a shower. She was still angry.

Then I began working on some flip charts for work. She did not like the room I was using. I moved to another room. She followed me to say it was too cold in that room and I should wear a sweater. I was already wearing two sweaters and told her so. I let her feel the sweaters in case she could not see them. She still insisted that I put on another sweater.

I picked up my flip charts and went into my room to work on them. When I heard her approaching, I locked the door and told her that I needed to work alone. That is when she went crazy. She soon gave up and muttered on the other side of the door. She then called her daughter to report on the locked room. She was told to leave me alone.

Normally, nana and I get along fine. She has two basic topics-- food and why I don't eat enough of it and the mothers-in-law of her grandchildren, who are apparently all terrible.

I will not remain with this family as the mother is being posted to Baku for two months and they are moving nana to another relatives home for the duration. They told me I am welcome to come back in April, but I wonder about enforcing boundaries with a determined Azerbaijani nana.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


The Language

Azeris speak Azerbaijani, a language that is mostly just spoken in Azerbaijan. It is similar to Turkish and I am told the Azeris can be understood by Turkish speakers. Most Azeris speak Azerbaijani, but not all can write it well as they may have studied Russian in school. Most Azerbaijani people speak Russian also as most study it in school.

To prepare us for our two years of serving the Azerbaijani people, we had language instruction 5-6 days a week for about 10 weeks and continue with our language study at site if we choose to. The training classes were wonderful, with great teachers and a lot of practice and different methods of teaching. My perception was that I would be speaking Azeri fairly fluently and understanding what people say to me. My perception was based on the fact that the instruction we received was good and totaled almost 450 hours, that I studied on my own every day and since arriving here 3 weeks ago have studied about 70 hours so far, some of it with a teacher who had taught Azeri to Peace Corps workers.

How wrong I was. Some of it, I am convinced, is that I apparently don't have a facility for languages and the other is that it is difficult to get to the place where one is fairly fluent and even harder to know what people are saying.

The Azeri language is different from English in that the words appear in a different order in a sentence. The verb is always last. Also, the words have endings on them that indicate possession and tense. So for example the sentence

I went to the store with my brother reads:

I store to my brother with went.

On the end of "brother" is an added ending that varies with the sentence. Some sentences will have words with up to three added endings, which are basically like conjugating a verb with each sentence. We don't use these endings in English, some of which indicate punctuation.

So sister is baci, but my sister is bacim, your sister is bacisi, my sister's is bacisinin. So if you forget the endings or mix them up, you sound really bad or confusing, especially if there are several words with different endings in the sentence.

I make regular mistakes like saying "I ate vegetables tomorrow" or "you went to the store" when I meant that I went. I also make serious mistakes like when I recounted a story about the US in which I was trying to say that I fed the puppy. What I really said was that I ate the puppy. My friend then asked me if I only recently became a vegetarian and was kind enough to explain what I said to her!

Also, I practice hundreds of words every few days that I have never used yet. I would hate to not be able to say a body part--like arm--if I needed to or a color--brown. But in my rudimentary conversations I don't use any of these words nor do I recognize if anyone is saying them to me. I find that my memory is a hindrance as it takes me a long time to remember and use a new word. Sometimes I start a sentence and forget the last part.

A typical conversation is that I say something that I have composed in my head and if possible checked a reference--like "I am not able to print this document." The answer I get is something that I don't recognize or understand. So my co-workers have learned that I can say one sentence to them, (usually a question) but they will have to find some other way to get the answer to me.

Some Peace Corps volunteers never learn to speak more than a rudimentary version of Azeri to get them through basic situations. They work with an English speaking counterpart or are just creative in the ways the express themselves. I am determined to speak the language at a higher level and study in different ways every day to accomplish it. However, the results are currently negligible.

I have gradually stepped up my studying as I realize I am not improving quickly. I also recruit local students who want to improve their English. I meet with them for an hour--for 30 minutes we speak Azeri, 30 minutes English. I talk with my family, study the PC materials, have two two-hour lessons a week, do the homework my teacher assigns and read on my own. I study an average of four hours a day, some of it at work.