Friday, October 16, 2009

Duh II

About 6 months ago I wrote about how difficult it is for me to learn the Azerbaijani language. I studied 2-3 hours a day, took lessons twice a week for 2 hours, lived with an Azerbaijani family who didn’t speak English and worked at a place in which few people spoke English.

Things are still the same, but I have been getting better. I recently took an informal test and my language rating is called “intermediate high.” I started at “intermediate low” after 6 weeks, after 11 weeks tested at the same level and after six months tested at “intermediate mid”. My progress seems so slow to me.

I still don’t understand much of what is said to me. But in traveling, buying things and communication with my host family, I can say what I want. When they have their family discussions, I usually have little idea of what they are saying. The TV news is usually unintelligible too as is most business discussion. I am typical of most of the other volunteers.

Listening to someone speak is like solving a word puzzle. For example if someone says

My blue sweater is in the kitchen

the order of the words in Azerbaijani is Blue sweater mine kitchen in is.

If they are speaking quickly and I don't know some of the words (in a more difficult sentence), I might retain only-- Blue Sweater Kitchen---before they barrel on to the next sentence.

With a few more sentences of partially heard words, I would have trouble figuring out what is being said. There are still many misunderstandings. My vocabulary is much increased, but there are many words I don't know.

I am doing a lot of professional training at my assigned organization--Time Management, Conflict Management, Supervisory Training, Company History and Culture. I require a translator for much of the training and someone to help me understand all of the comments in the discussions.

What strikes me though, is that since I have been in the country for a year with hundreds of hours of language lessons, live with a host family and work with non-English speakers, Azerbaijanis could express frustration with my relative lack of skill. But most don't. People are extremely kinds and supportive.

I think of immigrants to America who speak with an accent or people who work long hours every day and have no time or money to learn English. They may have no access to the level of instruction or exposure to native speakers that I do. Some Americans tend to be very critical of these people. At this point, that attitude makes me cringe. I wish that Americans wouldn't say "Why can't he speak English? If he lives here, he should learn!." It's just not that easy. It seems to me that it has always been that the first generation of immigrants usually doesn't learn English, the second generation knows both languages and the third generation usually just knows English.

My great-grandparents came from Germany as young adults, never learned English or wanted to. They needed work and settled in a German neighborhood, cooked German food, and worked at jobs at which they could speak German. My grandmother and her six brothers and sisters learned English easily, but not from their parents.

One problem that immigrant Americans don’t have is that many nouns that Azerbaijanis use are Russian. Sometimes, I hear a word being used, look it up, and find it isn’t in the dictionary. I find out that the Azerbaijani word is not popular, just the Russian word. Azerbaijani is similar to Turkish, as Spanish is to Portuguese. So when I get back to the US, to put the knowledge to good use, I would like to take Turkish lessons.

Besides their extremely patient attitude toward learning their language, the other thing that I admire about Azerbaijanis is their facility with languages. Most can speak Russian many know Turkish and dialects are common in many areas. Since few books are published in Azerbaijani, speaking another language is important in having access to the world of information.

When Azerbaijanis learn English, they don’t seem to have nearly as much trouble learning it as we do in trying to learn Azerbaijani. The same effort with them seems to yield better results.

Meantime, I have stopped feeling guilty if I watch an occasional American DVD or read a book in English. I will continue to study, speak, and work and see what happens.