Tuesday, November 23, 2010


I wrote two posts—the first about two years ago and last year about my experiences in trying to learn the Azerbaijani language. Since I have been at this for 27 months now, I am confident in saying that learning this language is the hardest thing I have ever done. I believe it was harder for me than it was to raise my children.

When new volunteers come to Azerbaijan, we spend about 4 hours a day for 3 months in language lessons. We live with a host family who usually knows no English and when we are done with our training, we continue our language studies while living with a new host family in our assigned region and working with people who may have little or no English. We are surrounded by Azerbaijani language all day.

This language is not quite as easy for Americans to learn as a language like Spanish or French. One reason is because sentences in those languages are said and translated in a similar order as English. For example, “She wants to buy a red shirt” in Spanish would be constructed “She wants to buy a shirt red”. In Azerbaijani it is constructed “Red shirt to buy wants she.” Making sense of a longer written sentence is difficult, because it is as if all the words for a sentence are put in a box and juggled.  When you hear several sentences in a row, it is very difficult to put the words in the proper order to tranlate them in your head to English.  It is also difficult to put  the words in the right order when you speak.

The other difference is that words often have endings on them, for conjugation or adjectives. For example “it” is dog, “itlər” is dogs, “itlərimiz” is our dogs. But if “our dogs” is a direct object in the sentence, an extra “i” is added at the end, making it itlərimizi”.

There are some things that are easier in Azerbaijani than in Spanish. Nouns do not have a gender. Actually, even pronouns like “he”, “she” and “it” have no gender—they are the same word, “o”. So “O gedir” means “He/she/it is going.”

Anyway, at the end of my 3 months of training, I scored “intermediate low” and was supposed to be at “intermediate mid”. Most of what any Azerbaijani said to me was unintelligible, as was the TV and most signs.

In addition to doing my regular Peace Corps work, I spent the next 6 months in intensive study with a teacher and homework. I lived with a host family and my co-workers spoke little or no English. I met a lot of Azerbaijanis and spoke with them in my limited Azerbaijani. I passed the test and continued to study, last February reaching “advanced low”, where I remain.

I have felt quite confident for over a year going anywhere in Azerbaijan and feeling like I can get what I need. I can have a polite conversation using bad grammar with anyone about limited topics. A more in-depth conversation involves more effort and some misunderstandings, since my vocabulary is not large and I mangle sentences. But TV is still unintelligible as is much of conversation between Azerbaijanis. People tend to speak with me slowly using easy words like they are talking to a toddler.

A highlight, though, is that Azerbaijani is similar to Turkish and when I was in Turkey this summer, I was able to communicate with Turks. I plan to study Turkish language when I return to America.

One of the frustrating things is that in Spanish, for example, if you translate unknown words in a sentence, you can get the meaning of the sentence. When I see a sentence I don’t understand in Azerbaijani, many times I will look up each word, but I still don’t get the meaning of a sentence, since the words are “out of order” in English and the endings all have to be translated too.

Meanwhile, my fellow volunteers were going in several different directions in their language learning. A few were language stars, picking the language up easily and not needing to study—just being exposed to Azerbaijanis was enough for them to progress quickly. These few still say that they are not able to read a newspaper, for example, and TV is not easy for them to understand, but Azerbaijanis recognize their skill are quick to compliment them on their achievement.

Most volunteers did okay and progressed after training, learning new words connected to their work and lives in their new town. They studied off and on, but plateaued early and do what they can with the fairly limited language they have.

And another group, mostly composed of the older volunteers, didn’t learn much in training and gave up soon after they got to their worksites. Some are only able to say greetings, a few nouns for things they need to buy, and a few commands. This limits what they can do and experience in the country, but while they won’t continue to try to learn the language, they try hard to find meaningful work with the limited language skills they have. If they are English teachers, it is okay on the job, but no so good after school in interacting with Azerbaijanis. It also limits where they can go in the country and most of us like to travel. It is common for these volunteers to need another volunteer or Azerbaijani English speaker as a “handler” for certain tasks, such as paying a bill or solving a problem, since they can’t manage a conversation themselves.

Azerbaijanis usually know at least one other language and understand Turkish from watching Turkish TV. They are usually reluctant to speak a language unless their grammar is good and much emphasis is placed on being able to speak a second or third language well. I have found that many Azerbaijanis are puzzled about why most native-born Americans don’t have a second language that we speak fluently.

I explain how large our country is and how I could drive from my home for many hours in every direction and not encounter anyone unable to speak English. Also that if we are studying something, we want to use it; another language is something we may never use. I tell them that I spent about 5,000 hours in high school and college studying Spanish, but was not motivated because I felt I would never use it. If I had spent that time learning something else, it may have enriched my life.

Because of this emphasis on language competence, when volunteers speak limited and grammatically incorrect Azerbaijani, it can affect the way we are perceived here. I sense that some Azerbaijanis think I am not intelligent. And I have seen that for those volunteers who can’t say much at all, Azerbaijanis are mystified and sometimes insulted that the volunteers came here and choose not to study and learn the language.

Unexpectedly, though, a insight came to me from this language learning experience that has nothing to do with Azerbaijan or Azerbaijani language.

We all know Americans who are angry because immigrants, especially Mexican immigrants, usually don’t learn English. Of course, this phenomenon is nothing new--my relatives who immigrated to America as adults many years ago, reportedly never learned English. Typical of most immigrants, they settled in a community made up of people from their country, where the children learned English and the parents mostly didn’t.

For those who want the first generation to learn, I have to say this:

When already well-educated Peace Corps volunteers come to Azerbaijan, they are provided with native-speaking teachers, good materials, plenty of time to study and are surrounded by the language wherever they look. Yet after two years, some can’t say much of anything and most are not fluent.

Mexican immigrants come to America because some Americans are very anxious to hire them—otherwise they would not come. They usually work long hours for little pay. They tend to live in places that English speakers don’t and most have family responsibilities.

If most Peace Corps Volunteers under very supportive circumstances aren’t able to become fluent and many aren’t able to say much at all, why do we expect that Mexican immigrants should become bilingual?

The surprise for me in this case is that Mexican immigrants have nothing to do with my work here. But I am changing my thinking about them because of what I am experiencing in Azerbaijan.

I didn’t expect that my opinions about countries and cultures other than Azerbaijan’s would change. The only way I can figure out how much I have changed is to go back to America, to my friends and family, watch their faces and listen to what they say as we interact.

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