I spend two evenings a week English tutoring a young Afghan woman. I absolutely adore working with her. Seriously, I’m only supposed to do it for about 90 minutes, but I easily spend four hours there.
Of course, it helps that she feeds me such delicious food!
Since I’ve been tutoring her, it’s helped me realize many things about myself. More specifically, it’s helped me realize how truly intimidating coming to a country with only the basic knowledge of a language.
I believe it’s safe to say that the language immersion aspect of the Peace Corps experience can seem overwhelming. If I am unable to learn the language, how am I going to function on even the most basic level of my job?
Tutoring and spending time with this woman, however, has brought an even greater concern. If you’ve spent any amount of real time with me, you would know that I despise small talk – I’m rarely interested in conversing about hobbies or your job responsibilities unless it’s something that brings that passion out in your voice. I want to know who you are and I want to share the deeper aspects of my soul.
These kinds of conversations indicate a deep knowledge and understanding of the language and its nuances in order to be successful. I know that I can learn survival Darija (Moroccan Arabic). I can even learn enough Darija to be highly functional at my job. But, I don’t know if I will reach the level necessary to have the kinds of conversations that feed my soul.
That realization is frightening, but I have to trust in not only myself, but the people of Morocco—that even if my spoken language skills never get to where I will desire them, that there will be a deeper, unspoken language that we will learn to communicate with that escapes the bonds of words. I am already learning to speak that deeper language with my new Afghan friend and I’m heartened to know she is able grasp the English language better each time we spend together.
As I prepare for my 27 month commitment in Morocco, here are some steps I am taking to facilitate my language-learning skills. I hope that they will provide you with some insights and advice if you are in the process of making a long-term commitment in a foreign country.
1. Teach or tutor English as a Second Language:
I originally began this as a means to learn the skills necessary to teach youth English, as well as brush up on ongoing lesson planning. However, the most insightful piece of doing this has been the realization of the effort it takes on the part of the learner to adapt to a new language.
2. Learn some basic phrases
One great way to do this is through the lessons that Peace Corps sends before you arrive. I also suggesting buying a phrase book. For myself, I bought one in Moroccan Arabic and French, because I’ve read that many people understand at least some French –and of course, Darija has a very French influence. I figured some basic understanding and conversational skills in the language couldn’t hurt.
3. Start speaking!
You don’t have to wait until you’re in the country to start practicing the language. We live in a global society, which means it can be simple to find somebody who speaks the language you wish to practice. For myself, I frequent a café that has many Moroccans. Meet-Up or Couchsurfing are two places you can go to find somebody local who speaks the language you’re looking to learn. If you can’t find somebody local, iTalki has free or low-cost options to practice learning a language with somebody online.
Number One Take-Away
The number one piece of advice I can give as you prepare to depart is: not to worry!
If we’re being real, I’m going to practice language-learning a little, but I am not going to put exorbitant amounts of energy into becoming a master at the language. No matter how much energy we put into learning the language in-state, there will never be a substitute for complete immersion.
Peace Corps has been at this now for over 50 years. I believe it’s safe to say that they’re pretty decent at ensuring we can function in the language. And when it comes down to it, we just have to put our faith in Peace Corps, in the people that we will meet, and most importantly: we need to put our faith in ourselves and our own abilities.
What plans do you have to prepare for total language immersion?