Learning languages, working abroad in international development

January 22, 2008, [MD]

This is a hand-out that a friend and I put together for a retreat this weekend together with students that will go on one year placements abroad. I wanted to emphasize the importance of learning languages, and give ideas about methods and resources.

*Handout on learning languages / bahasa-bahasa / 语言 / भाशाएं / языкoв\ *\ Learning a local language could be one of the most fulfilling parts of your placement, and will also help immensely in adapting to the local environment, making friends, gaining respect, understanding the culture, and doing research for your thesis. Even basic fluency and ability to read signs/ask for directions will also make you feel much safer and more confident in the streets. It will also probably make you a lot more useful to your organization. And it will enable you to talk to cab drivers and coconut sellers. Here are some points that might be useful.

I’m not good at learning languages\ Even if you do believe this, and you might be wrong, don’t let it stop you! I have talked to several people among the fifth years who thought that they would not be able to learn anything, and didn’t put a lot of effort in in the beginning. Towards the end they were really surprised at what they had accomplished, and regretted not starting earlier.\ \ I will never become perfectly fluent/write the next great kiSwahili novel\ First of all, as stated above, never underestimate what you can do. But also, remember that even a little bit can take you a long way. In contexts with different alphabets, even being able to decode signs and bus routes could be incredibly useful, and most people really appreciate you making the effort (the only exception could be in areas where the majority speak another language, and every tourist learns just a phrase or two of the local language - in that case you might want to wait until you gain a little bit more fluency before you start showing off)

When to start?\ As soon as possible! If you are reasonably sure that you know where you are going already, what are you waiting for? Learning a language is not something you do the night before you leave, sustained effort over a long time is much more efficient (but if you find out late, don’t worry - I found out I was going to Indonesia two weeks before I left, and I was fine)\ \ Before you leave - materials\ This depends a lot on which language you will be learning - when you find out ask me, or a fifth year that has been there, and we might be able to help you. In general, UofT library might have something, but Toronto Public Library is your saviour. They have a lot of language learning material in the reference library, and you can check on their website which branches carry materials for which languages (I was just at Agincourt yesterday checking out Hindi children’s books - awesome). Branches also commonly have CDs, DVDs, etc.

You can try downloading movies or TV shows from that country through Bittorrent or Amule (ask me), or even find stuff on Youtube. Even if you don’t understand, it can be neat to get a feel for how the language sounds, and what they are watching.

There are websites that lets you hookup with teachers either for a fee or language exchange students for free through Skype. (If anyone wants to learn Spanish talk to me - I know a very good one!)\ \ What to bring\ Depending on the language again, you might want to find a speciality bookstore in Toronto, order something off Amazon, or photocopy pages from a library textbook. If you find a decent textbook and an OK dictionary, bring them - depending on where you go, you might not be able to find any textbooks (very hard to find in Indonesia for example), or any dictionaries appropriate for people who know English already (especially relevant if you are dealing with a new alphabet).

When you are there\ Try to negotiate with your NGO to get language classes. The best way is to go away for at least a few weeks in the beginning to do something intensive - if you do a few hours a week you are often so tired, and they are so far apart, that you’ll forget half of what you learn. If they are not able to provide it, you might negotiate with them to share the fee, or pay for it yourself, but get the time off - I promise you it will be so worth it!

Try using it as often as you can. The people in the office might be a bit annoyed the fifth time you are trying to spell your way through something, but the street vendors will be happy to talk to you, and often thrilled that someone is taking the time and effort. Living in a host family can be a real boon in this situation. Buy children’s books, cartoons and local music. If they have a cinema, dubbed foreign movies are often easier to begin with, because they don’t speak a dialect, and the sound is recorded in studio (better quality).

Other ideas\ Try reading literature from the country you are going to that has been translated. Can be a great way of gaining some insight into a culture and history. Sometimes you can find translated novels in the country as well, but they tend to be very expensive.

Wikipedia exists in almost every small language you could encounter. Check out what they are writing about your home town in Canada. No article yet? Make it your goal for the year to add one!

Global Voices is an amazing project that writes summaries about what bloggers from different blogospheres around the world are writing about, with links to the original language posts. Want to know what bloggers in Kenya are writing right now?

Good luck!


Stian Håklev January 22, 2008 Toronto, Canada
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