Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Learning Language

Attempting to look confused, I stared at the woman in front of me. “Huh?” I said before turning to the two people sitting next to me for help.

The woman in front of me repeated her question, “U roabetse joang?” I continued to look perplexed as I slowly repeated after her, as if trying to remember what the words meant.

Finally, the person to my left whispered to me, “She wants to know how you slept.”

“Oh!” I exclaimed. “Good, um, hantle ‘M’e!

Although I have known and regularly used these common Sesotho words for over two years, as the American “student” at the LCF [Language and Culture Facilitator] Training last week, my job was to be a new arrival to Lesotho.

Each new LCF took a turn teaching three of us for twenty minutes on topics ranging from simple sentence construction, vocabulary in the kitchen or at the shop, and the future tense. Most of the brand new LCFs were surprisingly good at teaching their topic; however, almost all struggled to not include longer complex sentences in rapid Sesotho as filler in their sessions. I found this entertaining, as I usually understood them, but needed to don a blank, perplexed, or dejected face the way a new trainee would. Obviously, when one is just learning to introduce oneself in Sesotho, complex sentences are too advanced!

After two years living and working in predominantly Sesotho, acting like a new trainee was like time travel. Much the way we forget there was a point we did not know how to read or write, I had forgotten how overwhelming the process of learning the language had been during the early stages of Pre-Service Training.

As new trainees, we had not even been in the country for a single meal before we walked away from our peers and LCFs, following a new host mother to her home. My host mother and sister tried to explain some things to me, but neither spoke English. A short afternoon session may have taught me to say hello and goodbye, but mostly explained, in English, some critical safety information.

That night, I ate dinner surrounded by my new family. Although my host father and the older sister both spoke English, they had been trained to speak mostly Sesotho to me. As I had my first meal of papa and greens, I listened to them talk around me wondering how I would possibly be able to understand them.

The next day, we began our routine of language classes every morning. Despite the skill of our LCFs, I remember many times when they would say something and we trainees would look at each other confused and lost.  

Today, I am confident enough in the language, that even when I do not understand someone, I am able to get clarification in Sesotho instead of English. I credit a huge part of this to my LCFs. Their slow, intentional repetition and immersion-based teaching gave me experience with being uncomfortable or uncertain while still using the language. They gave me a solid base of comprehension that allowed me to walk into a workplace where only one person spoke English and still find ways to accomplish things without relying on translations. Although I continued to study independently and with a tutor, it was the success of the language program during Pre-Service Training that allowed me to do so.

In this video, 'M'e 'Mampho, who was actually my LCF during PST, demonstrates how to teach trainees using no English and very few extra Sesotho words while teaching a lesson on public transportation. How much are you able to understand?

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