Language learning

During PST, I received something like 40 hours of Mongolian language training.

At the end of PST, I received rather less than 12 hours of Kazakh language training, the bulk of it in one single eight-hour session.

I remain somewhat puzzled by this, since for 90% of the people at my site, Kazakh is the everyday language. Mongolian is only used in formal professional situations or with somebody who doesn’t speak any Kazakh. I’m sincerely hoping that this year, the training staff will do better by the PCVs going to majority-Kazakh regions.

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Arriving in Bayan-Ulgii, securing language training was one of my major concerns. Because scheduling is somewhat — laid-back — in Mongolia, acquiring a tutor can be really difficult. You arrange to meet with a tutor; you set a time; you have one, maybe two lessons; then the tutor gets busy and has to cancel, and somehow the lessons never pick back up.

I got lucky. Early in the year I was talking to my supervisor about finding a teacher when one of my CPs cut in. Did I really want to learn from a Kazakh language teacher, or could anybody teach me? I answered no — I’d actually prefer to learn from somebody who spoke a little English. My CP immediately volunteered herself in exchange for equal hours of English tutoring. Even better, because she’s a junior teacher, her schedule is all over the place — she’ll have one lesson at 8am and then nothing else until 2pm, and in the meantime she’ll hang out in the teacher’s room. It means that she’s really easy to track down for a lesson.

I also experimented with a few paid lessons downtown; there’s a company near where I live that offers both English and Kazakh lessons. But the lessons turned out to be rather by-the-book in a way that failed to catch my interest, and my HCA is way on the other side of town, so scheduling was too much hassle.

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Materials have been a bit of a pain, as well. Bayan-Ulgii Kazakh takes a lot of influence from Mongolian. It borrows names for official people and places from Mongolian, and some colloquialisms have shifted to mirror Mongolian ones (e.g. Не бар?, “What’s up?” is cognate to Mongolian Юу байна? and is more common in Ulgii than the native Қал қалай?). Additionally, some verb conjugations are much more common in Ulgii than Kazakhstan and markers of the dialect; and in case of two synonymous vocabulary words, the very common Kazakhstan-dialect word will produce a long, blank stare from my tutor, followed by a discussion with the entire teacher’s lounge about what the word means and what word Ulgii Kazakhs use instead.

My resources tend to fall into two categories: locally and non-professionally compiled (e.g. an early edition of somebody’s minidictionary and a phrasebook created in Darkhan), containing local colloquialisms but also contradictory information, mistakes, and confusing layouts; or from Kazakhstan, well-designed and technically correct but full of language people in Ulgii don’t use. There are some dictionaries and basic readers in a shop near my home which might be more useful, but I haven’t yet delved into my language-learning budget to check them out.

Right now I’m working through the 2008 Peace Corps/Kazakhstan textbook with my tutor, which is useful insofar as it has basic grammar and provides a jumping-off point for local vocabulary. I’m about halfway through it, though, and realizing it’s quite basic and rather repetitive. Once we’ve finished that, if my tutor doesn’t have any suggestions, I’m going to check out the bookstore down the street.

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Outside of lessons, there are a few things I do to try and build my language.

First, I use a flash card program called Anki, which is tremendously helpful for building vocabulary. I recommend it to everyone trying to learn a new language. I use my phrasebooks to create flash cards that are Kazakh on one side and Mongolian on the other, and every day the program provides 10 new cards. After a card is ‘learned’ for the first time, Anki tracks how often and how easily you remember it, and gradually grows the interval at whih the card appears.

I also keep a little notebook and a pen on me whenever I go around town. When I come across a new word or need one and can’t remember it, I write it down to ask my tutor later. This is my ‘practical’ dictionary and my best source for vocabulary.

But the most important thing — and the most difficult, for me — is practice. I’m a shy person. It’s not easy for me to initiate conversations, and often when other people approach me they start in English, because they assume that as a white person I’m either Russian or American. Moreover, they usually approach me because they assume I’m American, and they want to practice their English. In my capacity as an English teacher (and a fundamentally efficient person who prefers to speak in the easiest language possible) I usually stick with English and only switch to Kazakh when we slam headfirst into a language barrier.

The easiest way around this is to make friends with little kids, who haven’t started to study English and have no real interest in practicing it. They are often really excited to play teacher to the teacher and to help me learn new words. I have one CP in particular I love to visit because there are about a half-dozen tremendously rambunctious kids in the extended family, all of whom are eager to teach me. It’s difficult, though, because I live in the city center, about an hour’s walk from her.

More recently, I’ve joined a local taekwondo studio. After only two lessons I can see it’s going to help my language tremendously. The head instructor speaks a little bit of English — words like “jump”, “kick”, “come”, and “stop” that are very useful when he’s showing me the fundamentals — but of course the class itself is in Kazakh. I have to listen for the handful of words I know and keep an eye on what the other students are doing. I’m a fellow student there, not a teacher, not a privileged foreigner; the instructions, banter and rapport existed before I came along, and it’s my responsibility to fit myself into them. The class laugh and echo the instructor’s shouted, “Long! Think!” when I miss a kick, but when they ask who I am and what I’m doing there, when they try to explain what it means to kick long, it all happens in Kazakh.