Field Notes

All Aboard the Stuggle Bus: Issues with English

English is hard. Even here, studying Farsi, a student can learn new words in English. A few weeks ago my friend realized the thing he had been calling a “scooper” his entire life was actually a ladle. He also discovered butter churns, changing his perspective on butter making in the process. Recently, I learned the word for the red feathery thing atop a rooster’s head (crest or comb) in Farsi before learning the word in English. Occasionally, we also suffer spelling issues as sometimes our book’s English is questionable and I’ve started writing the English equivalent right-to-left next to the Farsi word, leading to jumbled nonsense when I go back to reread my notes.

Aside from my own issues with my native tongue, I have taken on helping my host sister practice her English. Usually, this consists of asking her basic questions or listening her to read her textbook, but strangely it has led to more struggles with communication.

First and foremost, her English teacher is teaching them some sort of formal English. After she asked me what my surname was, I tried to explain to her that most people would ask what a person’s last name was and that surname was usually something reserved for official forms. Unfortunately, my Tajik is not good enough to explain the nuance between the two, so I have had to postpone this explanation. The same goes for her tendency to add tamom to the end of every sentence, as she would normally do in Tajik. Although both sound a bit unusual in English, I realize those two things are less important than having a conversation and things she will eventually pick up on as she advances.

The real problem arises when I try to have a conversation that attempts to use vocab she already knows in a different framework. She usually tries to respond with her ready-made answers, which only fit certain questions. For example after reading a text about a garden, I took her book away from her so she could not look at the answers and asked her questions about gardens.

We first tried to define garden in Tajik. I decided to use the Bogh-i Botonanik as an example and she seemed shocked that a garden could be so big. (It is possible there is another word for that size of garden in Russian that I just don’t know.) Next, I asked her to name what vegetables come from her family’s garden. She named the vegetables she knew so then I decided to ask her what her favorite vegetable is. While generally people grow to struggle with trying to define their “favorites” adding complexities and other tangents, usually nine year-olds still have a fairly clear idea and so I thought it would be a simple question.

For some reason, trying to explain the idea of a favorite thing in Tajik, just does not translate. I had asked earlier in regards food and my host mother replied that all food is good. Her response has made me wonder if having a “favorite” something is a Western concept and one that alludes to privilege. Another idea is that having a favorite involves having an opinion, something that may not be as valued here as it is in the education system back in the United States.  When a university student is required to pay for each test they take, opinions are drowned in the shuffle of somoni.

Although not much, I have decided a new goal here will be to teach my host children the concept of favorite. Maybe it is a frivolous goal, but I am hoping once they have a favorite, I will able to ask them to defend it. It may only consists of them saying cake is their favorite because it is good (or maybe delicious if we are feeling fancy). But even if, I have to teach the concept in reverse, using my host brother’s disdain for carrots as an example, I want to at least encourage these children to express their opinions.

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