Monday, January 24, 2011

Language Training

After three and a half months at our sites to get settled in and familiar with our new homes, Peace Corps provided us with a week of language training in the local language spoken in our village or region. (Yeah Peace Corps!) For me, that is Moore (pronounced as if the last letter were a long A), the language that is spoken by about 40% of the people in the Burkina Faso as their first language. I have been seeing a tutor for about 10 hours a month, thanks to Peace Corps that reimburses us for what we pay tutors. I have also been trying to study some books of Moore, but I am not doing very well at learning the language. In my week long training there was another member of my stage group who had been living with a family that speaks Moore with her day and night and she was way ahead of me. The other member of our group was so good in French when he got here that he did not have any French instruction during stage, but studied Moore all 9 weeks. I have been doing most of my communication, except for the ritual greetings, in French.

I have been working through the Ultimate French Review books, trying to learn things I never really learned, and to remember things I knew once upon a time. People assure me my French is better than it used to be. I certainly hope so, but it is still not good and I have a lot of trouble understanding people in normal conversation. If they are speaking directly to me and paying attention to when I look confused, they usually use other words or explain ideas until I catch on. When there is just a conversation going on in a group, I can understand a lot of the words, but often miss the few important ones that convey the meaning of a sentence. Talking on the telephone is a particulate challenge because you do not have any visual cues and can’t lip read.

Adding Moore on top of the French has been hard for me. In French, at least, you have a lot of cognates. If I don’t know a word in French, I can often use the English word with a French accent and actually be saying the right word. No such luck with Moore. There are a few Moore words that have been adapted from the French because they refer to modern ideas, like school that were not a part of the culture before colonization. For the most part, the words are completely different.

At first I thought Moore verbs were going to be way easier than French or English because, regardless of whether it is first, second or third person, singular or plural, you use the same form of the verb in a given tense. It turns out there are six types of verbs and you have to learn the type of verb to get the right endings. This is hard to figure out because there is no general rule (like –er verbs in French) and I have yet to find a good Moore dictionary. To make things even more confusing, you add an ending to the infinitive of the verb, but if there is an object after the verb, you drop part of that ending, and sometimes (I am never sure when) you drop off another letter. Of course, as in every other language I have tried to learn, there are irregular verbs (lots of them).

Moore is a very nasal language with lots of double vowels. You can have a word that looks just about the same except that in one word there is one o, in another there is a double o, and in another there is a tilde (~) over the o or the first of two oos. There are also three extra vowels, and I have trouble hearing the difference between the two kinds of u. the two kinds of e and the two kinds of i. Many words in Moore start with k, w, or z, I know I will never be good enough in Moore to give a talk in the language, but I hope to learn enough to have a short and simple conversation with some of the mothers who do not speak French.

There were only three of us in this group, although some other groups in other places had as many as 5 in a group. Our LCF (Language and Cultural Facilitator) was a young man who did his best to keep everybody in the loop, in spite of the differences in our levels of knowledge of the language. The schedule was the same as stage: 8-10, 30 minute break, 10:30-12:30, and hour and a half for lunch, then two afternoon blocks of a hour and a half with a 15 minute break. That is a long time to be trying to pay attention to a language you do not understand. He tried to keep it interesting by using topics we had indicated were important for our work, but the other two are part of the Small Enterprise Development sector and I am in Girls Education and Empowerment. After the first day, he tried to have one block each day as kind of a field trip to try to hear Moore from other people and to use Moore in a practical situation. We visited a market and bought a couple of things, went to a juice bar and had interesting fruit drinks, talked to the secretary at an NGO that is sponsored by the Catholic Church here, focusing on the use of water resources, and so on.

The training week was held at a conference center associated with a Catholic seminary. We each had a private room and I could eat breakfast and dinner in the “restaurant” there. It was really a dining hall and there was no choice about what you got to eat, but that way I did not have to hop on my bicycle and ride into town to find food. Because I do not bike in the dark it was a wonderful arrangement. They also had a good internet connection.

The grounds are beautiful and very well maintained. You feel like you are at a fancy resort and not in one of the poorest countries in the world. Every day men were out raking up leaves and sweeping the dirt areas. Here are a few pictures of the pretty flowers.

Folks who have been in my office at JCU should note the flowing green plant. That is what I had around my window, but this is living in the wild.

There were a lot of birds in the many trees on the grounds. We had our classes on a covered porch of one of the large buildings were conferences can be held. I have to admit to being distracted by the bird calls and the geckos scampering up the trees and walls of the buildings. I understand that sometimes the conference center is packed full of large groups, but it was a pretty quiet the week when we were there.

On the Saturday, there was a wedding in one of the chapels on the grounds. It was interesting to see all of the guests arriving in a big motorcade of cars and motos, including the bride and groom in a car decorated with streamers and balloons. I am pretty sure that the whole group had been at the civil ceremony before this church wedding and that is the reason they all arrived at the same time. Being on time for events is so un-Burkinabé-like.

Another interesting thing was hearing the boys at the seminary singing each morning and evening. They must have a European trained choir master because the sound was what Americans would think of as beautiful. The other thing we heard 5 times a day, starting at 4:00 in the morning, was the Muslim call to prayer. I am not sure if all the sound was coming from one mosque, but it sounded like two men having a conversation in chant. The sound was amplified, of course, so you couldn’t miss it.

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