Category Archives: Language

The Value of Greek

I am such a linguaphile, I can’t even help it.  Too young to attend school under the French Immersion program like my older brother, I made up my own language to compensate.  Obviously, I refused to ever let my brother in on its secrets, which annoyed him to no end.  In seventh grade, I attacked French with gusto.  In ninth grade, I traded all my high school electives and part of my summer for the chance to take Spanish.  In college, instead of just testing out of both languages, I let my scores stagnate and struggled through Arabic.  And oh, have I struggled.

So when I found out I was going to Greece, learning the language seemed like a no-brainer.  I got a phrasebook, I signed up for language-learning software via Odysseus, and I started trying to re-learn the Greek alphabet (with correct pronunciation, no thanks to the Greek system of American Universities.) I know from my experience with Arabic that truly knowing the alphabet through and through makes a huge difference, and I intend to have it fully mastered, along with basic phrases, before I leave in September.  When I’m in Greece, I fully plan on auditing one of the Greek 101 classes that my students take.

Since then, however, conversations with several people have caused me to question my resolve.  How realistic is it for me to become conversational between now and December, when I return?  How often will I used Greek after this trip?

I suppose this really gets at the question of why do I study languages?  When people ask why Arabic (no one ever asks Why Spanish? or Why French?) I sometimes answer, “because I wanted to read the Qu’ran.”  That’s true, but I have no intention of reading it in its entirety in Arabic (I’ve read passages in class, but lack the stamina and vocabulary to do the whole thing), and it is widely available in English.  When I started learning French, I had no thoughts on going to France.  It isn’t that I didn’t want to go; it simply wasn’t on my radar or in my mental conception of the possibilities of life.  I did, however, start Spanish with a clear head.  I knew two things: First, speaking three languages instead of two would be both challenging and a feather in my cap.  When it comes to education, I am equally seduced by the challenge and the accolades.  Second, I knew that a person who speaks English, French and Spanish can talk to the majority of the world’s population.  Adding Arabic to that list definitely reduced the number of people in the world with whom I cannot communicate.

So going by this criteria, learning Greek will definitely fire me up with the challenge of it all.  Plus, it’s a different alphabet (which ups my linguistic cred) and if I ever want to catch up with Theresa Hines-Kerry I need to get a move-on.  (She speaks seven languages at my last count.)  Greek will definitely add a lot of people to my can-communicate list, however it has nowhere near the numbers of my other three languages.  While Greek will be super-relevant for three months, it likely won’t be much use after that, unless I apply to work for a study abroad provider in Greece after I graduate, which is not out of the question.

I’ll keep you posted on my trials and tribulations, and in the end work may keep me too busy, but I think what it boils down to is this: I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t try. 

Field Work

Put on:

  • sneakers: anything flip-floppy will get muddy or you’ll feel the rocks through them as you scramble up hills
  • shorts or a skirt that come to the knee, so you attract as little attention as possible.  Even though the people you interview will be wearing less.  and even though covering up more DOES NOT correlate to less attention.  more on that later.
  • deodorant.  so much deodorant.

Leave at home:

  • any flashy jewelry, sine you’re already a big enough target (for…?)
  • revealing clothing, since we’re in a Christian country with a Christian organization and a bus full of gringos is weird enough as it is

Get in a van with 14-16 other people, even if it’s only meant for 10-12.  Hope there’s air conditioning as you turn on your ipod and look out the window.  Try not to get sick from the stop and go city traffic, the lack of lanes and the pock-marked country “roads.”  When you get to a batey:

  • Leave your camera and your water bottle.  Children will want them and you probably don’t have enough to share.
  • Bring notebook, pen, and a translator if you can’t do the job for yourself.  Be prepared for conversations across 3-4 languages.

Days are long, people are unhappy, and the questions get as tired as you will be by the end of the day. You get covered in dirt and sweat and clothes stick to skin as skin sticks to vinyl and we all stick to each other as we bump along the dirt roads.  This particular survey is hard because most of the people interviewed are no longer affiliate with Esperanza.  Many of them think we can offer loans, or that we are interested in deporting or arresting them.  Some cry, some yell, some won’t speak to us.  Some talk about us when they think we can’t hear them, some hug us, some want pictures, some glare.  Almost all ask when we’re coming back.  And the answer is never.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

But I’m Dominican

After a brief chat with our bus driver about logistics with Esther, I asked his name: Aristidos.

Ah! Como el presidente de Ayiti, Aristide

Si, pero (shakes head vigorously) nooooo.  Soy dominicano!

It seems no one here wants to be Haitian or even vaguely associated with that 1/3 of the island.  When I was in Mata los Indios in March, kreyol-speaking Haitian-born people were insistent that they were Dominican. Even though we knew they were a majority Haitian community, so few would own up to their native tongue, instead nodding along to Spanish questions they couldn’t understand.

I really can’t blame them.  Haitians can’t get papers (or cédulas, the state-issued id cards) which means they cannot get diplomas, they cannot vote, and their children cannot go to school.  And it doesn’t really matter whether they were born here, or their parents were born here.  To be Haitian is to be persona non grata.

10 Things People Say About My Travels

  1. Have you read Eat, Pray, Love?
    Good lord, no!  But might I interest you in some Ayn Rand, Ayun Halliday or Malcolm Gladwell?
  2. Have you been to___________?
    Probably not.  I’ve only been to a few places.  They just all happen to be a little scary to the average bear, and one trip right after another.
  3. Why don’t you just go where they speak English?
    I speak other languages and I want to learn more.  Also, my travel is an integral part of my education.  It is not based on areas of high booze, sex or beaches, but rather areas I want to study.  England and Australia appeal to me as a traveler, but not as a student.  It would be counter-productive and perhaps a bit unethical for me to take money from NU, the government, and my parents to go abroad for non-educational purposes.
  4. Wasn’t it scary?  And don’t they just treat women like crap? And aren’t they awful?  (you get the picture…)
    No!  I promise!  I really have enjoyed everywhere I have gone, and I have never felt truly unsafe.  I research where I go pretty heavily, and I have turned down opportunities because I deemed them unsafe.  And if you come away from reading this blog thinking the people were awful and mistreated women everywhere I went, then I’ve failed.  I tell it like it is, and that means mentioning the harassment.  But I also get an alarming number of doors opened for me, and strangers who make sure I’m not lost, and people giving me presents at random.  It’s a mixed bag, like anywhere else.
  5. I wish I could do that!
    You can!  And please do!  If you’re in college, travel is super-easy.  If you go to Northeastern, absolutely no complaints out of you!  Leave a comment or shoot me an email if you want help figuring out how you can go abroad.
  6. But did you go sky-diving/bungee jumping?
    Absolutely not.  I think I would vomit profusely if I ever tried.  It doesn’t really appeal to me, and that’s a lot of money for something I don’t have any interest in.  We don’t all have the same tastes or the exact same experience on study abroad, even if it sometimes seems that way.  I prefer wandering around a city solo, meeting little kids, going to lectures and impromptu fun over the dare-devil type stuff.  I guess I’m just not that brave.
  7. Stop going to scary places!
    Again I say: absolutely not.  Also, as the person who actually went, they’re not so scary.  My old apartment in Roxbury was scarier than anywhere I’ve been abroad.
  8. Is that from place x/y/z?
    While I do LOVE to buy jewelry, clothing, decorations and accessories from abroad, lots of it is just Made in China and sold at H&M.  Sorry, I’m just not that exotic.  And suitcases are small.
  9. …But I bet it cost a ton of money
    It didn’t!  I swear!  Look for a dedicated post on this soon, but Financial Aid and my NU scholarships applied, so that certainly helped.  Also, I would be going to school anyway and nothing cost much over tuition.  Finally, I go to developing countries where my dollar goes farther, and I’m a pretty frugal person in general.  So I live happily average at home, and abroad I can often stretch that to average with many nights of excess if I feel like it–but I usually just save it for my next trip!
  10. You went to…Turkey (or Lebanon or Costa Rica or South Africa or wherever), right?
    Hehe no, but that’s fine.  I don’t expect everyone to remember everywhere I went and when and why, especially if you don’t see me that often.  Let’s make a deal: don’t get mad if I forget the names and schedules of your kids, and I won’t get mad when you forget all my countries.  Just don’t refer to them as “vacations”!

Learning the Language Matters

I’m sick of reading posts by bloggers who assure you it’s okay, they had a magical and revelatory experience in a foreign country wherein they knew basically none of the language. 

Good for you. 

Do you know how we treat people in America who don’t learn the language?  Like dirt.  Even if someone knows the language but has a little trouble, or a bit of an accent, we give them a hard time.  We insinuate that they’re clueless or stupid, and make jokes about their lack of credentials.  We say, “It’s AMERICA, learn ENGLISH!”

Do people even understand the phrase doesn’t work that way? At least, “We’re in England, learn English,” works rhetorically, but the America one just makes you sound ignorant.   

Every time someone goes abroad and doesn’t even have to try the language, they’re demonstrating a tiny bit of why people hate America.  We get whatever we want, and no, we’re not working hard for it.  We just collectively have so much money and pull, and other countries have so little, that they have to accept our 2.5 gpa English-only students. 

Don’t pat yourself on the back for getting by with gestures.  Try moving away from the backpacker code or the study abroad rut and learn something real about the place you’re going to.  Something that doesn’t involve alcohol, hooking up or a beach.  Maybe it will involve a local meal for more than just the one token time, which inevitably will become a blog post or oft-repeated story.  Or try spending time with people who are not also fellow travelers, people who are not expats from your country or a place where they speak your first language. 

If you’re just going to sit around speaking English, hanging out with western people and going to bars and the beach, you may as well just stay home or go to a resort.  Make it a cheap and dirty one if you’re a backpacker.

I know there are many languages out there, and it is unreasonable to limit your travel just because you don’t know them all.  But can’t you at least put in a little effort, a little respect?  If you can’t even handle a few conversational phrases, why not try to learn some basic information about the country.  Learn some history or about a prevalent religion. 

I’m all about traveling, but if you’re just going to take advantage of American privilege and stay in a bubble, then why are you leaving the country?  Show some respect and make the most out of your time.