Thursday, June 9, 2011

Pre-Departure Orientation: Safety, Security and Secondary Language Learning

Greetings from Washington D.C.! 

I arrived in the sweltering Washington D.C. yesterday afternoon for pre-departure orientation. There are only four of us at this orientation session! While American Councils' Eurasian Regional Language Program (ERL) organizes various trips, there are a select handful of students interested in venturing out to the Caucuses and Central Asia. The most popular ERL programs are to Russia and Tajikistan (Tajik is very similar to Farsi). There is Sarah, a candidate for an MA in international affairs venturing off to Yerevan, Armenia to study Armenian and research the country's agriculture and development for her MA thesis -- best of luck to you Sarah! Then Vadem is a bubbly Ukrainian-native who grew up outside of Philadelphia. She is off to Tbilisi, Georgia for the summer to study Georgian. Given her Ukrainian background, Vadem has a unique perspective on the region that I find fascinating -- I can't wait to hear about her experiences. Finally, there is Roberto, a candidate for a PhD in history, who is also off to Almaty to study Kazakh for his dissertation research. There is also another student, Anton, on the Almaty program, but he lives in Kazakhstan so we will meet him there! It is such a privilege to meet such a group of high-caliber, interesting individuals with a passion for Central Asia and the Caucuses!

The four of us met with the Washington, D.C.-based program director last night and this morning and discussed everything from how to live with a host family, to cultural taboos, gender roles and overcoming the inevitable stomach ache. We also discussed the Eurasian academic environment and secondary language learning.

I found the most interesting component of orientation was the discussion of maximizing language learning abroad through self-management with the President of American Councils, the gracious Dr. Dan Davidson. Without a doubt, living as a guest in the country, fully immersed in the national culture, way of life and language, forces language acquisition. But it is important to not get overwhelmed with the language, but to take advantage of the people around you -- look at their reactions, appreciate the feedback of native speakers. In an American classroom, if you say a sentence correctly, you get an "A"...but does that mean you are capable of using the language in a real-world environment? A complete immersion experience turns everyday life into a language laboratory ripe for learning not just how to apply grammar rules, but how to speak, think and use the language correctly in a realistic context. How does one deal with this in a two-month period? First, take advantage of the pauses in speech and the linguistic pattern. So often, we are eager to say the next thing on our mind, instead of stopping to reflect on what we just said, receive feedback, and then restate our initial thought. Stop, reflect, reiterate and take notes. Salvage the valuable opportunity to learn even just one word. This process of dialogue and reflection is what Dr. Davidson calls "self-management," which is undoubtedly the greatest challenge for me. But it is a challenge I am ready to take on!

I come out of orientation excited for Almaty, nervous for the unknown, and prepared for a summer of intensive linguistic self-management! Best of luck and safe travels to Sarah, Vadem and Roberto!

Until next Almaty!

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