Monday, November 23, 2015

Sri Lankan journey: First day of language lessons

The goal of the Fulbright is cultural and educational exchange. In a place like Colombo it's relatively easy to get around with only English. But how much poorer the experience is without being able to understand the conversations around you. 

Everywhere in Sri Lanka signs are in English. You can start to sound out the letters. But it's so great to be able to start reading. 

Last May when I visited I asked whether Janet and I would be able to take Singhala lessons, which are geared for the English Teaching Assistants (ETAs), I was overjoyed when I was told of course we could sit in. I love languages and I'm super interested in parsing them out. Mostly when we travel I do this in a piecemeal, amateurish, and I have to say slightly pedantic fashion. Poor Janet puts up with it and even humors me. How exciting is it to be here, immersed in Singhala and being taught professionally!

Of course in language learning the ideal is a lot less work than the real. Is our teacher trying to kill us by making us count up to 14? Do I really have to know the word for newspaper when all I have to do is find the one I want once I've identified a newsstand? These are theoretical questions I guess. Because the stuff that turns me on is not what other people may value learning. Dative or generative cases are so cool and the diacritics that modify Singhala letter sounds in 12 different ways are amazing. 

To me another great thing about language learning is learning to recognize similarities among disparate languages. In Singhala it's challenging. Is the word for table "mese" a borrowing from Portuguese or is it the same word as in the Romance languages shared through history and geography by means of a Sanskrit bridge? There are many similar examples but then there are the cool things like "oyate," (to you) where the "t" sound has been retained in both English and Singhala. Other words like "ready" (laesti) must be cognates. For example the Spanish word for ready: listo

So there we have it. The agony and the ecstasy of language learning. As with every other aspect of this amazing Fulbright experience the whole thing is in our hands. Nothing is "required," everything is up to us, and we hold the keys to our success in our own hands. A pretty big responsibility but a great privilege as  well. 

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