Today’s guest post is by Ashley Wood of Atlanta ,Georgia who holds an MA in Hispanic Linguistics and speaks Spanish, German and Russian.
Ashley spoke to me recently about a project she’s planning which I think is fantastic – something that will be particularly interesting for those of you passionate about the Albanian language and culture (or the Balkans generally).
She’s currently running a unique Kickstarter campaign called Project Albanian Voices which you can check out here (scroll down to see the video). I really encourage you to get behind her and support this awesome project.
Also make sure to visit Ashley’s blog here: MusiCulture and Language.
When I was nine, my parents took me to Venezuela where my grandfather was working. They taught me how to say “no hablo español” and to say it to everyone I met. I did. It felt like I had a magic power because I could say it and make the “weird-sounding adult” stop talking. I didn’t understand what another language was and I really didn’t care. I did like the “cooked sweet bananas” though. My grandma kept correcting me, saying they were “plátanos”, but I really didn’t care. I had a new doll.
Four years later I had been introduced to Spanish in a one week course in 6 grade. I tried to communicate with some workers who were fixing our driveway. I just wanted to give them lemonade, but they didn’t understand me, and for some reason, I felt like it was my fault. It wasn’t a surprise that I decided to pick Spanish as my required language in high school. Not long afterwards, learning Spanish was my favorite thing to do. It was really more of an addiction, as fellow language learners can relate to. I liked the mechanical, almost mathematical aspects of it: If you want to show femininity in a noun, make sure your adjective ends in [a]. If you want to show that the action is in first person present tense, end the verb with an [o], and so on.
Some of my friends studied French and German, so I took an interest in those languages just because I was missing out on some inside jokes in math class. I added Russian and Latin later on in school and rounded it all out with a master’s in linguistics. I learned all of my languages academically and without study abroad, save the Spanish which I studied briefly in Mexico City and Madrid one summer. The Spanish was also easier to master because I married a Puerto Rican. Nothing like love and impressing the in-laws to motivate your language learning!
I was definitely a nerd. I liked languages, research and even writing papers. I should be a professor, right? I loved analyzing sentence structures, meaning, sounds and I thought nit-picking silly grammar rules was fun. I would be the perfect linguist; except for this one thing: people. I really liked to talk to them.
Now, you’d think linguists do a lot of that, but they don’t; or at least, not in the sense that I had thought. For every hour spent “in the field”, a.k.a. “a staged version of real life”, you must spend anywhere from 2 to 24+ hours analyzing the “data you collected”, a.k.a. “things you observed without trying to affect them, which is impossible anyway”. You become out of touch with reality this way. I realized I got way better “data” when I wasn’t officially researching, but all my notes and observations were scientifically irrelevant because of the way the data had been collected. Class and research to me were more fun than the lonely analysis that I had to perform on the data I collected. Doing that annoying bibliography and meticulously checking to make sure the period was in the right place was making me feel like I was going insane.
Fast forward to summer 2012. I was doing research in the Dominican Republic. I believe I was quite literally researching the most boring topic in the world. I was studying the way Dominicans ask questions but only in the sense of their tone of voice or “intonation” as linguists call it. As if Dominican intonation wasn’t specific enough, I was focusing on H+L* final utterances only.
Huh? Oh, excuse me; I feel asleep, what were you saying again?
Yeaaahhh. In fact, the topic is so boring that I think no one else even believed I was a Ph.D. student. One night, I was doing research in a bar and was talking to some men, who I thought had no problem with my research. It turned out that they thought I was DEA, CIA or undercover cop and were just letting me talk. They weren’t buying my story about the recording equipment research on intonation. I didn’t know it at the time, but they were part of the trafficking scene. Like so many other non-Dominicans I met there, they were using the Dominican Republic as a place to hide and conduct “business”, moving product from South America to Puerto Rico (where things are easily smuggled to the U.S. mainland). They began to whisper and look my way, clearly planning to do something bad. As they started questioning me, I realized something was very wrong. A group of Albanians who I had met the day before happened to be at the same bar and stepped in to help.They worked in a coordinated way to diffuse the situation. One took me away from the men, two more negotiated with them and the fourth blocked the door so the men who had been told to watch for us outside couldn’t get in. After about five very tense minutes, my new friends said I was free to go. They left with me and escorted me home. These people barely knew me and had vouched for my student status with their lives.
Obviously I got to know my new protectors; we had a beer and became friends. I had never heard Albanian in person before and I loved the way it sounded. I recognized some of the words that were of Latin influence, but most were totally unknown to me. They kept reminding each other to speak English to me when possible, but I insisted they not worry. I loved being completely surrounded by a language I couldn’t understand a single word of. I had spent my entire life studying languages, linguistics, and preparing properly for trips to foreign lands by learning at least the basics of every language I would need. I had never actually been in a situation like this before. It was calming. I didn’t have to talk as much. I could disengage from the conversation a little bit and focus on body language, eye movement, pitch, intonation and rhythm. I couldn’t worry about analyzing grammar or sentence structure because I couldn’t even tell where one word ended and the other began. I noticed they whistled a lot to make a point.
I have no idea how, but the less I worried about it I became, the more I understood. I asked questions, repeated words, forgot them, asked again, listened, got lost and never wrote a thing down. For the nerd that I am, this was remarkable. I went from researching Dominican intonation, bogged down with recording equipment, to sitting around with Albanian men, playing dominoes and drinking whiskey; learning completely from context. It made me feel alive to learn and not study. Since they didn’t speak Spanish, I taught them about the D.R. My biggest triumph was getting them to love plantains, both ripe (maduros) and unripe (tostones). It didn’t stop them from complaining about the lack of goat cheese and good bread in the town, but I could empathize with that myself.
I felt foolish for having been in school all those years, hiding behind the books, workbooks and audio mp3s. I honestly hadn’t noticed that I had not lived the experience of language learning but rather studied it.
The Albanian language is pretty cool and in my opinion, quite logical. It’s got a unique feature of placing an [i] or an [e] between the noun and adjective to show masculinity or femininity. For example you can see the difference in these sentences: “një pemë e lartë”, “a high tree” and “një libër i vjetër”, “an old book”. Albanian is not spoken in the same way as English and very few phrases translate literally so it makes for learning some very interesting proverbs. I have become completely obsessed with the people, culture and history.
What I found in my search uncovered the tip of a huge iceberg. Albania is the most mysterious land I have ever studied. Its people embrace foreigners with the warmth that was reserved for travelers in medieval times, yet they quarrel violently among themselves. They tolerate more than three major religions in the country, but feuds between neighbors in the same town are not uncommon. Albanians are secretive by nature, for their own protection and survival, but they are open and loving friends. It is only by the sheer stubbornness and ferocity of the Albanian people that they even have a country to call their own today. The country they have does not even encompass all ethnic Albanians, as many live in Kosovo, Montenegro, Greece, and Macedonia. The Albanian language is one of the oldest and closest surviving relatives to Proto-Indo European. Most importantly, the Albanian experience has been traditionally passed on orally. A standard script using Latin letters (as opposed to Greek or Cyrillic) has been in use since 1908, so any writings before that time are not standardized and therefore difficult to read.
The stories of the Albanian people need to be preserved and little is being done in the way of story-collection. Since a lot of Albania and the Albanian language are so unknown to most English speakers, I have started a project that aims to express immigration stories of Albanians through the lens of music and language, from the perspective of an American. It is called Project Albanian Voices and I am currently running Kickstarter fundraising campaign.
Maybe some people like isolating themselves when learning a language. Maybe it’s a private process for that person, but it is not that way for me. It is a community process. I realized that fact in the Dominican Republic about the Albanian language (probably one of the most random things that has ever happened to me). Now I have the courage express the voices of the people who changed my life. The important thing is that I learned which part of the language learning process fuels my soul.
In order to make myself happy, I had stop studying languages and start living them.
If you want to read more about Project Albanian Voices, click here.
This was written by Ashley Wood.
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