Guest Post: The Road to Albania Is Paved With Plantains

Ashley Woods - Albania

G’day all. :)

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.

Ashley Wood AlbaniaIn 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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Are There Easy Languages and Hard Languages?

easy languages

G’day all! :)

I know I don’t ask this question often enough but…

How’s your own language learning going?

Hopefully you’re staying committed and putting in some serious hours to get the successful outcome you deserve!

I’ve now been here in Korea for over 7 months and I’ve gotta say I’m starting to get pretty worn out and in need of a real holiday.

I was considering taking time out of my insane schedule to head down to the Philippines for a 1-2 week Tagalog challenge but at this stage I reckon a few days break from any kind of learning and laying on a beach with a fishing rod might be what I really need! :)

This has been a really intense time and I’ve sacrificed a lot of luxuries to hit my fluency mark in Korean up to this point (as I alluded to in this video, spending time exclusively with natives for many months is tougher than you might think). I haven’t decided exactly when I’ll leave here yet and even though I’m on a 1 year contract with my current job, other tempting opportunities have recently been offered to me in the Mid East and elsewhere.

One thing is for sure though – I refuse to leave this place until I can say mission accomplished with Korean.

When I first got here, I bragged about how I was going to divide my time between Korean, preparing for an Arabic translation exam, and maintaining 3 other spoken languages.

It didn’t take long for me to realise that spreading myself thin like that with full-time work was ridiculous. A complete and utter waste of time.

I needed focus if my Korean challenge was going to be a success so I decided that all that extra stuff had to be put on hold so I could give 100% of my time and energy to really smashing Korean. That included cutting back on blogging (hence my inactivity lately).

I have to say it has made an unbelievably noticeable difference.

Today I want to ask you something:

In your mind, what does a hard language look like? Is there such a thing as an easy language? Or is this just a false dichotomy?

The few times I’ve relaxed to watch a French movie or read something in Irish after I’ve spent many months focused on Korean, I’ve been blown away at how different they are in terms of their difficulty levels.

Some languages really do feel like a walk in the park compared to others.

Let me point out the obvious here and say that it’s all very relative to your own native language however.


Easy vs. hard languages – it all depends on your mother tongue

French is a fucking joke.”

That was the reaction I had recently when I decided to kick back with some French after spending hours racking my brain over Korean, speaking with natives all day and feeling mentally wasted.

It really feels like a piece of cake compared to Korean (and my French is not impressive).

What I found unsurprising too was that my Korean friends who are fluent in Japanese feel the same way about Japanese after studying English.

It just makes more sense to them.

Now, I’ve criticised the FSI categories in the past for what I think is an inaccurate classification of Arabic but there is a reason why these categories exist based on the approximate length of time it takes English speakers to learn certain languages.

The fact that at least half of the English language is made up of French or Latin vocabulary and another quarter or third is Germanic in origin, it makes perfect sense that you’ve got a serious head-start on any Romance or Germanic language as an English speaker.

And that’s without factoring in all the related grammar and syntax as well.

If your first foreign language is a Romance or Germanic language then it might seem like a mammoth task but it’s not until you experience a language that’s totally alien that you really start to realise how close European languages are to each other.


The adjustment period

There’s one important point I want to make here which is this:

Once you’re over the initial ‘strangeness’ of a new language, it really becomes just like any other language.

The easy/difficult dichotomy eventually disappears.

All the extra hours you’d be expected to spend on a ‘difficult’ language is really just adjustment time at the end of the day – time spent getting your head around a new writing system, new phonetics and a bizarre new structure.

One thing that I’ve noticed moving from my time last year learning Irish to this year learning Korean is that because of the totally different structure of Korean, you require a massive transformation in the way you think if you hope to communicate smoothly.

The word order alone makes this so important.

A sentence like I spoke to the man who I met yesterday at work is something like yesterday at work met man to I spoke in Korean to give you one example.

If you’re thinking with your English cap on and trying to say things like this it’s gonna be a mess!

This is why it takes so much time to adjust – it’s not just about learning vocab and rules but a complete change in the way we think.

Every language needs hard work but for some the adjustment time is definitely longer than others.
Have you found one language easier to learn than another?


This was written by .

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Comments: If you’ve got something you’d like to add to this or some constructive criticism you can do that at the bottom of this page. Just please be respectful. Any abusive or nonsensical comments will be deleted.

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