Talking like a child: Language learning for anthropology fieldwork

In preparing for fieldwork, I took a class on language training with Piers Kelly. While Piers was talking more specifically about learning in a context where a language hadn’t been written down before or had very limited resources, I think there was a nice takeaway for any learner of a second (or third, or more…) language: you will at some stage sound like ‘like a child’. That is, there will be a time when your language is clumsy, you make mistakes regularly, perhaps even laughably. But this can be useful. So tough it out.

This was certainly my experience. When I arrived in Iran, I spent approximately six months doing intensive language training, and there is no doubt, it was hard. I spent probably the first three months with nothing other than basic commands, trying to buy fruit and vegetables with a limited vocabulary, getting tenses and time words wrong, and basically making a fool of myself.

Getting better…

But the better I got at Farsi, the higher the bar was raised. I remember vividly the embarrassment I felt when talking to a teenage learner of English. I overheard a conversation between her and some Iraqi students of English literature. The young woman was asking whether the older students would teach her English, and they seemed reluctant. Offering myself as a native speaker, the young woman demurred. When I asked why, she said “I don’t want to practice in front of a native.” Why? “Because I don’t want to sound like you when you speak Farsi!”

I embarrassed myself in other ways as well. A little hard of hearing, I often tried to tell people that I was deaf, the Persian for which is ‘kar’. The problem is, a slang word for penis is only one vowel different. So I spent a lot of time calling myself a ‘kir’, or ‘dick’, in front of my friends and informants.

Over time, obviously these kind of stories became fewer and fewer, as I became more and more fluent. But even now when I’ve gone back, the embarrassment returns. I often get a lump in my throat, speaking Persian in front of native speakers who I’m not familiar with. But I now know, from experience, that the awkward mishaps can also be fruitful for building fieldwork relationships.

The benefits of a second tongue

It would be nice to wrap up this story as a kind of “don’t worry, monolingualism can be cured!” type vignette for monoglot English speakers who are too nervous or haven’t yet learnt another language. And there is an element of that to it.

But what I want to speak to is more this productiveness of embarrassment. I think it’s the fear of sounding stupid that puts people off learning a second language. In anthropology, we speak a lot about checking privileges. Who is more privileged than a straight, white, male from the West?

I don’t want to suggest that struggling with a second language made me less privileged – it certainly didn’t. But it took away some of the barriers between us. For all that I was embarrassed, when I failed at Farsi, I also made my friends in Iran relax. Speaking like an child in their native language made me somewhat more approachable, a more relatable character. Ultimately, I think it became a point of solidarity between us, a recognition of our mutual humanness, and inspired a greater willingness on my friends’ and informants’ parts to engage with my research.

So, for any budding anthropologists reading this, don’t fear the inarticulateness that comes with learning a new language. Embrace it, and the possibilities it presents.

                                                                       [Image by Alicia Wilson]

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