Margarita Valkovskaya reflects on her summer on the Eurasian Regional Language Program in Dushanbe as a Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad scholarship recipient and the connection between language and culture.
During my time in Tajikistan, I understood that language does not live in isolation from culture. A sentence may mean something to an American in direct translation, but will imply a world, a narrative, a memory, to a Tajik or in Iranian based on shared cultural experiences and norms. Learning Farsi thus requires several steps – first the “raw” parts of the language (words, grammar, letters), and afterwards – the language written between the lines; the language left unsaid.
Amusing examples of misunderstandings can arise from missing the cultural part of the language. For example, a number of expectations of polite exchange exist in Iran, known as “taoruf,” but don’t exist in Tajikistan or Afghanistan, where Farsi is also spoken. In Iran, taxi drivers, shopkeepers, etc, offer their customers to leave with the service provided or goods sold without payment, as a “gift to a guest.” They actively push this on the customer, with emotional outbursts of good will. A person uneducated in Iranian cultural norms may agree and walk out of the taxi without payment, or leave a shop without compensating the shopkeeper for a loaf of bread. This will cause much anger – the convention requires that the customer engage in a prolonged argument to pay. In Tajikistan, I often run into Tajik acquaintances whom I met only briefly, who enthusiastically berate me for not stopping by their home since our last meeting, and then invite me to come by “soon” at “any time.” After much consternation and confusion, I understood that the invitations are simple expressions of politeness, and that I ought not to show up during dinner time, uninvited.
The direct benefits of language study in an immersion environment are immense. In contrast to a typical language study experience in the US, where a student may have 3 hours of in-classroom study per week, with a few hours of homework in between, studying in Tajikistan includes 4 hours in a classroom 5 days per week. Class size is between one and 3 people at the most, which means that each student receives exponentially more personal attention and opportunities to speak Farsi and ask questions. In addition to this, Farsi is used in a 2 hour conversation “club” with a teacher, and 2 hours per week with a local conversation partner, typically a Tajik student.
At home, the language is spoken with the Tajik host family, which adds in more interactions in the language.
In my case, this daily intensive interaction with the language had great results. I arrived in Tajikistan having never studied Farsi, or any language related to Farsi in the past. Within 8 weeks, after the summer program, I received an intermediate score on the OPI exam.
I am looking forward to the improvement that will happen in the next four months, and feel very happy that I have the opportunity to stay in Tajikistan and take advantage of the advanced language study.
Farsi is considered a critical language to US national security. Just across the border with Tajikistan, US forces continue their presence to stabilize Afghanistan. I have met a number of students and other expats who live in Tajikistan in preparation for their work in Kabul in support of US or European efforts. I have also encountered a number of work opportunities for linguists and analysts to work abroad and in the US in support of the US armed forces.
Living in Tajikistan is an eye-opening experience because it is my first time living in a majority Muslim country. Islam and Eastern traditions affect many parts of life which exist in the secular sphere in the US. Clothing for women and the options available to women in life are often controlled by male household members and influenced by Tajik and Muslim traditions. It was surprising for me to discover that many people’s daily routines are very much controlled by prayer – which begins at dawn, and requires a 4/5 am wake-up call, and is scheduled at interval 5 times per day. On many occasions, my host mother leaves the dinner table and a lively conversation to complete the “Namoz,” or prayer. Something like this is considered an extreme inconvenience in the US, but is a matter of routine here. During the month of Ramadan, the daily routine is made even more difficult because fasting is prescribed during daytime. When I arrived to Tajikistan during Ramadan, the weather outside was in the high nineties, and several members of my host family had health issues due to the prolonged daily fasting. Because breakfast is eaten prior to sunrise during Ramadan, the wake up call is usually at 3am, followed by cleaning up after breakfast-time, adding to the exhaustion.
For many members of the family, the daily routine is complemented by constant visits to relatives in need of support – illness of a far removed family member requires an immediate visit by all family members. On many occasions, I have seen my host parents receive a phone call at midnight, and leave at 3am, in order to arrive at a remote village in time to support a fifth cousin once removed in his illness. Understanding the matter of fact ebbs and flows of Tajik and Muslim life is very important if I were to work as an analyst for the US government because I will be able to use my experience in Tajikistan to make conclusions and recommendations about regional security based on a more nuanced understanding of the culture and mindset of the region.
Thus far, I have spent close to four months living in Tajikistan. Every day, the country opens its secrets to me, slowly, like a budding flower. Conversation by conversation, through personal interactions with how services are provided to the population, I see the differences and the similarities that Tajikistan shares with the United States. When I arrived here in June, I thought that a thorough research on the internet would be sufficient to understand a country and its people. Now, I am understanding that physical presence and long-term immersion are far richer than academic work, or news reports. My experience in Tajikistan is invaluable, and I am sure that the next three months will teach me even more about Tajik culture and language.
About Fulbright-Hays Scholarships from American Councils
American Councils for International Education has received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad, to provide scholarships for advanced overseas Russian and Persian language study. Learn more about the eligibility requirements here.
About Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad
The Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act, commonly referred to as the Fulbright-Hays Act, was made law by the 87th U.S. Congress under President John F. Kennedy on September 21, 1961. Senator J. William Fulbright and Representative Wayne Hays introduced the legislation, which represents the basic charter for U.S. government-sponsored educational and cultural exchange. 2016 marks the 55th anniversary of this landmark legislation. More information about Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad can be found here.