Going on a study abroad trip made me really nervous. I tend to be quiet anyway, and I was worried about making mistakes. What if no one understood me? What if I was too quiet or didn’t learn fast enough? Would the whole trip be wasted?
When I first arrived in-country, it seemed my fears were justified. I learned a new word that I attempted to use with my host family, but it sent them into gales of laughter. Apparently I had mispronounced it, saying something totally different than I intended!
Later, I was sent to the market for a clove of garlic. The market was located in an old supermarket building, so I assumed that I had misheard and that it was a regular store, like any other. Ha! Not so… Once inside, I found garlic easily enough, but then I was baffled: where were the cash registers? Whose garlic was I buying? As it turned out, each stand in the building had a separate owner, and I happened to have found the garlic shortly after that seller had stepped away for a break. By the time she returned, I was thoroughly confused: I had had interesting but mostly incomprehensible conversations with the meat sellers, the bread seller, and the owner of the other vegetable stand, and a random passerby or two. Boy, was I glad to make my purchase and get back to more familiar territory! And I thought myself an incompetent fool for the next few days.
But then, something happened that completely changed my perspective. I received some bad news from home, and needing comfort, I told my host mom about it. She immediately understood, and gave me exactly what I needed: sympathy and kindness. Somehow, in this whole pursuit of language-learning, I had forgotten that the most important thing about language is that it allows you to connect with people. What computer translation program could do that?
To drive the point home, as I did homework from my language classes in the park one day, I asked a young couple sitting nearby to check my work. We began a delightful conversation about simple things, and I came away with a better grasp of my homework and I was encouraged by the progress I had already made. And they were glad to meet someone who actually wanted to learn their language and better understand them.
So I am already convinced that this trip is not a waste of time, money or effort. It has taught me a shockingly underrated lesson: people are important, universally. With that in mind, my initial worries seem irrelevant, even if they are valid concerns. Of course we sometimes miscommunicate, even if we speak the same language! But having made mistakes, I now have a much clearer and stronger focus: “How can I meet as many people as possible before I leave?”
By: Hannah Shipman
Program: Russian Language & Area Studies, Moscow, Russia
Term: Summer 2019