The Challenges and Joys of ERLP Online

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, AC Study Abroad programs were held virtually during Summer 2020.

Soon after I submitted my application to ERLP’s summer Dari program, it became clear that there was no way for it to go forward safely considering COVID-19’s rapid spread. Although I had recently been sent home from college to finish the semester on Zoom, I was surprised to see ERLP would also be able to adapt to distance learning for its language offerings.

Would the wifi be good enough? How would the 12-hour time difference work? And how do you do cultural activities over Zoom?? While I had no idea how the program would work, the time, effort, and thought that I heard went into adapting the program convinced me to continue with it despite the changed medium.

Now that I’m halfway through the program, I can say that, in brief, ERLP has kept up its intensive focus while giving us students more flexibility. While two-hours of class every morning feels grueling, during the mid-class break, I can reward myself by meandering downstairs to the coffee machine, throwing a snack into the microwave, or chatting briefly with my grandparents in the living room.

I’ve gotten deep into the rhythm of learning Dari, spending 8 to 10 a.m., Monday to Friday, in class. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I know I’ll spend the subsequent hour learning about Tajik and Afghan culture, and on 3 days of the week of my choosing, I talk with my conversation partner, normally between 9 and 10 pm. The rest of my day is free, allowing me to hike along the Californian coastline, bake quarantine treats, experiment with cooking, work for my research assistant position with the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project, study, or anything else I want.

Photo credit: Sherine Ebadi

Despite the streamlining of the class, many things have been kept the same. Class sizes remain tiny; both the other Dari student and I are in solo classes tailored to our being a heritage speaker and having experience with Tajiki, respectively. We keep the same Dushanbe-based teachers and conversation partner as any participants other semesters might have had. We still have exposure to Afghan culture and sites of importance through videos we watch and discuss, learn about local issues through news clips, and may even add to our cooking repertoire after an upcoming demo on how to make pilaf.

That said, I can’t pretend there haven’t been trade-offs and technological issues we’ve faced along the way. In short, there’s no way to fully replicate the experience of being there in Tajikistan, interacting with the locals, or steeping our senses in the sights, sounds, and smells of the city. We’ve also had to overcome more practical issues that have popped up along the way. To this day, we clarify, emphasize, and re-clarify whose Wednesday, for instance, we’re talking about when setting up meetings as Dushanbe is 12-hours ahead. More problematically for virtual learning, though, Tajikistan isn’t known for its internet strength. Normally, it’s quite fine, but a couple of times, we’ve had to turn off our video or, to my amusement, my teacher has continued his class from inside his car where the 4G connection is inexplicably stronger.

All that said, I’ve been impressed by how ERLP has adapted to going virtual. I’ve felt myself improve rapidly and better understand the dialectal differences between Tajiki and Dari. I’ve found myself joking and laughing with all the people I’ve talked to. While remote interactions often can seem so cold and unnatural, my time with the participants, staff, and associates of ERLP has brightened up my summer from 7,000 miles away.

By: Ian Neidel

Program: Eurasian Regional Language Program

Term: Summer 2020

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