AOB promotes appreciation of the languages, literature, and cultures of Bangladesh.
Our government-approved Cultural Research project offers expatiates in-class opportunities to learn Bangla (which is the sixth most-spoken language in the world, by the way) and Chittagonian (which is the local dialect, spoken by a mere fourteen million Bangladeshis). Our language and cultural center aids in increased understanding of the vibrant Bangladeshi culture, too. Students observe and participate in a wide range of activities during their formal studies. This training increases the effectiveness of AOB’s own programs and those of other international agencies in Bangladesh.
Most of the above information came directly from this website, so with these facts in mind, I recently grabbed the opportunity to interview three AOB language-learners. (Names have been changed to protect the innocent.) Let’s hear from them how their cross-cultural experience has been progressing.
Shawne: What's been most challenging part of language learning for you?
Matt: I’ll tell you, pronunciation is challenging. For example, I had to say "to-do-to-do" and "betty-betty" MANY times before I could manage to roll my "r's".
Anna: I think one of the most challenging things for me is in being compared to other language students. Bengali teachers are quick to compare students, and we students do it among ourselves. Every conversation seems to start with “What lesson are you on?” Let’s face it: some of us have special gifts in language learning; and then there are the rest of us. It has also been frustrating to not know what the expectations are for language school. As one of the students aptly put it, “Communication happens through other language students.”
Cait: We all want desperately to be able to communicate the love of God to the people we came to serve. It takes a LOOONG time to be able to do that effectively, and that process can't be rushed. If we stay frustrated and defeated in our language learning process, then Satan sidelines us from effective ministry, keeps us from being known, and from knowing the Bengali people.
Shawne: Yet each of you is pressing on through the challenges. God is certainly empowering you. What’s been the most helpful part of the process?
Matt: Bangladeshis are super willing to listen and teach me their language.
Anna: I must admit that what has been “most challenging” for me has also been “most helpful.” It has been good to commiserate with students who are either farther ahead in the program or who have struggled a lot with learning Bengali. It is encouraging to share some of our strategies and pray for each another.
Cait: Yes, it does help to realize that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses in the learning process. I’ve appreciated having a language supervisor that adjusts to a student's learning style and designs language activities that help with learning. (A big thank-you!)
Shawne: What's something funny, fascinating, or frustrating about the Bangla language?
Anna: Some Bangla words sound like naughty words in English and that makes them fun/easier to learn.
Cait: You have to be careful learning how words are used and not just their literal translation. When asking a pharmacist for a pill box, I used one of the words from my vocabulary list. Come to find out, these days that word is being used exclusively for THE PILL (i.e. birth control), not as a general word for medicine. Whoops! Talk about embarrassing!
Shawne: I know you’re learning a lot more than just the Bangla language here. What cultural experiences have you had?
Matt: To name just a few, I now can shop and bargain. I’ve been to weddings, new baby visits, pre-wedding “Turmeric Baths”, numerous ceremonies like dedications of new buildings. Just walking across the street is a cultural experience.
Anna: Traditional Bengali dance classes are fascinating, but the best experience was accompanying a mobile clinic high into the Hill Tracts this past winter.
Cait: Recently my housemate and I sang in Bangla at a hospital-sponsored event on the Bengali New Year. We’ve also marched in Chittagong with the crowds on Mother-Tongue Day to visit the martyrs’ memorial (while singing the national anthem, “My Golden Bangla”.)
Shawne: You three have been involved in a lot of cultural experiences. Would you share a cultural insight you've gained - and how you gained it?
Cait: (laughing) Being the Bangla student who recently took the longest to complete the course (and then limped across the finish line), I have several experiences I could share!
Matt: I’ve learned the importance of rice (There are 3 words just for that.) and the importance of family (There are many, many words. Your relationship to each family member has a unique term.)
Cait: I’m seeing that communication involves much more than words! The very fact that we (I) make an attempt to speak Bangla is responded to as though I have given the hearer a great gift, no matter how many mistakes I make in what I say. So many times a stranger has been astonished to hear me answer them in Bangla, and time and time again he/she thanks me for learning to speak the language. I have learned that they laugh at my Bangla to express their joy at hearing a foreigner attempt to speak in their tongue. (Sometimes they are laughing at me, but more often than not, they are just thrilled that I can understand and speak their language.)
Shawne: Would any of you like to share a funny story?
Anna: As a language student with medical training, I wanted a book that lists the available pharmaceuticals in my new host country. After successfully purchasing both an English-Bangla dictionary and a Bangla-English dictionary in one bookstore, I boldly asked for a pharmacy book that I proudly knew by name. Admitting that he did not sell this book, the shop owner pointed toward another bookshop across the street. Heady with the success of acquiring the dictionaries, Cait and I headed over to check it out.
As we climbed up a dark, creepy stairwell to the second floor, I asked Cait what her mother would think if she knew she was out doing something like this. In contrast to the stairwell, the shop we finally entered was brightly lit and showed a façade of organization. Almost every inch of the shop was filled with books. Shelves sat at all angles and were stacked to the ceiling with volumes of almost every imaginable book. Judging by many of the titles, most books were textbooks for university students. The spectrum of subjects ranged from business to medicine, computers, and beyond.
I confess I had one eye trained on reading the various titles (in search of a future source for nursing textbooks), and the other eye was on the shop worker as I made my request. He seemed confused by the title so I tried to explain the purpose of the book. Since many books titles were in English and the worker was sporting a nice set of braces on his teeth I thought he would be really quick to catch on. (I haven’t seen many Bangladeshis with braces, so I presumed he must be from a wealthy, educated family.) After several minutes of blank stares a younger shop worker left and went downstairs indicating they did not keep my book here, but he would go and get one. Good. I smiled at Cait. Things were starting to look promising. That would give me time to scan more of the titles and finger some of the other books in the shop.
Not long after his departure, the young boy came back, holding not a book but a lovely pair of pink-framed sunglasses with sparkly diamonds set on the sides. I’m not sure if I was able to effectively conceal my surprise or confusion, but the young boy wanted me to look them over. Cait and I shook our heads and tried again with still more determination to make our request for the pharmaceutical book. We tried English; we tried Bangla. It looked like we were winning the battle in at least explaining that we were looking for a book, but the boy still wanted to know if we didn’t want those glasses too? Ahhh…Nope.
After another short time our young friend returned with the book. He actually had two copies. One was the bona fide book straight from a publisher; the other was photocopy version. There was a significant difference in price, of course. After paying for my purchase, my friend and I headed for home still shaking our heads as to what had transpired up there with the sunglasses. I may NEVER get the connection.
Shawne: So tell us: did you buy those pink-framed sunglasses, Anna?
Anna: No, though I now wish I had. I’d like to think the little fellow found our Bangla so inspiring that we would need those sunglasses for such a “bright future” in language learning!