During PST we were taught two Mongolian songs to be performed for our Family Appreciation Night and our Swearing-In Ceremony. I can imagine that someone would think this is a superficial or cheap way to ingratiate the newly minted PCVs into the culture. But anyone who thinks that doesn’t know Mongolians. Singing is big here. Our songs were two of dozens of folk songs that we were given, surely a subset of many more that everyone here knows.
My language teacher asked if I wanted to sing one of the songs solo, and while I wasn’t sure how much I wanted to, not really knowing the words and having little time to learn, I couldn’t say no to the opportunity. I don’t claim to be anything more than an amateur singer, which will probably prompt comments from loving and supportive family and friends 😉 But ego-boosting isn’t necessary since I care less about being great and more about having fun and creating fun for others even if it’s at my expense. And let me tell you, that first performance was pretty bad. I couldn’t remember the words, and even with my cheat sheet I got lost with the music. Still everyone applauded; my efforts, I’m sure. By the time of the Swearing-In Ceremony, I had worked it out: no cheat sheet, no music, 2 verses instead of 3.
Ayni Showoo (Traveling Bird) has become my signature Mongolian song. I’ve been to two wedding receptions (one in a swanky UB apartment, another in a Govi-Altai ger) where, in accordance with custom, each guest is expected to lead a song. Sometimes people join in; sometimes you’re on your own. Either way, it’s a unifying experience: to sit silently, observing, sometimes joining the laughter and not knowing why, only to bust out a song in the native language on command. It feels good.
Russian is the other big language that students here study. A few times, in language class, we were taught two words because some of the Russian words remained after the Russians left Mongolia. Tomato is either R: pomidor or M: ulaan lool, dress is either palaaj or dashinz, I can’t remember which is which. So many people have said they speak Russian that I wondered if they spoke Russian like I speak Spanish, poorly.
Last week was touted as Foreign Language Week and my CP (who I found out won the Russian speaking competition in her day, and is much more comfortable speaking Russian than English) organized a singing and dancing competition in both Russian and English. But when no one signed up for English songs, Foreign Language Week became Russian Week.
I came to Mongolia with loose plans to do something theater related, taking the dialogues students learn and bringing them to life or maybe even creating our own situations and dialogues. My underlying thought being that having the script would give students confidence that their words were correct, allowing them to focus on delivery. I held on to this during PST in our Community Development and Needs Assessment trainings which explained the difference between a Problem-Solving approach and an Appreciative-Inquiry approach. Basically, one says “here’s what you need” and the other asks “what do you need? and what do you already have?” The American tendency is to opt for the Problem-Solving approach, which is difficult to enact when resources are scarce.
About the time of my first classroom visits, when one group of students asked me to sing and another group sang to me, my vision for instilling confidence with speaking English morphed from theater to song. The kernel of the idea was One Song, One Night: take a song in English, explain what it means—without translating it!—teach the words to the song, and perform as a group. For fun. No pressure. I shared this idea with my language tutor, who is one of the English teachers, and a few days later she told me her school director gave us permission to do it there. What? I wasn’t asking for permission! I was just talking! And, I may have kept talking about it for two years if she hadn’t taken the initiative.
So, tonight’s the night. I have no idea what to expect. I spent the weekend deciding on Adele’s Set Fire to the Rain, and many hours choosing pictures to explain what the song means… like, how there’s no fire, and no rain… how the song is just a giant metaphor for going from hurt and crying to red-hot angry. And, if you’re going to sing the song with any conviction, knowing the words alone isn’t enough, and translating the words to your native language does nothing to get that message across.
Just as Reading Rainbow was focused on getting kids to want to read, not teaching them how, my English Song Night aims to get kids to want to sing in English. That alone won’t teach them English, but it might make them want to learn another, and another. One English Song Night at a time.