I know my final language score! But, I’m going to withhold that a bit longer so that I can highlight what I realize is more important: Being able to communicate in a foreign language. Clearly there’s a correlation between official placement on the language continuum and ability to communicate, but I think with language, it’s less clear than with other things that are progressively learned, like math. Meaning that additional grammar, vocabulary, and cultural idioms are obviously going to get your message across more easily, but that absent these things, it is still possible to be understood. But you can’t do algebra without being able to multiply.
Awhile back I had a phone call from my Mongolian mom while I was skyping with my American Mom. Since phone calls with Mongolians tend to be pretty short, I suggested that my mom hang on. She did and while she was waiting, she got to hear me speak in Mongolian. Now, based on this 3 or 4 minutes of eavesdropping, my mom would probably tell you that I’m fluent because that’s the kind of exaggeration that mom’s do, or at least my mom. She has no idea that my host mom and I were merely talking about the weather, work and other rote pleasantries. And she has no idea the number of times I said “I don’t understand” or “say that again.”
Because I can’t communicate in Mongolian with the effortlessness that I would like to, it’s easy to overlook how much I DO know. And that became clear last week. Seven young missionaries are visiting Mongolia (from the US, Canada, South Korea, and Indonesia). These young people graciously attended our English club and allowed our students to interview them. They were patient, spoke clearly and asked questions in return. It was a significant opportunity for our students, for both speaking practice and listening exposure to different native accents, and the non-native but fluent speakers from South Korea and Indonesia.
Following the class, the ten of us (7 visitors and 3 PCVs) went out to dinner at Altai’s 24-hour guanz. We pointed out the chalkboard menu on the wall only to realize that 1) they couldn’t read it and 2) even if they could read it, they wouldn’t understand the words. So, we explained the difference between huushuur and tsuivan and “un-dukh-tai horokh” (a stir fry with egg, which is what I had). It’s amazing the confidence boost you get when you’re in the position where ANY bit of language knowledge is a huge advantage over no knowledge.
Unrelated to language, but to complete the picture for you: They had been in Mongolia for 4 days and had already tried the traditional suu-tai tsai (milk-tea); they didn’t have a taste for it. While they drank their grape or orange fantas or minute maid orange juice, it is an integration WIN that all three of us PCVs had suu-tai tsai with our meals, as I always do when I dine out here.
And, on an even less related-to-communication note, I had Mongolian food 5 consecutive days last week. I’m very aware that my countdown-to-leaving clock is ticking (a month to go) and with every experience I wonder “is this the last time?” Except that I haven’t asked “is this my last huushuur?” which is probably because I know I’ll seek it out before I go, and when it is the last, I’ll know. Maybe I won’t crave it when I’m gone, but maybe I will miss it after all.