Learning to speak your “target language” (that’s Peace Corps speak for the language you’re learning) is possibly the most important part of a new volunteer's training. In many countries, to function as a volunteer you have to speak the language.
That’s not as true in South Africa where much of the population speaks varying degrees of English (although there are some volunteers in very rural areas who cannot rely on English). Nevertheless, you can be a more effective volunteer here if you have a good grasp of the language, and most volunteers make a point to use their target language as much as possible at site. Knowing even a little bit of the language does tremendously positive things for how your community views you. In many cases, people at our sites are not used to seeing outsiders try to speak the language, and speaking the language, even badly, is a great way to break the ice and demonstrate that you are trying to fit in.
Language was taught in small (2-8 people) groups by an LCF–a Language and Cultural Facilitator. LCFs are locals, who speak the language of where you’ll likely be permanently placed. They also provide a lot of education on the culture as well. A typical day during our training had 2 hours of learning with our LCF and then another 2 hours later in the day that might be a few classes combined in a less formal setting.
Our morning classes were held at the house of my LCF’s host family. We met on the patio and she taught from a flip chart.
The LCFs were not all professional language teachers, but they are all trained by Peace Corps to be language instructors. My LCF was not a professional teacher, but I was very pleased with the instruction I received from her. She taught Zulu much better than I could ever teach English, was extremely patient with our nagging questions, and did a good job of adapting to the expectations we had of a teacher–which are very different from what South Africans would expect from a teacher. In South Africa, teachers have a lot of respect and authority and are rarely questioned. In America, especially when your students are motivated, your teacher is more of a facilitator and the students often hijack lessons, demand certain kinds of material, and tell the teacher what they want to be taught. In edu-speak, this relates to the difference between “teacher-centered” and “learner-centered” classrooms. Dealing with these differing views of education within our in language groups was excellent preparation for the some of the differences we face in our schools.
I was placed into a Zulu language group. Your language group placement has lot to do with where you will be permanently placed and what people you’ll likely be near. Our language group placement happened the second week of training. It’s intense to think that a decision that has a major impact on what the next 2 years of you life will be like is made so soon after you arrive in country. But in the end things worked out.
My language group originally had 4 people in it. But our LCF left very early in training (she found a permanent job, LCF jobs only last a few months). There were no other Zulu group in our village to absorb us, so we had to be driven every morning to the neighboring village to join other Zulu groups. PST is full of challenges like this that are not anyone’s fault. I was very happy with the language group that I ended up with and I miss them a lot. You spend a lot of time with this small group of people, and you’re bound to make connections. My language group, except me, was all placed near each other (although one person has since gone home, and a married couple moved to a new site due to things totally beyond the control of them or the Peace Corps).
Although I studied Zulu, I ended up in a siSwati speaking area (I did get input into this, it was not a surprise and I love my site!). I miss speaking Zulu. Some people at my site make fun of me because I still speak Zulu sometimes without realizing it (Zulu is thankfully very close to siSwati). I do like the people who I have been placed near, but I still miss my Zulu group. I also miss my second village–the one I was bussed to every morning. I spent a lot of time there, and everyone who trained in that village except me ended up in Kwa-Zulu Natal (FAR AWAY). I spent a lot of time with about 20 people who I rarely get to see now. Such is the loneliness of a Peace Corps Volunteer.
I use my language as much as I can, even though my site is very English speaking (our English pass rates have always been near 100% at my school). It’s enjoyable to be speaking a different language and I’m glad that I worked (very) hard at learning my target language, but I feel very lucky that I can still use English when I have to.