Listen to the audio version of this post

** Get future posts by email **

“Mano, pwede ngadto ha City Hall?” I called to a pedicab driver slouching casually in the afternoon sun.

The driver looked up, pondered my statement for a moment, then dropped his jaw as if sucking on an invisible egg. This being the Filipino nonverbal sign for “I have no idea what you just said and I suspect you might very well be an idiot.”

Three months into learning the local dialect, Waray-Waray, I had been feeling pretty confident about my language skills. I could converse about the weather, about food, about my work and the Peace Corps, about how to get around town. But now this insouciant pedicab driver threatened to destroy my self-assurance.

Full disclosure: my absolute greatest fear when I received my nomination to serve in the Peace Corps was that I wouldn’t be able to speak my host country’s language. In high school I’d studied Latin. Which on the one hand is a pretty schway language: it’s fascinating etymologically (amicus–>amicable), historically (”The die is cast”), it’s handy on SAT and GRE tests (flagitious, galactophagist, heliotrope), and it taught me grammar better than any English class (amo, amas, amat, amamis, amatis, amant). But studying Latin also meant never learning conversational stuff.

Plus this: I was twenty-nine years old and my brain wasn’t getting any younger.

Each of the six volunteers in my group had a different approach to language acquisition. Evan had a degree in linguistic anthropology and consistently put the rest of us to shame with his complex questions. Kevin spoke Spanish already and had a knack for getting words to stick in his brain upon first hearing. Heather, even though she’d learned French during an au pair experience, was the shy one in the group and always doubted her ability. Sarah and Celia were quiet but steady learners.

And me? I guess I was the notecard guy. By the end of training I had a couple hundred notecards each with five to ten words or phrases. So I guess vocab was my strong suit. But notecards can only get you so far.


[1961 Peace Corps trainees in language lab]

Luckily, during the 3 months of immersive language training I saw why Peace Corps is considered one of the best ways to learn a new tongue. Every morning we had 4-hour long language sessions with a native speaker. Our teacher, Romy, would take us on field trips to the local merkado or the post office or the bus station to roleplay real-life situations.

On top of this, we were living with host families and we were living in the community so it wasn’t long before the common colloquial greetings I lacked in Latin came easily in Waray-Waray. Maybe because we looked different, or maybe because Filipinos are such friendly people, I got practice responding to “Where are you going?” and “Where have you been?” twenty or thirty times a day. And I quickly discovered that the best teachers were the children: always patient, always employing simple sentences, never hesitant to correct, and most important, infinitely supportive.

Which is not to say there weren’t challenges. Waray-Waray is almost exclusively a spoken, rather than written language. Multiple spellings are acceptable. On jeepneys you’ll see the word for “straight ahead” spelled as “diretso” “deritso” and “derecho,” and pronounciation is equally variable.

And then there’s the fact that the pronunciation of “fried chicken” is rather similar to “fried mosquito” [prito manok vs. prito namok]. Or that “I am married” is almost identical to “I have a python” [may asawa vs. may sawa].

But things have a way of working themselves out: after more hapless attempts to explain to the pedicab driver where I wanted to go, a flash of recognition finally spread across his face. “Aw!” he beamed. “Shitty Hall!” [the Waray word for 'city' is 'siuydad,' from the Spanish 'ciudad,' hence the 'sh' sound].

I guess my point is that, for me, learning a language was kind of like learning the rules to a very complex game. A board game with a bunch of pieces arrangeable in infinite configurations. If you fit them together in the right way, other people will fit other pieces together in response, and then it’s your turn again. It’s a game the locals knew very well.

And to my surprise, after 3 months, I could sort of kind of play the game. When our Language Placement Exam–a twenty-minute conversation with a native speaker– rolled around, I was surprised to find myself ranked at the “Advanced-low” metric. This supposedly meant that I was “able to handle a variety of communicative tasks, although somewhat haltingly at times.” I could apparently “participate actively in most informal and a limited number of formal conversations on activities related to school, home, and leisure activities.”

To be truly, technically accurate, this rubric also should’ve noted that the speaker usually sounds like a three year-old with a speech impediment who really likes to talk about the weather or food and always announces in a big voice where he’s going because that’s one of the few things he’s confident saying. But heck, let’s not squabble over technicalities.