In order to grow we must find ways to challenge ourselves. Living in our native country, we take for granted the privilege of easily navigating complex social situations. We do not have to struggle to make ourselves understood when we go out in public. We do not have to work at understanding the basic processes of daily life, like government forms, instruction manuals, or websites. As a result of this ease we become mentally flabby, and we might even slip and think that our experience is universal, at which point we can no longer sympathize with those who struggle. My immersive Oromo class has forced me to start at square one, where I can no longer take for granted the very basics of self-expression, and will hopefully lead me to more sophisticated, sympathetic thinking.
This class reminds me that immersion is the only way to learn langauges. Any computer application will be second-best. Through immersion I get alternating input of over my head and back at my level. I’m forced to use the language at my initiative according to my situation, and I see immediately the effectiveness of my language use. Note that I say “effectiveness” and not “accuracy.” I don’t care about accuracy at this point; I just need to get what I want, like a two-year-old. My wonderful teacher and kind classmates are helpful in that way. Like a family, they sometimes correct me and sometimes just respond. I’m so fortunate to find an immersion experience closer than 10 miles from my house!
Before coming to my second lesson in Oromo, I realized I needed to teach myself the basic greetings. I learned how to say “hello,” “how are you?”, and “what’s your name?” I kept “cheat sheets” next to me for “I don’t know” and “I don’t understand.” I arrived to class about 20 minutes early, and my dear teacher was already there, so he helped me with the different greetings for different times of day (morning especially) and their responses. He also gave me a quick run-down of some of the dialectical differences of Oromo. (There are three main dialects of the language.)
As soon as the first student came, I had to get to him before my teacher did. “Hello! How are you? What’s your name?” I managed to get out. Thanks to the quick dialect lesson, I learned that this student speaks a different dialect than the teacher, so what seemed esoteric at first was quite helpful.
When the other students came, class was under way, so I couldn’t try out my greetings on everyone. It was all Oromo again. Most of the lesson covered long (“hard”) and short (“soft”) consonants, which represent distinct phonemes in Oromo. The exercises on the projector were fill-in-the-blank using Oromo proverbs. Because of my language experience, I could hear the differences, so I was able to answer the questions as soon as another student said the correct word. When there were four possible responses, I could say the letter of the multiple choice; when there were two, I asked how to say “first” and “second,” so I got to practice those.
I didn’t want to intrude on the Oromo flow, so I tried not to speak English. I practiced a lot of very practical words, such as “pronunciation” and “meaning.” I would sometimes forget “what” so I came off a little like a two-year old when I would say, “Meaning? I don’t understand. Meaning! Huh? Meaning! Pronunciation? Thank you!”
After class I was able to chat with some of the other students, so I could ask in turn, “What’s your name?” They were helpful and pedagogical as they responded in full sentences, “My name is ______.” I may be the first Caucasian they’ve seen try to pronounce their language, so it likely catch them a little off-balance.
To become a reflective, intelligent person, one must become a good thinker and communicator, and to become a better thinker and communicator, one must challenge one’s normal thinking and communicating skills. Immersive language experience forces you to try really hard to make a single comprehensible utterance. Then, not only do you become smarter, but also more humble.
The great residual lesson was Oromo proverbs! The best one about the value of hard work is, “He who doesn’t know how to grind eats the grain.” I’m certainly sucking on the grain in this class, but I hope to start grinding at least a little bit.