Saturday, January 5, 2008

Why Learn Samoan?


The major emphasis and more than half the time spent during our 13 weeks of Peace Corps training is spend on learning Samoan. Peace Corps trainees are expected to reach the level of low intermediate as determined by international standards. The test is given by a certified independent language tester. The low intermediate level is what I call the “Survival Level”. It allows you to greet people, find out a little about them, buy food, and get around on public transportation. Language training is a period of great stress on trainees. Yet now living in a rural village for the past six months, I have to ask whether all the stress and emphasis placed on language training is really worth it?

Certainly knowing common greetings and customary phrases helps to establish rapport with Samoans. It shows you are making an effort to be a part of their culture, but to do my job as a Peace Corps Volunteer; I have to do it in English.

When Samoans are asked what they want most, they respond, “learning English and computers”. In the book “My Samoan Chief” written over 40 years ago by an American married to a Samoan, when asked the same question, Samoans responded “learning English and typing”. Not much has changed since then.

The entire Samoan educational system is geared to teaching English. If you know English, you get to go on to college, get an office or clerking job in the city of Apia. Government workers speak English. If you want to go to New Zealand, Australia, or the US for a job, you need English. Without knowing English, you are left behind, condemned to your rural village forever.

People in my village want to improve their lives. They want to learn some English so they are not intimidated when they meet a Samoan or foreigner who speaks it. Even those adult Samoans who had English while in school find speaking even a few words daunting.

I am coming to the realization that instead of worrying about my floundering Samoan, I should be helping adults improve their English. If I truly want to be effective in helping with the development of my village and to help them help themselves, it is going to have to be in English. This is my epiphany and gospel for today.

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