peace corps

How to learn a language in 6 easy(ish) steps

I’m currently in the throes of my penultimate English Course and I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways we learn language. For the sake of this I’m talking mostly about spoken language—not written. For me, learning to speak a language was different than learning to write it. Messing up the grammar doesn’t matter as much in a conversation as it does in a paragraph. So, I wanted to share some tips and tricks I’ve learned with all of you.

  1. Listen to the language—Watch tv, listen to music, listen to podcasts. Anything that you enjoy listening to can be found in another language. Here’s the important part: you don’t need to understand it. This isn’t an exercise to practice knowing what they’re saying. It’s a way to accustom your ear to the way that language sounds and its incredibly helpful.
  2. Use subtitles—This is another way to help accustom your ear if the first method isn’t totally working for you. Watch a movie or tv show with the subtitles on in the language that you’re trying to learn. This can help you make connections between the words and how they sound that you might not make as easily by just listening.
  3. Talk to yourself—I know it sounds crazy but while you’re walking around your house by yourself just have a one-sided conversation in the language you’re learning. If that feels weird then talk to your cat, dog, or plants! This will get you accustomed to forming the language.
  4. Talk to people who speak the language—Maybe you have friends who know this language or maybe there’s a church group or community group that you can join. Speaking the language with a native speaker will help you improve by leaps and bounds. Bonus points if you ask the people you’re chatting with to correct you if you make major mistakes in what you’re saying!
  5. Use an app or an online service to help you—I’m personally a major fan of Duolingo because it’s free and makes you practice listening and speaking. Plus, it now has a bot program for some of the languages so you can practice having conversations!
  6. Travel—Obviously this isn’t feasible for everyone but, if you’re able to go to an area where the language you’re learning is the native language then do it! Being there will completely immerse you in the language and force you to learn more.

The biggest thing that you can do when learning a new language is to practice as much as possible. If you want a good resource for listening check out this site for slow news broadcasts in other languages.  An excellent choice for Spanish learners is Radio Ambulante, an NPR podcast in spanish that talks about under-reported stories in Latin America. I hope some of these tips are helpful to you! If you’re ever stressed while learning another language remember: ¡Si se puede!

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peace corps

A tourist trap worth seeing

There are some touristy parts of Panama that I avoid. The canal never really interested me much though I’ve been twice now. But there is a hidden gem in Panama City that had gotten rave reviews so I had to check it out. That hidden gem is the BioMuseo!img_2863.jpg

The BioMuseo, or Bio-Museum, was architecturally designed by Frank Gehry who is known for his innovative and often grandiose designs. It is all about the biodiversity of Panama; el Puente del mundo (the bridge of the world). If you’re ever in Panama I highly recommend coughing up the $18 non-resident price (or $10 if you’re a resident aka a PCV) and visiting the museum. From albrook mall it’s just a $4 taxi! Okay, now that we’re through the actual costs, what is there to see? When you enter the museum, you’re greeted by exhibits explaining what biodiversity is and denoting species that have been discovered in Panama. Then there’s a wall of all the species that exist in Panama. The ones in red are in danger of extinction while the ones in black have already gone extinct. The plaques in gray are the things that contribute to species extinction. The biggest threat? Humans.IMG_2870 (2)

From there you move into a movie theater where screens cover the walls, ceiling, and even floor! Here you’ll watch a short film about the biodiversity of Panama and, if you’re lucky, there will be a school group there so you can hear the guide explaining things and watch kids flap their arms like birds when cued. After the film, you step out into rocks and fossils! This was by far one of my favorite parts because I really enjoy geology AND I solved a mystery that’s been bugging me for a while! Backstory: wayyyyy back in the beginning of my service I hiked out to some petroglyphs near my site (you can read the blog post about them here) and I was really confused by this carving of what appeared to be an elephant. Now flash forward to me wandering around looking at fossils and pre-historic animals of Panama. Suddenly, I see it! Cuvier’s Mastodon—a giant species that was related to elephants and lived in the Americas until roughly 11,000 years ago. The carving must not have been an elephant, but a mastodon! Which also means that those petroglyphs are crazy old.

From there you learn about animals that roamed Panama and then move forward into learning about the history of Panama—the people and cultures that pre-date us and helped to form what we have here today. But I don’t want to spoil it all for you; you’ve got to see it for yourself! And if you come after December of 2019 you’ll be able to check out a new exhibit—the aquarium!

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Journey to the Past

Sometimes in life it’s good to just go out on a whim and say “Yes!” to things. That’s how I managed to go from singing at a karaoke bar to seeing REAL HUMAN SKELETONS all in the span of about 10 or less hours. Did I catch your attention?


El Caño is an archaeological site in Aguadulce; a town in Coclé. In 1973 the land had been purchased and it was to be turned into a sugar cane field. However, when they started tilling they found pottery and other remnants of civilizations past. Namely; tombs. What they had thought were naturally formed hills were actually man-made graves to entomb important people in society. What did some of these important people do? Some were hunters—we can tell this from the necklaces they were wearing when they were buried. The ones that were buried in boxes were shamans, artists, and doctors. When these people died their bodies were placed on a table to decompose. While they decomposed birds would eat the body. This was thought to purify the body before burial—in fact they wouldn’t bury a body at all! They would bury the skeleton.


Don’t worry—It gets even more interesting. These people believed in reincarnation so when the chief died they killed his entire posse along with him. That means family, servants, even pets! They would all be buried alongside him so that he could take them with him to his next life. Now if you’re wondering how a seemingly monarchal system functioned if all the heirs were killed, I’m with you. Luckily, ancient society had a solution for this. The chief would have many wives and the first that gave birth to a son was called the Espaver. She wore short skirts and covered the visible parts of her body in gold. The son that she gave birth to was the only one not killed alongside the family and would take over the role of chief.


Parts of El Caño are still being unearthed. They discovered the tomb of a king that stretches 500 acres! What we know is that the bodies discovered here are of an indigenous pre-Columbian people that were highly spiritual and had many rituals for taking care of their dead. They believed in reincarnation and cleansing bodies before burial. And, were it not for someone looking to plant some sugar cane, we might never have discovered them.

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Astonishing

on the crest

There are a lot of similarities between Peace Corps service and mountain climbing. Here are just a few of them:

  • There are easy paths and difficult ones
  • It’s way better to have a team with you
  • There are lots of bugs involved
  • It’s probably helpful to have a machete

I’m the small brown speck in the picture above. You can’t see my face but at this point in the hike I was debating if I really had to go all the way to the top crest of this mountain. From below it looked crazy steep and it definitely seemed like there would be some mild rock climbing involved. I was tired and pretty gross and some people had already decided to hang back so it would’ve been so easy to not do it. I decided to go up just a little further and see what it looked like up close. The rocks that had to be climbed ended up being a lot bigger than they had looked from my brown-speck-spot; easier to imagine as stairs that required both your hands and feet. So rock by rock I made my way up to the 670 meters that the mountain Orarí  stands at and once I got to the top I shouted into the valley below because I couldn’t believe I had done it!

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I can see my house from here! 

Orarí wasn’t the only mountain I overcame this month. I also saw the culmination of over 6 months worth of work in my Ultimate Frisbee and Leadership Camp! With a grant amount of just over $2,000, 48 amazing youth from all over Panama, around 15 different facilitators, and the overwhelming support of my high school, we were able to create an experience that I know I will never forget. Kids that had never played frisbee before were throwing discs like it was second nature and everyone was having fun. Throughout the course of the week I saw indigenous girls that barely spoke to anyone they didn’t know starting to cheer on their teammates and help people with their throws. Boys who were used to the highly competitive nature of soccer started congratulating their opponents on games well-played. Friendships were made, culture was shared, and we learned about how the skills that Ultimate Frisbee teaches us can apply to our daily lives by using socio-dramas to demonstrate things like, supporting one another, pivoting and thinking before making decisions, and always remembering the spirit of the game. Since the camp ended I keep hearing from volunteers about frisbee clubs that are now forming in their communities and I’ve started to see a group slowly form here as well. Not only that but Dionara, the winner of the spirit award, went back to her family in the indigenous Comarca Nägbe-Bugle and taught her mom to throw a frisbee!

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Spirit Circle post-game

After the camp I had about a week to relax before heading to the city for my Mid-service training. My entire group was together for the first time since last year! MST is basically a lot of medical appointments and a little bit of training. I’m happy (and surprised) to report that I have no cavities! In our two days of training we were given lots of time to reflect on our service so far. Looking back, I’ve done quite a bit! I’ve had two adult English courses, one kid’s English course, and a national camp in my community. I’ve gone to medical gira’s, youth leadership and sexual health seminars, and youth camp’s in my friends’ communities. I’ve given TESOL presentations in Panama City and led teacher seminars in my local capital. As time goes by it’s easy to forget all of those things and feel like I’ve done nothing so I was glad to sit back and ruminate a little on how far I’ve come. We were also given the opportunity to start thinking about our future’s. Will we be going to graduate school or looking for jobs? Will we be trying to extend our service in Panama? Or, will we maybe decide to ship off for Peace Corps Response in another country? Maybe we won’t do any of that and we’ll take some time to travel. There are a lot of options on the horizon.

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all of G78 TELLS celebrated Bianca’s birthday

So after my frisbee camp and MST I think Jo’s song “Astonishing” from Little Women is very fitting. As she sings:

Here I go
And there’s no turning back
My great adventure has begun
I may be small
But I’ve got giant plans
To shine as brightly as the sun
I will blaze until I find my time and place
I will be fearless,
Surrendering modesty and grace
I will not disappear without a trace
So, as I sat at the top of Orarí, the mountain I have called mine since day 1, I thought about all of the days that brought me there. They weren’t all easy and often it was really hard to see my progress—Mountains have a funny way of making you forget how far you’ve climbed right until you reach the top. So, ultimately, I’m glad I climbed all the way up to that peak and shouted out into the sky. Peace Corps may not be easy, but its sure as hell worth it.IMG_3270IMG_3287

 

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Talking Hats

Do you consider yourself an intelligent person? Do you think you’re friendly and warm? Well, you better make sure your hat is saying the same thing!

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If you thought you could just throw a hat on your head and go about your day then you’ve got a lot to learn. Here in Panama, the way you wear your sombrero can say a lot about you. There are many ways to interpret what people are saying with their headgear and it can vary in each community. In La Pintada you can use your hat to show off who you are without saying a word. Before we move any further let’s make sure we all know what a sombrero looks like. 14462959_10207744586961755_3823597551907269574_n

All of the things those kids have on their heads are sombreros! They come in a lot of different patterns and sizes. They don’t all look the same but they’re made in similar ways and all of the same basic form. So, how should you wear your sombrero??

  • Front brim down and low on your forehead-This means you’re a person that keeps a lot of secrets. Maybe you’re a spy? Maybe you’re a professional party planner that deals only in surprise parties? The world may never know.
  • Back brim up– You’re a very smart and professional person! You probably have an important job that requires fancy clothes to accompany your many degrees.
  • Front brim up but low on your forehead– You’re ready to fight. Any time. Anywhere. People that wear their hats like this are aggressive!
  • Front brim up but sitting normally on your forehead– Not to be confused with the aforementioned style, this means that you’re a hard worker! You’ve gotta keep the sweat out of your eyes somehow with all the labor you put in on the daily.
  • Front brim and back brim up-This means that you’re a successful person! Successful in what, you may ask? Well, sadly, I don’t know. Maybe you’re really good at gardening or you’re a teacher whose students always turn in their work on time!
  • Side brims up-You’re a vaquero who works out in the campo. You  can probably lasso a bull in your sleep and I for one and impressed.
  • Normally, with no brims down or up-Okay so I know I said you can’t just throw your hat on and go but if you do it means that you’re a friendly person. You probably don’t have time to style your hat because you’re heading off to that surprise party for your friend’s birthday!
  • The entire hat is hanging off the side of your head– You’re drunk friend! Time to put down the seco and grab a taxi home.

Grab your sombreros and wear them in whatever way suits you best!

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True Vaquero style

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How to say hello

Every culture in the world has a traditional way of greeting each other. This tends to vary across social groups and often even across ages. For example, a group of teenagers in the USA will probably say “hey” or “what’s up” rather than the more formal “hello.” But if I were listening in on one of my grandmother’s conversations with a friend of hers I’d be far more likely to hear her say “hi.” I wouldn’t go into a job interview and say “hey, how’s it going?”  but  I would say “hello, how are you?” The way we use language is important to us. It shows our relationships between one another. So here’s 5 ways to say “hello” here in Panama.

1) Hola– Tried and true–This literally translates to “hello” and can be used in formal and informal settings. 

2) Buenas– This is a shortened version of “buenas noches/buenos días” but it is always used with an -as ending no matter what time of day it is. It’s my favorite greeting and I say it to everybody. 

3- ¿Que tal?– How’s it going? A solid informal greeting used among friends and acquaintances. 

4- ¿Que sopa?– This is a slang-ified version of “que paso” which means “what’s up?” You hear this more among younger generations and it’s informal. Don’t use it in a professional setting

5- Ow!– This is more of a sound than a word. It’s just a way to acknowledge someone and shout “hey!” Again, totally informal

See? Learning Spanish isn’t so hard. And don’t worry, if you get confused, a smile goes a long way. 

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Meri

As of 2013 there were 3.864 million people living in Panama. Indigenous people make up about 5% of the population. Despite Panama’s small size it has a wide variety of indigenous groups and all of them have their own language and culture. While you can find, indigenous people living in any part of Panama there are higher concentrations of indigenous groups in the various comarca’s.  My friend Nicole works with indigenous Ngöbe/Ngäbe women in her community. She wrote the following poem while at a biodiversity seminar with her counterpart. She looked around at her counterpart and all of the other Ngöbe women there and was impressed by how they had all stepped out of their comfort zone to attend the seminar. Not only that but they all made eye-contact with one another—something that’s not super common in that culture. Nicole wrote the poem below about her experience:

Meri

I see you over there.

You, yes you.

But this isn’t about me.

Yes, this is about you.

You, with the curious eyes.

The curiously floating eyes.

Have you met her?

Curiosity, she’s a character?

She’s a part of your spirit.

I met her.

Actually, I met her in you.

But this isn’t about me.

Yes, this is about you.

You, with the strength of your own arms

The strength of 1,000 arms.

Have you kissed her?

Strength, she is so damn seductive.

She is a part of what you do.

I kissed her.

Actually, I kissed her in you.

But this isn’t about me.

Yes, this is about you.

You, with the persistence of 2 feet

Those 2, persistent feet.

Have you become one with her?

Persistence, she is your deep satisfaction.

She is a part of how you love.

I became one with her.

Actually, I became one with her through you.

But this isn’t about me.

Yes, oh meri, yes.

This is indeed about you.

You are the fire

The raging, enveloping fire.

That knows not its own burn.

But I hope you see

I hope you see I see

(Even though it’s not about me)

I see you over there.

Maybe I can’t really see

Maybe I can only feel.

I can only feel your fire.

Your fire, fire that burns me

So even if, despite the fact

This is not about me.

I will sit in your flames.

Because I met her, kissed her

And I became one with her

All in your flames.

All in your raging enveloping fire

I’ll sit here until you know

Until you fully understand

How incredibly powerful you burn.

I’ll stay right here

Because it is your fire

It is your flames

It is her

That awakens my own

(So I guess this is about us.)

Nicole(right) and one of the Ngöbe women in her site wearing Nagwa’s; the traditional dress


 

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