This is how you say “eleven” in Albanian, and it almost made me book a plane ticket home. Given the fact that I had already opened my bag in my hotel room, I reconsidered. I was not about to re-pack everything.
Our first day of our Pre-Service Training (PST if you’re into Peace Corps Acronyms…PSA’s) I woke up to the sound of a cock crowing and the Muezzin’s Call to prayer floating in to my hotel room from the Mosque. After months of spending nights on any horizontal surface that would have me*, I finally woke up knowing where I was. I was in Albania.
The day began with a brief run down of Peace Corps rules and meeting our new trainers, many of whom I had worked up an entire dossier on via shameless Facebook stalking, (see post “Fake Albanian” for information as to why I’m not creepy, but in fact, overly prepared).
We then jumped into our first language class. I briefly cursed myself for throwing away my flash cards before getting on the plane, but I didn’t want the other Peace Corps Volunteers to think I was a geek for having flash cards. They would have to come to that realization on their own.
That being said, I was fully prepared to blow minds with my freshly acquired Albanian vocabulary**. And then they actually started speaking Albanian.
Given that I learned to pronounce what few Albanian words I knew from Youtub-ed Albanian music videos, my accent was slightly off***, but I would make up for that by saying things loudly and flailing my arms around. This is how you make friends with people you’re going to live with for two years.
And then we came to the word for eleven. The teacher said it, and then came the sound of bubble wrap being stepped on in another room, which was the sound of a series of small aneurisms that everyone in the entire room was having at the same time. I wanted to slam my hand down on the table and yell:
“THE HUMAN MOUTH CANNOT MAKE SUCH A SOUND! WHAT IS THIS SORCERY?!”
And then came twelve.
(Doo-Um-Buh-dee-Yet) WAY TOO MANY SYLLABLES!
We all gave it our best shot. At one point you could see everyone in the entire room silently mouthing the word for “eleven” over and over again. I comforted myself by trying to think how often, I really used the word “eleven” in English.
I resolved never to say it in Albanian… ever… in two years. In fact I wouldn’t use any of the teens as they were all incredibly difficult to say. I would only purchase things in multiples of ten. If I were to meet a teenager, I would round their age off to the nearest ten. While my Peace Corps Service was supposed to extend from 2011 to 2013, I would now say that it goes from 2010 to 2020. My time as a Peace Corps Volunteer has really taught me that if something is hard, you can always find a way around doing it. Unless you can’t.
In spite of my distain for the Albanian word for “eleven” I stayed… And learned that there were far more un-pronounceable words in Albanian. After a year and a half I cannot pronounce the difference in the words for, “stamp,” chicken” and “forest.***”
I wake up in a cold sweat some nights after having a nightmare about needing to say, “Excuse me, I need a stamp because I have to mail this chicken to my friend. He lives in the forest. Actually, on second thought, can I get eleven stamps. No. make it twelve chicken stamps for the forest chicken package. Thank you.”
I must say though after spending a year and a half learning to speak Albanian, I have realized that my best teachers have always been my students. Who have laughed at my goofy accent mercilessly for an entire school year, and will likely do so for one school year more.
Even so, I miss my students madly over summer.
Language learning is literally always going on, in English or any other language we are constantly attempting to make ourselves understood. In the end, the plasticity of language and over coming cultural misunderstanding can be summed up most clearly and succinctly by one of America’s greatest thinkers and poets, in his immortal words:
To try and to fail, the two things I hate
Succeed in this rap game, the two things that's great
H to the izz-O, V to the izz-A
What else can I say about dude, I gets bu-sy
Please don’t sue me.
But if you read this blog, do you want to be friends?
*My buddy Deven’s couch, my buddy Dave’s couch, my buddy Deven’s floor (if I didn’t quite make it to the couch), my bed in my childhood bedroom, the other bed in my childhood bedroom (to mix things up) my buddy Dave’s parent’s floor, a literal closet in New York, I mean an actual closet, I am not being hyperbolic here and I am fully aware of any and all comments that can be made about my living in a closet. I will gracefully accept any and all zingers posted below in the comment section or sent to my private email.
** Sword, male turkey, island, motorcycle.
***Hilariously atrocious given that all of the Albanian music videos were auto-tuned. I thought that was just the accent.
****Spelled, pule, pyl, and pyll. IT ALL SOUNDS LIKE THE WORD “PULL.”