Thursday, January 3, 2013

Why a good language instructor is key to really get a culture

Our first professor, Arsénio,
during a CouchSurfing event
Two years ago, when we first saw a position in Mozambique, we didn't know much about the country. A little bit more than a year later, when we first set foot in Maputo, after consulting many encyclopedias, studying several academic articles and international development reports, and reading local websites, blogs and newspapers, we had much more information, but not necessary a full understanding of the people and customs. The only Mozambican we had met up to that point was a lovely woman who chatted with us about some basics for a couple of hours during our SKWID (Skills for Working in Development) training. And that was it.

But to live and specially work in a country, you need much more than that. At this point a good language instructor becomes essential. People think a language professor is there to tell you how to say this or that, explain some grammar rules, and correct your mistakes. And to be honest, that was what many language instructors were doing in Mozambique. But a good language instructor is, more than anything, a cultural interpreter.

Cristina, my favorite Portuguese professor
in the whole world
He or she can quickly become what in Anthropology we call a "key informant," the go-to person for anything you don't understand. Why do people behave in a certain way? What's the best way to approach this subject in this situation? Would it be correct to do this or that? A good language instructor / cultural interpreter has a good grasp of the whys and hows of their culture and can explain and answer these and million other questions about the hidden dimensions of a culture and the puzzling behaviors of its people.

We were lucky when eventually we were able to have classes with two such wonderful instructors. Arsénio had training in Linguistics and came from a very traditional style of lecturing-teaching, but had a wealth of information when it came to work relationships and communication that was eye-opening. Unfortunately, he soon left for a job abroad.

After much running around, we found Cristina Chilaule*, another wonderful professor. Not only did she have a strong work ethic, but she was able to adapt immediately to our specific needs of working professionals who needed to reach a certain communication standard quickly. More importantly, she became a window to a part of Mozambican culture we had no idea about. Because she came from a completely different background, she was able to introduce us to different aspects of the local culture and give us invaluable insights into everyday life. She even managed to teach Fadi some grammar, a never-before achieved feat! (Fadi learns languages by osmosis and had so far done without any grammar).

Definitely, a highlight of our time in Mozambique.

*If you happen to be in Maputo and in need of a Portuguese professor, contact her at

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