Monthly Archives: February 2016

Adding tension

If you can ride a bike, you’re probably aware of the two most significant gears: the one connected to the pedals that you turn, and the one that turns the rear wheel. But take a look at the picture below.


What is the purpose of that red thing? It’s neither the pedal gear nor the wheel gear, but without it the bike would not work. It’s the tensioner. Its whole job is to press outward on the chain, to keep a certain amount of tension on it. If there’s not enough tension on the chain, it’ll fall off the gears.

To draw an analogy with language learning:

  • The pedal gear is where you put the effort into language learning.
  • The rear wheel is what you get out of it: better language ability.
  • The tensioner is constant pressure you need to apply to make these things connect.

The tensioner is that small bit of positive stress in your use of language—“positive” in that it prompts you to want to learn more, and to keep your lessons relevant to your daily life.

Some people are “out there” trying to get stuff done in the language. People like that probably have all the positive stress they need already—probably some negative stress too!

I expect that most of us, however, need a “tensioner” in our lives. We can converse fluently in our five routine conversations. But what’s going to get you to the next level? That’s where the tensioner comes in. It’s the next thing you’re trying to learn. It’s what keeps you growing in the language.

I have the personal goal of understanding Afghan culture better. Recently, I’ve started reading poetry with a language teacher. Poetry does two things for me:

  1. It stretches my language ability, because it’s not easy—though if you’re thinking of getting into it, it’s not as hard as I thought it would be either.
  2. It opens up cultural doors. What does the reed symbolize? How could a single death be that upsetting? I don’t have answer to those questions, but now I have the questions.

What could your tensioner be?

  • A radio program
  • A television show or serial
  • A book or short story
  • A work goal: being able to give a lesson or a speech, or being able to read a translation
  • Random flashcards—I learned the word اِنقِلابی from a deck of flashcards a three years and ten days before I heard it in real life, but when I heard it I was ready! (If that seems oddly specific, the flashcard program keeps track of dates and I heard the word for the first time the day I wrote this.)

It doesn’t have to be big. I spend about two hours a week on poetry—one hour with a teacher, one hour in private study. It’s just enough to keep the pressure on, to make sure that I keep learning.

Culture learning without the language barrier

One of my constant frustrations is that I have grand aspirations to learn more about Afghan culture, but I lack the language to make much progress. It’s like trying to download a huge file with a poor internet connection—it might get done eventually, but it’s nonetheless frustrating.

One of the ways that we can get in some culture learning without the language barrier is by reading translated stories. (Properly, the language barrier is still there, it’s just being dealt with by the translator.) If you’re a reader, this might be a fun way to pick up on some broader cultural themes. Here are some ideas to get you started.

I’ve included a variety of suggestions in the list above, including suggestions of Iranian and Turkish authors. None should be accepted uncritically as authorities on Afghan culture. Some non-Afghan pieces might give you insights into ideas in the broader Islamic world that are applicable to the situation in Afghanistan. (I thought that Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow gave me greater insight into Afghan culture than anything that Khaled Hosseini has written, for instance.)

It might be profitable to consider questions like these, perhaps in a group discussion.

  • Which of the characters’ actions would seem reasonable or unreasonable, from an Afghan perspective?
  • What values or ideas does the author take for granted about the culture?
  • What in the book reminds you of Afghan culture?
  • Who is the intended audience? Are the stories produced for fellow countrymen (as would certainly be the case for Iranian literature), or for another audience? (as with Khaled Hosseini’s books, which are transparently written for an American audience)
  • Does the author have an ax to grind? Does that reflect on a broader issue?
  • Does the literature reflect concerns internal to the culture, or does it deal with people who engage more broadly with world culture?
  • What segment of Afghan society might reflect the ideas presented in the literature? (urban/rural, educated/uneducated, Western-/Islamic-/Communist-outlook)

Happy reading. Be sure to recommend any good books to a friend!

Welcome to the Language & Culture Programme

LCP is a programme of the International Assistance Mission, serving expatriates who wish to learn the languages of Afghanistan. The purpose of this site is to make language learning materials more widely available. To that end, we aim to provide the following types of resources.

  • Online Resources. These resources, available exclusively through this web site, are completely free to download and to use.
  • External Resources. This is a select list of books and web sites that are useful to students of Dari and Pashtu.

LCP is also best known in Afghanistan for providing language lessons. You can also find information about scheduling individual and group lessons, at the above link.