Leaving America: How Traveling the World Became My Greatest Language Teacher Ever

“Okay, so let’s go ahead and assess your level of French. Describe yourself to me in about a minute.”

I paused for just a moment before describing myself in detailed French over the phone to Ned during my very first interview with Travel for Teens. Next came the Italian assessment and before I knew it, I had landed myself a spot on the TFT summer team leading language trips in France! Now you might be wondering where I’m from, if my parents perhaps spoke one of these languages, or maybe I lived overseas during my childhood. Well none of that is even close to where it all begin.

Let’s re-wind back in time to the spring of 2002 and cue my twelve-year-old self crammed onto the bench seat of an old Ford pickup truck shoved between my Mexican host sister, her grandfather, and what appeared to be all of her immediate cousins. ALL of them. When they pointed at the lime green cast on my left arm and asked what had happened, it was with that twelve-year-old confidence that I explained in unconjugated verbs, “Romper mi brazo. Esquiar en la nieve.” I could also proudly tell them my age, which fruits and vegetables I liked to eat, how many siblings I had, and that I owned a cat and a dog. These basics that my brain soaked up in less than a semester were also what got me to the top of my Spanish class and merited me a spot on this weeklong trip to the small town of Cananea in Sonora, Mexico.

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My host family in front of their home in Cananea, Sonora, Mexico.

Growing up in Phoenix, I had always been curious about Latino culture and found that the best way to learn about that culture (and any other culture in the future) was through its language. Learning Spanish opened up a new curiosity in me for the city where I lived – I became more engaged with reading billboards, paying extra attention to Spanish TV commercials, reading various types of bilingual signs, and constantly trying to make connections between English words and Spanish words. Jean-Luc Godard said it best in his film “Two or Three Things I Know About Her” when a character states that “the limits of language are the world’s limits, the limits of my language are my world’s limits, and when I speak, I limit the world. I finish it.” At the ripe old age of twelve I discovered that my world no longer needed to be limited and I opened up my world for the rest of my life on that first trip to Northern Mexico.

Eight years later, I decided that I was fed up with Spanish and rather than spending a semester abroad in a Spanish speaking country, I went to Hungary. Many friends and family asked, “Why Hungary?” to which I jokingly replied, “Why not?” That was probably not the most logical thing to do from a language learning perspective, especially because I dropped my Spanish minor in the end, but I did manage to learn some Hungarian along the way. And fall in love with an Italian. So of course I needed to learn Italian and then I fell in love with not just an Italian, but with the Italian language itself. In the end, learning Italian did little more than serve as a hobby, though I can also thank it for being the reason that I was forced to learn French. That’s right: forced.

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The Széchenyi Chain Bridge in Budapest, Hungary.

In October 2012, an envelope containing my official Peace Corps invitation was delivered to me. I had known for months that I would be sent to serve in sub-Saharan Africa, but where exactly, I had absolutely no idea. My heart had been set on Central and South America since I first began the application process, so I was still hoping for some stroke of luck to send me to a Spanish speaking destination. I opened the envelope and read “COUNTRY: CAMEROON.” I didn’t even know where Cameroon was, let alone what language they spoke. I quickly skimmed over the rest of my assignment and soon discovered that I would be required to communicate in French at an advanced level according to the standards set forth by the U.S. Government in order to officially begin my service. So in a nutshell, I had to gain professional working proficiency in the French language in just ten weeks of pre-service training. Thanks to my ability to speak Spanish and Italian, the Peace Corps apparently figured that I would be able to easily pick up French, though that wasn’t exactly the case.

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My last day in Arizona before leaving to serve in the Peace Corps.

I spent the next six months before my departure to Cameroon trying to get a grasp of the French language through online courses and watching Netflix solely in French, but no amount of language prep would ever compare to the completely immersive experience in which I would soon find myself. During my first language placement interview in Yaoundé, I responded to all of the questions in a mix of Spanish and Italian with an obscure French accent that I had conjured up. I can only hope that no one ever comes across that tape again. But the real fun started on the day that we met our host families. I’ll never forget standing in the middle of that dry, barren field and hearing “Taylor Klinefelter…la famille Nwagga Nwagga!” and turning to see my Cameroonian host mother and her small granddaughter emerge from the crowd to greet me. When we arrived to their house I stumbled on my words and really had no idea what they were saying to me either. It felt just like that first day in Mexico over a decade ago, only now I was a worldly adult…or at least trying to seem like one, and this time I needed to learn to live in this language for two years, not just one week.

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Prepping for dinner with my host mother and her granddaughter.

We were given hours upon hours of training with a variety of teachers using a variety of teaching methods and in a variety of learning locations, from small shacks behind the training center to learning how to haggle first-hand at the market. As if joining the Peace Corps in the heart of Africa didn’t put me out of my comfort zone enough, I needed to learn how to interact with a culture that was quite literally worlds away from my own and in what I deemed a very difficult language to learn.

Tears of frustration were quietly shed during many a class, but no tears like the day my ukulele broke. I cried in front of my host mother simply for a lack of better communication. And that is when she gently grabbed me by the shoulders and said, “Ça va aller, Taylor. Nous sommes ensembles. Ça va aller” (It will be fine, Taylor. We are together. It will be fine). Nous sommes ensembles. The unofficial saying of all Cameroonians. Nous sommes ensembles. We are all in this together.

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Learning French with fellow volunteers in the language shack behind our training building.

I have kept this saying close to my heart ever since. My ever-growing curiosity about other cultures and languages, my desire to continue travelling, the ability to use foreign languages to help people and touch their lives, even just a little bit, this is how learning foreign languages has shaped my life and helped me grow into the person who I am today. And as I watch the sky glow pink over Table Mountain from my little TFT office in Cape Town, I cannot help but think of Nelson Mandela’s famous quote: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” So get out there, embrace the world’s languages, speak to people’s hearts, and never forget: Nous sommes ensemble!

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