Sunday, February 27, 2011

How A Canadian Soldier Endeared Himself to Afghans By Speaking Their Language


Master Corporal Shawn Grove, a Canadian soldier in Afghanistan,
displays his Pashto dictionary and his self-written notebook
of Pashto words and phrases. He learned to speak fluent Pashto
on his three tours of duty in Afghanistan.
Photo courtesy: Rick MacWilliam of Edmonton Journal

On Ekushey February (21st February) every year, Bangladesh observes the Bhasha Shaheed Dibosh (Language Martyrs' Day) and the world observes the International Mother Langauge Day. The mother language is so dear to one's heart that one can even give his life for it. That's what happened in East Pakistan (now called Bangladesh) on February 21, 1952. Several students and non-students, on that day, gave their lives for defending the status of the their mother language Bangla (Bengali) against the onslaught from West Pakistani rulers who wanted to impose Urdu as the only state language of Pakistan.

Many a great persons spoke of the importance of learning and speaking a different language from one's own. American businessman Lee Iacocca said: "Talk to people in their own language. If you do it well, they'll say, 'God, he said exactly what I was thinking.' And when they begin to respect you, they'll follow you to the death." Italian film director Federico Fellini said: "A different language is a different vision of life." If one learns a different language, he or she will come to know what that language speaker thinks and why he or she thinks so. A Czech proverb says: "Learn a new language and get a new soul." South African politician and Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela said: "If you talk to a man in language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart."

On the occasion of the International Mother Language Day this year, we salute Master Corporal Shawn Grove of Alberta for his accomplishment of learning Pashto, a different and difficult language, and being able to communicate with its speakers, who felt closer to him than any non-Pashto speaking Canadian or other nationality soldiers.

We reproduce below Master Corporal Shawn Grove's story previously published in the Edmonton Journal of February 13, 2011:

Alberta soldier who speaks Pashto draws stares in Afghanistan

Speaking the language is a great icebreaker for Master Cpl. Shawn Grove

By Ryan Cormier

EDMONTON — It was a blistering, dusty July day and Master Cpl. Shawn Grove was stuck in a traffic jam on a narrow, crowded road in Kandahar City.

His upper body out the roof of a Light Armored Vehicle, at the gunner position, he turned to an Afghan family in an open-box cargo truck in the next lane. A farmer and his two young sons sat among sacks of grapes and raisins.

“How you guys doing?” Grove asked in Pashto, the dominant language in southern Afghanistan. “Is traffic always like this?”

The farmer’s jaw dropped. His sons scrambled over their grapes to gawk at the foreign soldier who spoke their language. Between the truck and the LAV, an Afghan boy skidded his bike to a clumsy stop and stared at Grove, wide-eyed.

Across the gap, the farm boy from Barrhead shook hands with the Afghans. He passed the boys Jolly Rancher candies mailed from Canada, and was rewarded with a bag of grapes in return. Traffic finally moved, and Grove told them to have a good day, again in Pashto.

Everyone within earshot stared.

That quick conversation leaped the language barrier between Canadian soldiers and those they protect.

Pashto is spoken by more than 50 million people worldwide, and is well-known as a difficult language to learn. For the past nine years, the Canadian Forces have relied heavily on local Afghan translators.

But halfway through his second tour in the country, Grove decided there was a better way.

Partly, it was boredom. Partly, he wanted to crack a joke to Afghan National Army members he saw every day.

“I just decided it would be interesting to hear what they were saying all the time. It started with me writing a couple sentences down and having them slowly translate them. I would write it the way I heard, making up my own punctuation. It rolled from there, it was learning by immersion.”

At nights, the soldier studied in his bunk. He spent his free time with Afghan army members and police officers, drinking chai tea and teaching them English in exchange for new Pashto phrases he carefully printed in a dog-eared notebook.

By the end of his 2008 tour, the member of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, 1st Battalion, could converse. But it wasn’t until he returned to Edmonton that his studies took off. Grove bought a computer program and sought out local Afghans to talk with. He watched Pashto videos on YouTube and covered the subtitles with his hands. He’d never learned a second language before, no classes in high school, and had no previous interest.

“I didn’t follow any learning pattern, and military-wise there is no language training. They give us an afternoon, here and there, but it’s for the basics, like greetings or ‘Stop or I’ll shoot.’ There was no real program in place, so I did my own thing.”

When he returned to Afghanistan in 2009, Grove was determined to hold full conversations with Afghan people. When Canadians arrived in a new village, approaching nervous families, it was often Grove who smoothed over those first crucial minutes.

“It’s such an icebreaker. If you can walk into a village and say hello, that’s one thing, but it’s another to say it’s nice to meet you and crack a few jokes. You get everybody smiling and you’re on a better foot already. It breaks down a lot of barriers. People are way more receptive and remember you the next time you arrive.”

Grove would show off pictures of his family and aerial shots of the farm where he grew up.

He discovered that a Captain Black cigar from Canada bought him 20 minutes of conversation while the smoke drifted.

Lifelong Afghan soldiers had never met a foreign uniform they could discuss their personal lives with. Even the Afghans who made it obvious that Canadians were unwanted surrendered to their curiosity about Grove.

He didn’t learn to read and write the language, as many of the Afghans he spoke to were illiterate.

Grove, 28, smiles when he recalls the missteps and confusion that accompanied his learning — such as the time a translator tricked him into calling his commanding officer an asshole. He learned the hard way that Afghans have little concept of sarcasm. Often, he was encouraged to convert to Islam, which he politely declined.

Grove once translated between a Canadian medic and an Afghan boy with a gash on his head. When they were done, Grove stood, and in his rough accent, said: “It’s sad when children are hurt. I don’t like to see this.”

The assembled locals put their hands over their hearts in reply.

Over his three tours, Grove has seen his language skills grow in importance as the mission has progressed from firefights with the Taliban to a more structured counter-insurgency.

“In 2006, on my first tour, I didn’t even give it a thought. Now, a counter-insurgency is basically a popularity contest, you want to be more popular than the adversary. You’re a lot more popular if you can tell a joke.”

Capt. Cole Peterson, also from 1PPCLI, met Grove before and during their 2009 tours of the country. He applauded Grove’s efforts, both for the dedication they require and the benefits they bring.

“Over there, it’s completely obvious how foreign we are. We look different, walking around in all our gear. For one of us to speak like them, it immediately gets us in the door.”

Most soldiers “bash a few phrases” into their heads to make their jobs easier, but few have the natural aptitude for the language Grove has, Peterson said.

“It is a completely different language than anything we’re used to. There’s a lot of distinct noises you have to make with your throat.”

Grove plans to leave the military soon for a more “normal life,” having experienced everything he imagined when he joined at age 19 in 2002. The military was his dream since childhood and it led to 20 months in Afghanistan. Now, his battered, torn Pashto-English dictionary is the prize souvenir of his three tours.

“In hindsight, it’s a simple thing,” he said. “It’s a sign of respect to learn someone else’s language.”

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