Dorgan, Conor


Name: Conor Dorgan
Location of Study: Sucre, Bolivia
Program of Study: Bolivian Spanish School
Sponsor(s): Bob Berner

A brief personal bio:

I am currently a sophomore studying biology and considering an additional major in Spanish or English. As a student in the Kellogg International Scholars Program, I assist Dr. Terence McDonnell of the Department of Sociology in work dealing with HIV/AIDS media campaigns. I have also worked in the lab of Dr. Crislyn D’Souza-Schorey, whose research focuses on cell signaling and migration events implicated in tumorigenesis. My interests besides include language, travel, and writing.

Why this summer language abroad opportunity is important to me:

The SLA Grant will allow me to develop the proficiency in Spanish required to pursue research interests in Latin America. I hope the language gains made during my time in Bolivia, and subsequent experiences abroad, will allow me to design a research project that could potentially develop into a senior thesis for the International Scholars Program. Beyond recognition of the utility of Spanish domestically and abroad, I wish to develop fluency in the language for its own sake, to read literature, and to more fully experience the cultures of Bolivia and Chile, where I will be studying in the fall.

What I hope to achieve as a result of this summer study abroad experience:

During my course of study in Bolivia, I wish to make significant progress towards my ultimate goal of fluency in Spanish, achieving a basis of comfortable and effective verbal and written communication that can be built upon subsequently in my undergraduate career. In the fall I will be enrolled at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, and it is my hope that my summer language experience will not only allow me to engage my coursework at the highest level, but furthermore grant me the opportunity to do research during my time abroad. I also look forward to becoming more familiar with Bolivia and its culture.

My specific learning goals for language and intercultural learning this summer:

1. By the end of the summer, I will feel confident conversing with native Spanish speakers in both formal and informal contexts.

2. By the end of the summer, I will comprehend the majority of Spanish-language literature appropriate to university level survey courses.

3. By the end of the summer, I will have developed the grammatical knowledge necessary to write at the level demanded by academic papers.

My plan for maximizing my international language learning experience:

Besides my formal coursework, which will include four hours of daily tutoring in grammar and conversation, I plan on spending each afternoon taking advantage of opportunities to develop my Spanish ability by interacting with native speakers, such as through volunteering with local NGOs. My school has affiliations with NGOs whose work offers more familiar volunteering opportunities, including assisting with after-school programs, but if my language ability develops sufficiently, I may be able to work with other organizations concerned with indigenous development and land issues. Finally, I believe that living with a Bolivian host family will greatly enhance my experience, presenting me with more opportunities to practice Spanish and develop greater insight into Bolivian culture.

Reflective Journal Entry 1:

It began interestingly enough. As soon as I learned that my Bolivian friend had been correct about the bankruptcy of the airline that was to bring me from Santa Cruz to my final destination of Sucre, I knew my modest Spanish abilities were quickly to be tested. The website of Aerosur was still very much in business, but unfortunately their planes were grounded by the government after the CEO either fled to Miami without paying taxes, or was pressured out by the government in order to boost the state-owned airline BoA, as is his account. It would have been frustrating had what then ensued not been so entertaining, with every helpful airport employee, and one eager plain-clothes gentleman, granting me their unique insight. Some confidently assured me that I need only wait, while others saw something amiss with the metal posts used to form the queue messily strewn about as a barrier before the counter.

I spent the next four hours desperately attempting to find a way out of Santa Cruz, but was not successful. I finally and reluctantly gave in to the eager plain-clothes gentleman and heeded his advice to travel to El Trompillo, the smaller and older airport in the city. He also told me which taxis would certainly not rob me, though the taxi driver still asked me if I would mind stopping by his house so he could add water to the car radiator. I politely and firmly declined. At Trompillo I bought an overpriced flight in the coziest plane I have ever been on, with an airline whose only strength is a perhaps unfortunately conscientious CEO. Luckily, my Bolivian friend was able to recommend a place to stay in the city, and the next morning I regained my confidence when I had finally boarded with my three fellow passengers (Update: one of them was John from the east coast, and I never repaid him the twenty bolivianos that he loaned me for the taxi ride from the airport in Sucre. If you’re reading this John, I apologize).

Once with my family in Sucre, I was able to reflect on my initial interactions in Santa Cruz, and it has only taken a few days to realize how uneven the language gains are. Certain things are already coming naturally, but I now realize that I may have declared “Mission Accomplished” prematurely when I began to think rudimentary thoughts in Spanish. There is still an incredible amount that does not come naturally according to my grammatical intuition, and much that I simply do not possess the vocabulary to express. I understand little of what my family says the first time they say it, but I am faring better in my classes, no doubt because my professor has experience talking to foreigners that initially understand little of what she says. I am still learning my way around the city and adjusting to life here, but already I am excited by the contextualization of everything I have been studying in my classes at Notre Dame.

It was an exciting week to arrive. I have already had the opportunity to see the president, Evo Morales, and his vice-president Álvaro García Linera, overseeing from the balcony of the Casa de Libertad the festivities celebrating the first call for independence from Spain in Latin America (which Quito also claims). The dark, booming military marches (e.g. Marcha Talacocha) that filled the Plaza 25 de Mayo, the date of the call for independence, must have put me in a political mood, and I later ventured to ask my family about Morales, leader of the party MAS (Movimiento a Socialismo). I quickly learned that they, like many in the conservative city, have little interest in him. I noted the familiar phenomenon of a flushing of the cheeks and increased rate of speech in response to the topic of politics, as in the United States, which made it difficult to truly appreciate the idiosyncrasies of their disapproval. I am looking forward to developing my conversational abilities in the remaining five weeks to delve deeper into all of this.

Reflective Journal Entry 2:

Now in my second week of classes, I have been assigned a different professor that I believe I will stay with until the end. She anticipated my interest in improving my writing, and I am beginning to write at least a page per day for her to critique. For my first class, I wrote a summary of a conversation I had with a friend regarding The Little Prince (o El Principito), which I have also been scouring the bookstores in Sucre to find in the latter language version. Besides writing, every class has a separate grammar component, and occasionally readings in South American culture and history, which have provided opportunities to practice reading aloud, a project more difficult than I imagined. Having prided myself on attention to pronunciation and accent, it was indeed humbling to realize that, without getting into specifics, there are a few letter combinations that I was anglicizing or simply saying wrong. This is progress.

With my host family, a visit from tío Hugo, a socialist of autodidactic tendencies, has greatly increased the number of opportunities for conversation outside of my classes. We have had some interesting talks in which he dexterously has referred to certain libros lindos that have informed his thinking. We occasionally found ourselves speaking in different languages, apart from the shared use of Spanish that enabled the conversation, as I ventured to include insights from more theological territory, which he would quickly qualify in secular terms. We spoke of government and history and values, and I was surprised to find that we agreed upon many diagnoses of perceived “ills of society,” though we proposed different prescriptions. I was both very excited to be having these conversations, and disappointed that I was not yet competent to more adequately express myself or understand his more nuanced ideas.

I have had more confidence to go out into the community this week and engage people, from grandmotherly type shopkeepers to employees at three local gyms that my host siblings have recommended. After realizing that, while I can pretentiously harangue regarding materialism, I still cannot negotiate the pitfalls of transactional encounters in the central market, I have decided to talk more, and with more people. I now unashamedly strike up conversations with others waiting in line at the local supermarket, draw out small-talk with servers, and graciously receive new gastronomic vocabulary from the woman that takes my money at a local sandwich shop. Essentially, I am becoming my dad. I now recognize him as a natural language learner.

Reflective Journal Entry 3:

Now in my third week, I have for the first time begun to feel disappointed in my progress. I suppose I secretly expected some automatic process to occur in my brain after a few weeks, despite our pre-immersion discussions of the importance of being active in striving for language gains. Still, it is difficult not to have such expectations owing to the many acquaintances who can recount “so and so spending x amount of time in y and returning home fluent.” Perhaps tellingly, I cannot recall many similar narratives that were first-person.

Rather than resemble this automatic process, I have noticed that in my family´s speech unknown words are starting to form from increasingly distinct sounds. Only after this process of repetitive perception of a word have I noticed that I am likely to remember it. Learning through conversation has been invaluable in another manner as well. Last semester, I often made flashcards for new verbs and other vocabulary that I encountered in literature or articles in the press, yet I still struggled to remember them. Now in my classes, after only the briefest explanation of a verb by my professor, I tend to remember how to use words I had been attempting to memorize for months.

Another tendency I have noticed is that of beginning to acquire situational understandings of words or phrases before truly being able to define them. An extreme case would be the use of pues, not only as a conjunction as it was originally used in Peninsular Spanish, nor as a verbal crutch translated as “well” in English (although those usages are common to Latin America), but to emphasize an affirmation (Si pues) or statement (Pero el presidente está preso de los cocaleros pues). This usage cannot easily be conveyed in English, and is not defined even by those that possess a natural command of it.

Speaking of presidents derided for their connections with cocaleros, or coca growers, this week I engaged in my first community interaction task, discussing the topic of Evo Morales and a movement that has been increasing the visibility of indigenous rights and culture on the national stage. Morales is self-styled Bolivia’s first Aymara president (Aymara and Quechua being the two most prominent indigenous languages of the country, each with an associated ethnic group), and although it is possible that he has stewarded many more pro-indigenous initiatives, I spoke with three people with whom I am in regular contact about some of the more visible ones (to be fair, I was warned that it would be difficult to find a strong defense of Morales in the conservative city of Sucre. In 2007, three university students died in protests against the perceived unjust proceedings of the constitutional assembly. A memorial in the cemetery celebrates them as patriots). Among these visible changes were the drafting of a new constitution, addition of the Wiphala emblem representative of the indigenous peoples of the Andes as a co-flag, and lastly the adoption of a new legal name for the country, Plurinational State of Bolivia, formerly Republic of Bolivia. The new constitution is an extraordinary and (perhaps extraordinarily) ideological document, equipped with a rejection of colonialism, republicanism, and neo-liberalism in its preamble, and recognizing each of the indigenous peoples that can be found within the nation’s borders. It enshrines their traditional values and laws, including the perhaps best known “three laws” of the Inca Empire: ama qhilla, ama llulla, ama suwa (don’t be lazy, don’t lie, don’t steal), and mandates that each department establish another official language in addition to Spanish.

One of the three opined that it was about time that Bolivia recognized its large indigenous population and their cultures, and acknowledged that the country had a more overtly racist past. She believed there was nothing to fear in promoting the values, cultures, and rights of these communities, as it rightly set the country apart, and that those defending another perception of the country were clinging to an image that yet never truly existed. One of the others I spoke with said he perceived that Morales was trying to radically and irreversibly change the culture and identity of the country, altering its name and recognizing indigenous values that he did not frankly want to endorse. As for the discussion of socialism, or “Andean capitalism” as the vice president has called the ideal, and the document´s rejection of all things North American, concern was expressed by all three. The most forward of the three maintained that Morales was trying to rapidly alter the Bolivian state and in a very bad way. Bolivia has always been a capitalist country, he argued, and should continue being such. Ironically, considering political rhetoric in the United States, even a few of the conservatives I spoke with accused self-proclaimed socialist Morales of not being sufficiently socialist, discrediting the populist mandate he has assumed. I remain fascinated.

Reflective Journal Entry 4:

I should have waited another week before formerly retracting my “Mission Accomplished” statement, as my verbal comprehension has abruptly though apparently improved. While I am still often left in the dust around mealtime with my family, I am beginning to pick out more vocabulary in conversation. I am also beginning to bring in lists of questions for my professor, which tend to include unfamiliar grammatical structures from the paper,Correo del Sur, or literature, as well as phrases whose usage I want to clarify. I have been too lazy, using context to settle for a basic level of comprehension instead of striving to understand every word and construction. Especially in conversation, I am now trying to work against this innate desire to maintain “good relations” with people, which leads me to say I understand when I do not completely, and involuntary nodding. I think that any student of a foreign language can relate to occasions when they have found themselves laughing at a professor’s joke that they did not comprehend, and the greatest fear is that the joke will entail follow-up. As social animals, we are, in fact, very good at socializing. My professor has encouraged me to stop her during our conversations whenever I have questions about the vocabulary or grammar that she is using, and I now feel ready to pursue comprehension more fully.

To complete my second community interaction task, I recently spoke with my host siblings, uncles, aunts, and professor about two elements of slang I have heard recently: chala and re, as well as to what extent voseo exists in Bolivia. Chala, while literally meaning corn husk, is used in Sucre to signify cool or excellent, as in “qué chala.” According to some of the younger people with whom I spoke, it may be highly local, indeed properly unique to Sucre. According to these same sources, “re” is a prefix and intensifier (“re bueno”) that may have creeped into Bolivian speech from Argentina, where it is used in addition to various other countries. Finally, in Bolivia there is a hint of voseo, the use of the second person singular pronoun vos in place of , as is widespread in Argentina. My family, although they use the pronoun, insist that it is grammatically nonexistent in Sucre, and no alternative verb conjugations exist as they do enshrined in Argentina and in varying degrees of informality in other parts of Latin America. So far, people of all ages have recognized these examples, while chala is generally used only by younger sucrenses, re and vos can be used by middle-aged adults as well. The older adults in the family understood them, but never used them.

I have also been up to a few other things lately that have kept me speaking and practicing. Most importantly, I have been volunteering the past several weeks in the Instituto Nacional de Psiquiatría Gregorio Pacheco. I was very fortunate that my professor had volunteered in the psychiatric hospital in the past and was able to introduce the opportunity. I believe it had been some years since she had last visited, and yet she a number of the men and women living there remembered her well. While I initially imagined that I would be able to go once or twice a week, I am happy to be going three or four times per week now, conversing with increasingly familiar faces on the grounds, and getting to know some of the nurses and employees in the mixed house of both sexes, where I help with dinner and preparing the patients to go to bed.

There is one older man that I have somehow fallen into the habit of helping in his final routine of each day, and he typically waits for me after finishing his dinner. We talk on the way to the room he shares with two other gentleman, one of them that does not speak to me, the other a poet that may prefer feminine company. Already I have learned how to carefully remove his shoes and clothing so as not to agitate his arthritis as he speaks to me about growing up as a campesino (person from the country), the era of the patrones, and the Bolivian National Revolution that began in the early 1950s, resulting in agrarian reform, nationalization of tin mining, and universal suffrage that effectively increased the number of voters fivefold from 200,000 to 1,000,000. As he becomes sleepier, I have noticed that his speech is less and less intelligible to me. The other day when one of the nurses was helping the poet to bed, again he began this quiet and unintelligible speech. The nurse then began to answer in a still unintelligible language whose sounds I found so agreeable. “Quechua,” she told me, “his first language is Quechua.”

Reflective Journal Entry 5:

This week has been characterized by all things political. The police began a nationwide strike, the banks in Sucre have closed, and many are understandably anxious. Although the government is loathe to negotiate with the police over wages, they are so far unwilling to call the military in the streets to replace them. According to my host family, this reticence is due to the violence that occurred the last time this strategy was opted for in 2003. So far things have been calm here, with only a small number of burglaries, but some of the larger cities are seeing more problems. It has been a good week for political conversation, and I have been delving deeper into the constitution as well. It has been rewarding for me to casually analyze the document and apply both the language gains and what cultural and political knowledge I have acquired in these few weeks in a manner that is quasi-academic. This, of course, only managed to reinforce the almost certainly optimistic tendency of students like myself to believe that they can, in fact, apply themselves without the terror of exams and GPA incentivization.

I carried out another community engagement task with one of the professors of the school, discussing his impression of the United States. He echoed a description that I have found common here, admitting his admiration for how “ordered” the country is, a comment which seemed to relate to infrastructure, the relative lack of corruption, respect for the law, and wealth. The discussion quickly shifted to American and Bolivian politics. While he had a positive impression of the American people, he believed that there are serious problems with our government. He described his confusion with regards to wars of choice, and stated that he believes that the power of the United States will be increasingly economic as opposed to militaristic. He found President Obama more agreeable than President Bush, but was still wary of U.S. influence and covert activity in the world. He claimed that while there is political corruption in Bolivia, he is amused and confounded by the lobbying on Capitol Hill, which he described as corruption institutionalized. He rejected the narrative offered by many within Latin America that portrays United States as a new Spain of sorts, which has benefited from the resources of the region and is in turn largely responsible for its lack of development. Rather, while he acknowledged examples of negative activity of American corporations in Central and South America, he stated the attraction of the anti-American ideology was predictable due to the position of the United States as a world power.

The most exciting news to report (besides the observation that I am beginning to understand the majority of conversations in public transportation) would likely be an orientation session and presentation by the director of the psychiatric institute on St. John of God, the founder of the Catholic order the Brothers Hospitallers of St. John of God, with which the Instituto Gregorio Pacheco is associated. It was great to learn more about the history and the mission of the order, although unfortunately the orientation has occurred relatively late in my career here, seeing as next week is my last in Sucre. There is one more piece of exciting news after all. The other day an older campesino wearing traditional dress, stooped over a cane, and bearing a large sack across his back knocked on the door. I quickly recognized the now familiar but still unintelligible language he spoke, and was imagining a way to politely convey that I was out of my league when my host mom appeared in the doorway and began discussing the prices of the man´s wares. That is when I learned that she too spoke Quechua. I suppose it just had never come up.

Reflective Journal Entry 6:

I have begun to reflect on the past six weeks in Sucre, and I have to say that I am fully satisfied with my progress. My writing has improved significantly, especially the speed of my composition, which represents a vast improvement over the days when I needed an entire afternoon and an evening to draft short essays for my Spanish classes. However, I now realize that the level of accuracy I am interested in is only attainable after perhaps years of experience, i.e. I will not be publishing anything in Spanish without a trustworthy editor anytime soon. I have also considered that perhaps a trustworthy editor for academic writing in a second language should have always been a given, in which case I was overly ambitious. Regardless, I will be studying in Santiago in the fall, and taking five courses in Spanish will guarantee that I have ample opportunity to continue developing as a writer.

I was similarly ambitious as a reader, coming to Bolivia equipped with half of the corpus of the Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez. However, after a few weeks of feeling tied to a dictionary, I decided I needed a change. My recall of new vocabulary was lackluster, and I was encountering much of it in his works. I am now seeking out fiction and nonfiction alike of a more appropriate difficulty, although I am also noting a number of authors that I would like to begin reading in the near future. Again, next semester should ensure I continue progressing, as I will be taking a literature course with a Latin American focus.

My speech has improved markedly as well. The Holy Grail of informal conversational contexts—around the lunch table—is finally becoming attainable. I continue to learn and now have an appreciation for just how long it might take to sound convincingly native, and even then for only short moments of time before being discovered as an outsider who is not only certainly not from this Spanish-speaking country, but is certainly not from any Spanish-speaking country. That is to say that I have had to reevaluate my expectations and learn to appreciate those few moments when, for several short words, I was given the benefit of the doubt that although I was not a convincing white Bolivian, I might be a semi-convincing white something else. I hope with time to approach whatever “be temporarily mistaken as a Spanish speaker” limit that may exist.

I am newly grateful for the naturalness that we possess in our native language(s). I understand why so many that are ostensibly dedicated to studying languages find themselves grouping up with those with whom they share a language, for at times it has been exhausting to eschew English. It has been a difficult experience to separate myself from all the literature, music, and media that are important to me, but exciting to consider all the new content that I now have access to, whether it be books, blogs, or journalism. It would have been even more difficult to do it all alone. A continent apart from every family member and friend that I have ever known and acquaintance that I have ever met, I was blessed to form relationships that deepened the experience and transcended my original purpose.

Postcard(s) from Abroad:

Reflection on my language learning and intercultural gains:

Learning a second langauge is a long-term enterprise whose trajectory can be uneven. Especially after formal study, I believe rapid improvement can be made during a relatively short immersion, but it takes much longer to gain a level of naturalness comparable to the native language. Over time, however, and by constantly listening and talking in Spanish, English began to loosen its grip on my mind, and expression that possessed not a translated character, but that of the second language, began to materialize. I engaged the culture by asking those people from distinct backgrounds with whom I had rapport about themselves. Listening to their stories and opinions often became an informal ethnographic exercise. Finally, considering my general and specific goals, I do believe I have achieved a solid base from which to build upon, and I am comfortable speaking in formal and informal settings. Currently in a literature course in Chile, I certainly comprehend the majority of the literature, with the occasional gap in my vocabulary. That leaves writing at a level required by academic papers unattained. Although my program supported me in pursuing this goal, I believe I still lack the mastery required of published research, although I will continue working to develop it.

Reflection on my summer language abroad experience overall:

My SLA Grant experience was one of the most rewarding of my life. I have forever populated my concept of the world with people and perceptions that make topics related to Bolivia come alive for me. Although my immersion was limited to six weeks, those six weeks have given me footholds in any discussion of the country and its people, where none existed before. Now studying in Chile, Bolivia, along with the other neighboring countries of Peru and Argentina, is frequently relevant in historical, political, and economic discussions. I believe that being able to personally relate to the region has made me a more engaged learner, as well as amplified and contextualized my knowledge.

I would advise those applying for the SLA Grant, as well as those that have already received it, to find some way in their program or proposed program to incorporate interests besides strict language learning. Although I am passionate about Spanish for its own sake and, for example, enjoy studying the differences between the Chilean and Argentinean verbal voseo, I still believe that my experience would have been impoverished had I not incorporated my political and anthropological interests on a nearly daily basis.

How I plan to use my language and intercultural competences in the future:

Fortunately, I was able to quickly return to South America to apply and improve on my language gains. Studying at a university this semester in Chile, I am now striving to continue my progress, and can attest to the strides made over the summer. Considering my academic career and my remaining time at Notre Dame, I am committed to coming back to the region, either to pursue new research interests that I have developed, or for an internship that will give me further insight into professional opportunities post-graduation. My SLA Grant experience has given me the confidence in my ability to consider for the first time that Spanish could be a part of my professional future. Finally, I am also certain that I would like the language to remain part of my life considered on its own merits, devoid of any professional or academic opportunities it may facilitate. Its development has been a rewarding and stimulating experience that has added a dimension to my life, and I am determined to continue with it.