Corps to Career: Learning new languages enhanced my career

By Bethany Davidson
Feb. 21, 2017

I live in northern Ghana and served in a small village as a health, water and sanitation Volunteer from 2009 to 2011 before extending my service to work from the regional capital until early 2013. 

While in my village, I lived with a host family that did not speak any English. This was quite rare for many Ghana Volunteers — either you lived with a host family or other community members in a compound and at least a few would speak English, you would live alone but in a community with few English skills or you would live in a town where most people spoke English. As a result, I became quite fluent in the local language — Dagbani — over my service. Having grown up in Kentucky with little exposure to foreign languages, I actually unlocked a hidden talent of mine during the Peace Corps: linguistics!  

I worked in quite a few places due to my primary project taking place in about 40 different communities. As such, I thought it wise to learn at least some basic greetings and common phrases in the variety of languages in the communities where I worked. All total, I learned two languages quite well (similar dialects) and can greet and have basic conversations in about six others. 

Fast-forward to the end of my service when USAID was looking for a short-term contractor to work in the very same areas where I had served. That person needed to be able to move independently in remote areas, have good knowledge of the local government system and, at times, interact with community members in the local language. I was a perfect fit! 

Though I had a supervisor based in the country capital (also a returned Peace Corps Volunteer), I worked on my own in the Northern Region for about a year before I was joined by two other people, one of whom was an older, well-established Ghanaian (who had been taught math by a Volunteer during his senior high school years), the other a returned Volunteer from El Salvador. We were quite the trio when we came knocking! 

In that time, I was able to work with local government officials (whose main language was English), as well as interact with community members where project activities would eventually take place. Because of my Peace Corps service, I knew proper greetings and cultural protocols of the various traditional leaders with whom we often met. The people we would ultimately partner with on the development project appreciated the respect I had shown for their culture and the time I had taken to learn their greetings (which is incredibly important to Ghanaian culture overall). 

And even though my government colleagues all speak English proficiently, to be able to greet large forums in the myriad of northern languages present always gets things off to a good start. 

So, here I am, almost four years after my service and still working on the same incredibly fulfilling project in northern Ghana. For a variety of reasons, I would not be where I am today without my Peace Corps background, but language and cultural knowledge has played a significant role.

Bethany Davidson

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