Learning a New Language and Culture

Some people have asked what it is like to learn another language or culture like the Russian language. I am not the best person to ask as I have only become assimilated enough to carry on a broken conversation for about 5-10 minutes by myself without my wife’s assistance. But still, I feel like there are a few good things to expect while planning to come to Russia.

The language is the first big challenge, but it is not as insurmountable as it might seem at first. Before considering any pilgrimage, a person has to reach deep within and ask, “Why am I going on this pilgrimage?” It is a question which ought not to be confused with the more selfish one, “What is in it for me?” since you are going on pilgrimage for others as much as for yourself, to intercede to the saints on their behalf.

When first learning the language, there are many helpful programs to listen to. Most recommend Rosetta Stone, but I personally like the Pimsleur Language Program, available in toto at the local library (I recommend the complete course in three parts, not the quick and easy versions). I listened to all 90 lessons one summer that we were in Russia for three months and it helped me break the sound barrier: that uncomfortable silence when someone asks a basic question in Russian and you don’t have anything to say for yourself.

At this point, someone might ask, “Why go to that trouble if you have someone to translate into English?” Certainly, this makes it easier for you the English speaker, but two things are lost in translation: 1) The directness of speaking to another person face to face, however faltering, without the help of an interpreter, and 2) The full attention of the person who agrees to translate. Just because someone knows how to speak two languages fluently does not necessarily mean they are good at translating from one into another; it is a skill all its own, and a worthwhile skill, but it requires work which the single-language speaker often takes for granted.

I remember the first time I met someone in Russia that I wanted desperately to speak to directly. Each one of the few words I knew were so pregnant with meaning. How surprised I am still by how much meaning can be packed into so few words. Like the apostle Paul who preferred to speak 5 intelligible words than 10,000 in an unknown, un-interpreted tongue, I think more is communicated by what is left unsaid than by what is said. The apostle John reminds us in his first epistle that people will know we are Christians by our love, not our words, and thankfully love is a universally understood language, spoken primarily through the eyes directly to the heart.

So, once you have mastered a battery of basic words and phrases, the second challenge is a much harder one and much more nuanced. It is the realization that everything you want to say and do in English doesn’t always translate well into Russian no matter what words you use. A good example is what we each consider the mark of highest praise for another person. For America, it might be a person’s sense of humor or that they know how to have a good time. For a Russian, someone who behaves like this at the outset of meeting him/her will make the other person conclude that he/she is a little crazy. For a Russian the highest note of praise is usually another person’s degree of seriousness, while the average American might want a very serious person to lighten up a bit before getting to know them better. In so many of these cultural comparisons, it is tempting to cast judgment in either direction, but I believe the Lord would have us be multi-cultural which means in this case refraining from judging the differences as better or worse. For us who are learning, they are just different; to make a right judgment, we really need more information or background.

Vive la difference as the French say. May our differences not only be allowed to exist, but may they teach us to suspend judgment until we expand the horizon of our understanding.

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