Do You Understand Me?
NOTE: I wrote this over six months ago, not intending to use it as a blog entry. It's written for people who have no clue who I am, but most of you know me. Just roll with it. Also, it's pretty long, but it's so awesome that reading it will make you smart and popular, so it's totally worth it.
Do you ask for directions when you’re lost? What about if you can’t find something in a large store, such as Walmart? I’ve always been the guy who never asked for directions or approached store employees for help. Whether it was pride, fear, laziness, or a combination of all three, I’ve always disliked those types of interactions.
Now I no longer have a problem. Why? Because I can understand what they say! That might sound really weird, but a year ago I dreaded even approaching the cashier at our local grocery store. The reason was that almost no one spoke English.
My family and I were living in Kiev, Ukraine. We were advised that the language would probably be our greatest challenge, and that was very true. Since we only had about three months from first considering going until we arrived, we didn’t have time to learn the Russian beyond just a few internet lessons.
While Ukrainian is the official language, Russian is what’s spoken on the street in Kiev. When we stepped off the plane, we knew only a few words. Sadly, when we got back on a plane to come home nine-and-a-half months later, we didn’t know a whole lot more. My wife and I were both teaching full time, and between our jobs and our own kids, there just wasn’t much time to dedicate to learning the language. Not only that, but we taught at an English-speaking school, so I can’t say we were immersed in Russian.
Russian isn’t an easy language for Americans to learn. Not only does it use entirely different alphabet (Cyrillic), many of the sounds are difficult for our Anglicized tongues to articulate. Many of the missionaries we worked with in Kiev dedicate their first couple of years in the country exclusively to studying the language, and now we know why.
Week after week of passing billboards and street signs in Russian and Ukrainian, seeing television in restaurants and on the metro (subway), and trying to decipher labels on unfamiliar items in stores impressed upon me how there’s an entire culture I know very little about, and language is central to understanding that culture. There are endless stories, songs, poems, and expressions—all of them completely foreign to me. I’d pass two people having a conversation and have no idea what they were talking about. They’d laugh at jokes I didn’t understand and roll their eyes at clichés about which I knew nothing.
It can be overwhelming to consider all I don’t know about Ukrainians because I don’t speak the same language, but there are somewhere around 7,000 languages in the world. That leaves me clueless to about 6,999 of them. Would my life be more fulfilling if I understood those languages?
And what about my own language? Some people dedicate their entire lives to understanding English, while some don’t know the difference between your and you’re and seem to think the sentence “I seen him yesterday” is perfectly fine. Now, I admit English can be fairly ridiculous, so it’s easy to see how one can make mistakes. Take homonyms as an example: is it to, two or too? Should I use there, they’re or their? Still, if we don’t even understand our own language, how can we ever hope to begin understanding others?
So much of language goes beyond the basic meanings and pronunciation of words. To realize how overwhelming all this is, I don’t have to look any further than my own rural Minnesota community. Beyond the territorial differences (pop vs. soda, hotdish vs. casserole, and every Minnesotan’s favorite game, Duck, Duck, Grey Duck), there are some bizarre expressions we use across the United States.
Can’t you just picture a confused foreigner when you declare, “You’re barking up the wrong tree” or “Stop beating around the bush”? What about when you tell them you have to cut up that tree you cut down in your backyard last week?
Several years ago I worked on a golf course, and one day my co-worker and I had to stop and wait for some golfers who were coming through our work area. My co-worker was a golfer, so he watched with rapt attention as one of the golfers hit a drive. Impressed, he declared, “That dog’ll walk!” Huh? I of course was able to translate his message: “That gentleman did an excellent job of hitting the ball. The accuracy of his shot will help ensure a successful score.”
That brings up something I sometimes wonder: Who comes up with these sayings, anyway? Wouldn’t it be cool to be able to tell people you meet, “Yeah, you know the expression ‘high on the hog’? I came up with that!”
One of my friends in Kiev told me about a colleague of his from Israel who tried very hard to use American sayings, only to fall short. When he wanted a response from someone else, he’d say, “The nickel’s in your court,” and he’d often attempt to encourage others by urging them to “Take the bull from the horns.” I’m sure I’d sound just as silly if I tried to use another language’s idioms.
It’s easy to find plenty of similarities among different languages. For example, listening to one side of a typical phone conversation between two Ukrainians often sounds something like this: “Allo? Da. Dobre Dien. Da, da, da. Horosho. Da. Da, da, da. [possibly a couple more Russian words I don’t understand, and then] Da. Horosho. Da, da, da. Das vay donya.” So they pretty much said “Hello” and “Good day” before saying “yes” and “good” a lot. Then they said “goodbye.” Seems kinda weird, until you consider a Midwestern-American phone conversation: “Hello? Oh hi. How’s it goin’? Good. Uh huh. Yep. Oh yeah. Yeah. Uh huh. Yep. Okay, cool. Sounds good. Yeah. Okay, see ya later. Bye.”
While my Ukrainian friends repeatedly say da, we also say yes a lot, but in a variety of ways, usually none of them actually using the word yes. Think of a poor foreigner trying to learn our language. They think yes is all they need to know in order to answer in the affirmative, only to learn it’s only one of several words we use, and then only in more formal situations. Think about it: How often do you say yes to friends or family members?
As if all these differing languages and sayings weren’t enough, some people feel the need to make up their own languages just for fun. This is scary, but what’s scarier is that some of these have actually caught on, such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s various Elvish languages, and of course Star Trek’s Klingon. Who has time to figure out languages that some random guy just made up?
So here I am, still amazed at the wealth of languages in the world, and realizing that I know very little. I admire those who can navigate languages beyond their own. Last year I had teenage students who could converse in two to four different languages, and that was humbling. At this point I’ve got my hands full just trying to “talk good” in my own language. Uff da!
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