I would like to share a pet peeve of mine. I hate being told how fortunate I am to speak Russian! Knowing that people mean this as a compliment, I hesitate to be honest. Yet, hoping that some readers may be challenged by my words, I will risk offending others. Over and over, I have been told by missionaries, professors, friends, colleagues, and random people on the street, "You are so lucky to speak Russian!" It is wonderful to speak Russian. I thank God daily for the blessing it has been to me personally, as well as the ministry and learning opportunities it has provided. Yet it hurts to have it glibly attributed to luck.
Aspects of my lifestyle and personality have certainly facilitated the Russian language acquisition process. Being extroverted, I enjoy spending time in conversation, and consciously chose to forgo time alone to be with Russian speakers. My linguistics background includes theoretical coursework in second language acquisition, which I directly applied on a daily basis in Russia. I began Russian language courses at age eighteen, an opportunity not available to all. Being unmarried has allowed flexibility to spend time in conversation and books that others may have devoted to spouses and families.
I am fortunate that these characteristics and opportunities have aided in my language learning process. I cannot fault those who, for these or other reasons, have not acquired proficiency. But when told how "lucky" I am, at times I want to lash out in anger. "Do you realize how much work I put into that? Do you realize that for two years of college, not a single weekday passed that I did not spend fifty minutes in class and at least as long studying? Do you realize that for an entire semester, I rose every Friday at 5 a.m to study verb endings for three hours before a 9 a.m quiz? Do you realize that I spent thousands of dollars in college tuition on Russian classes? Or that because of an emphasis on foreign languages, I did not take a single history, economics, political science, music, art, or psychology class during a four-year liberal arts education?" A full fifty percent of my undergraduate career was devoted to foreign languages. At times I regret that. But it was a sacrifice that I felt worthwhile as I devoted my elective coursework to foreign languages.
At age 22, I was given the opportunity to move to Russia--a dream come true in many ways. I opted to live with nationals from day one. Though in contact with a handful of English-speakers, including some of my housemates, I chose to spend as much time as possible using my limited Russian. A tutor was willing to work with me two hours every day--no matter how tired or busy she or I may have been. I sought relationships with non-English speakers, even when our time together consisted of listing the Russian names of vegetables in the refrigerator, followed by drawing and naming vegetables that were not at hand. I attended meetings of our ministry leadership team, simply listening, as my Russian was not competent even to follow the details, much less contribute. I strove to compensate for my lack of verbal skills by cooking for those who needed extra attention, or running mundane errands for those busy with important ministry activities. (This, too, became language practice, as I learned early on--often the hard way--how to take trams, trolleys, and buses across town in search of train tickets, flour, or acrylic paint). I devoted 10-15 hours every day to conscious language study and practice. I remember well the loneliness of days on end with no more than surface conversations.
I have met many missionaries who feel they do not have time to invest in language, something I understand well. They likely are too busy, given the job description they attempt to fulfill and responsibilities they have undertaken. Yet for those serious about depth, rather than quantity, of ministry accomplishments, job descriptions can be revised and responsibilities delegated. The Russian church has survived for years with minimal input by foreigners. God will continue to keep and guide her while we learn, rather than teach.
By my second year, I could avoid many of my initial mistakes and attempt deeper conversations. While opting for four rather than 10 hours of formal language instruction per week, practice only increased. Late-night conversations about issues such as sexually-transmitted diseases, birth defects caused by industrial pollution, and cures for alcoholism became a regular part of each week. Of course I hadn't studied the vocabulary to discuss these topics. But I knew the important phrases: "I don't know what that word means." "Can you explain that to me again?" "What does that mean?" Every conversation became a learning experience.
I can't brag about my language ability. I have a long way to go, and still, conscientiously, work on my Russian. While my reading is improving through hours of practice, a ten-year-old can write better than I can. I still tend to overuse slang expressions. Translating and interpreting is extremely difficult. When typing in Russian, I "hunt and peck." Conversant as I am on topics such as cooking, the plan of salvation, or raising a kitten, I cannot fluently discourse on politics, literature, or theology. I have learned to speak quickly, making it less obvious that word endings are often wrong.
Yet I feel comfortable with Russian. I have read Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita in the original--twice. I can purchase tickets, counsel a struggling young wife, pray with a new believer, take telephone messages, understand a sermon, and worship--really worship--in my Russian church. Is this luck? No! It is due to hours of effort and tedious work. Is it worth it? Absolutely! Is it for everyone? Probably not. But please don't tell me how lucky I am. Each person is given 24 hours every day. I have chosen to use many of them in language learning activities. To others, God has given different priorities and opportunities. Some teach, publish, distribute humanitarian aid, or raise children. Each must obey the call of God. Yet God has called me to learn Russian. It's been a lot of work.
Sharyl Corrado is assistant editor of the East-West Church and Ministry Report.
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