Of words and specificity

Learning a foreign language is laudable for many reasons, not the least of which is the dedication and effort it requires. It challenges the learner to think for a different perspective. The more foreign the language, the larger the feat. By learning a language, you do not simply learn another means of communication, set of grammar rules, or vocabulary, you learn about yourself. In my first summer studying the Russian language I discovered much about my desire to learn, willingness to work, and the sharpness of my intellect. That summer was, without reserve, the most challenging academic task of my life. Having studied through two textbooks in 7 weeks might have had something to do with that. I asked one of the teachers if I was going to have the language skills of a kindergartner when the summer ended. He laughed and replied, “you might want to set your language goal at the level of a 3 year old.” At the end of the program, even that may have been too lofty. I must say I would’ve crushed any preschooler in a personal pronoun declension contest.

Continuing my pursuit of fluency in Estonia has taught me considerably regarding the Russian language, Russian and Estonian culture, and again about myself. It is the contrasts which have been illuminating. Contrasts between the culture of the US and Estonia, between each of the students, between the amount I have learned and what lies before me. As it stands, I cannot claim to be a conqueror of many noteworthy linguistic barriers. I am simply a person who has ventured deep into the foothills language only to be stuck by the magnitude of the mountains yet before me. The highest peak looming in the distance is mortifying in its size: raising my Russian vocabulary to the level at which I think in English.

Words have always played a special roll in my life. Growing up, if my brother or I wanted to know the meaning of a word, my dad would ask us if we knew how to spell it. Almost always, the word came from a book we held in our hands while asking the question, so of course we knew. Shortly there after, a dictionary would be firmly placed in our arms. When we asked how to spell a word, the reply would invariably be “do you know what the word means?” Once again the dictionary would be placed in our arms. We would then use the process of elimination to figure out how a word was spelled. Through the years, if I may brag, I have amassed a considerable and precise vocabulary.

Take for example something as simple as colors. In English, I can tell you if an object’s color is rust, crimson, or scarlet. Coral, rose, or salmon. Pink, magenta, or fuchsia. In Russian, I can tell you something is red. But when I tell you I saw a red car, I know it was actually candyapple red. Being unable achieve the same precision in Russian as I am able to in English reminds me of how much there is yet to learn. And yes, I am aware just how unfair a comparison it is between my native tongue and a language I have been studying for just over a year. Nevertheless, it is a comparison I have difficulty avoiding.

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