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The Russian language as an art form

Editor’s note: Contributing Editor RaeJean Stokes is traveling around the former U.S.S.R. this holiday season and reporting back to us with occasional missives about life on the other side of what was once the Iron Curtain.

As a kid, I was scared of languages with weird alphabets like Russian. But the more I learn about Russian, the more I like it. It’s a beautiful but frighteningly complex language.

For example, the preposition you choose to use with the word “kitchen” indicates your social class. Traditionally it’s “na,” a word used to mean “on,” but in this case reserved for a place you create something. If you chose to say “v” or “in,” however, that means that you don’t actually do the cooking and can afford to have someone else do it for you. Another example: There is also no word order in Russian. How you form a sentence is an art that takes years to perfect.

While discoveries like this are rewarding, other aspects of language learning are frustrating, the single-best example being the all-too-common misconception that because you don’t speak the language fluently you must be operating at less than full mental capacity. While some people are indeed very patient and encouraging, being told how to eat or congratulated for pushing the “power” button (which is labeled in ENGLISH) on the microwave can get a bit tiring.

But if anything, this also proves how enlightening travel can be. How many times have you heard “stupid foreigner” muttered in the U.S.? Now that I’m a “stupid foreigner” again, I can better relate with the bumbling, seemingly confused non-English speakers in our country. They’re not stupid—they just don’t know the right words to say, let alone how to properly conjugate them.

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