Captured in Words

By Charles Shaw '02 / January / February 2002
July 1st, 2007
How do you re-create the experience of living in another country?

When I showed my mother and father the photographs I'd taken during a semester in Russia last year, I could see them thinking, So, this is Russia! But it wasn't, of course. Russia is so much more than those portraits filtered through a fun-house lens. The key to entering fully into a foreign culture is an immersion in language. I arrived in the country having studied Russian for two years, yet I was dismayed to discover that the words and phrases of textbooks provide only a basic cross section of the language's essentials. To ameliorate this shortcoming I began to bathe in unfamiliar sounds. This bath took place most often at dinner, when the television newscast drowned out both food and conversation. Aside from catching bits of words, stray Moskvas, and the obligatory greetings of dobry vecher, I understood little of what was broadcast. So I simply let the sounds wash over me, allowing their rhythms and odd combinations to sink in.

Separated from the burden of comprehension, with its requisite demarcation of sound into words, I could play with syllables, roll them over, and laugh. They rushed all around me and filled the room and millions of rooms like it, disseminating news to all corners of Russia. I listened blankly, oblivious to their semantic baggage. Unburdened by ignorance, I tickled out a love based not on comprehension but on melody and rhythm.

Sometimes the experience could be less joyous. I often felt as if I was underwater, where meaning eluded me like an oily fish. While I walked in a busy market or bought my bus ticket, Russian seemed a jumble of distinct noises coalescing into a dark and murky blob. It could cluster into a shape that swam up and bit me from behind as a stranger asked me for directions or a new acquaintance insisted on discussing Bush and Putin. When a word wanted something explicit of me, I tried to respond in kind. Or I tried to fool it with a simple nod of feigned comprehension. If I passed the test, the word would swim away satisfied. If not, I became its meal.

Once I learned the meaning of words, they fell from the sky, loaded down with their weight of meaning. I found them pinned to the pages of dictionaries and confined to flat sheets of newsprint. Russian is tough. It's authoritatively governed by rules and cases and yet enigmatic and heedless. I often found myself balancing precarious constructions and depositing them on the head of a poor store clerk or my host mother, who would look at me as if I had just taken all the rules of grammar and strewn them across the floor.

Yet as I grew more familiar with the meaning of Russian words, I felt a loss. The exhilaration of sound fell away, replaced by the empowerment of comprehension. I felt viscerally the truism that culture resides in language. A society's politics and morals can be completely understood only through its language, only through their linguistic tones. To know them, you must feel them. The meaning of the Russian word for "people" - narod - cannot be fully appreciated outside its native milieu. Narod envelops the soil, the earth, and the church and blood of the Russian people; it conjures up images of those who toil, those in whom the truths of the nation are manifested. The word's cultural resonance can be sensed only when you speak it with those to whom it refers.

The great advantage of studying abroad is not that it helps you "find yourself." Rather, it allows you to see, albeit temporarily, with the eyes of others whose thoughts are shaped differently from yours, inside another linguistic logic. I did not "understand" the Russian people after a semester among them. But after I inhabited their language and their logic for a while, the joy and melancholy that they seemed to feel in waves became more familiar to me, while the voices of my parents on the telephone became more disjointed and fuzzy.


Charles Shaw is a history and Slavic studies concentrator.
What do you think?
See what other readers are saying about this article and add your voice. 
Related Issue
January / February 2002