Friday, March 27, 2009

the origin of christianity in russia

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One of my Russian courses this semester includes submitting a 'culture project' each month. The requirements are very lenient and many students take advantage of this; they've discovered that it's possible to spend 10 minutes -- the night before it's due -- reading up on a topic....they can write a few shallow, non-committal paragraphs and still receive a satisfactory grade. It's a shame though, because in my experience learning and understanding the culture of a language group is as important, if not more important, than learning the declension rules, proper verb conjugations, and vocabulary lists.

And here's why: Let's say you and I are in Russian class together. We fill in the blanks in the workbook and learn to easily recognize and form sentences such as, "The white refrigerator is next to the black stove." (This is a real example of something I can say and understand very quickly in Russian....although we haven't gotten to the food section of the book yet, so I couldn't actually tell you what's in that white refrigerator that we could possibly cook on the black stove.)
Let's do French instead, I might actually be able to give an example of what I'm trying to point out. So we finish our 1st year introductory French classes and decide to take a trip to Paris. Upon arriving, our choppy accents give us away as beginners, and we can't always think of the right word to say exactly what we want, but for the most part, people get the point.

When you get out of the classroom and are putting your foreign language skills to work, chances are you're speaking with someone whose mother tongue IS that foreign language (because if they speak more than one language, English will be one of them, and their English will be much better than your French, or Italian, or Russian).


So there you are, you speaking French to a group of Francophones....Have you thought about the fact that people are really good at gathering inferences from your limited vocabulary? Remember, they know ALL the words in the dictionary and their brains will automatically insert the correct word even when you make a mistake. (Example: After spending 9 months thinking and speaking 100% of the time in French, my parents came to visit me. I proudly explained to them that I thought I had "accumulated well to the European lifestyle." Obviously, the correct word is acclimated, not accumulated. But I didn't have to point that out, your brain had already found the word it needed to make sense of the sentence.) See? :)


Now we can agree that while being able to recognize/understand/infer the meaning of a variety of vocabulary words is useful (since your French friends won't stick to a 2nd grader's vocabulary), but now I'm going to explain why learning vocab and grammar rules shouldn't be your primary focus. Instead, you should focus on how, why, when, and with whom certain words are used.

All languages are full of words that carry nuances: subtle shades of meaning. Moreover, certain words have strong connotations that may depend on their use in a certain context. To further hinder your learning process, there are often two or more words that can be used to say the same thing depending on if you want to express yourself formally or colloquially. It's important to pay attention to synonyms and the context that each is used in. For a start, make note of who uses which word and whether they're talking to a stranger/professor or good friend. This will help you avoid an epic fail, an example of which I will share with you now....

The circumstances surrounding my immersion into French were multi-faceted. Most of my days were filled with classes taught by middle-aged academics; the classes were made bearable by my often foul-mouthed fellow students. At night I returned home to my family which included a 5 and 3 year old. So obviously there were certain words and phrases that were only appropriate in certain situations. I haven't ever been one to use dirty language, but my judgment of what kind of people use what kind of language didn't translate very well into the new culture. So some of my friends that I thought would never use bad language actually did all the time.

Just as one of your children would learn to speak English, I learned French through repetition and the consistent use in context of a word. There are hundreds of French words that I've never looked up in the dictionary -- I probably couldn't even give you an exact definition of many of them -- but I know what they mean and how to use them because of having heard them so many times in different contexts.

I was able to easily sift out most of what I guessed to be inappropriate language.....but apparently one phrase slipped through the cracks. One day in class (the last week or two of school, so by this point I was very familiar with the language and everyone knew I knew what I was saying. i.e.-- I was now held responsible for what I said) a professor asked me a question, something along the lines of "Do you want to do ______ or ______." I didn't really have an opinion, and wanted to say "I don't mind, either way is fine," so I said "Je m'en fous," a phrase that I had heard several times a day for the past year and thought I understood. Apparently I guessed wrong on the meaning of that one, because the room got silent and the professor just looked at me in shock. I was obviously confused and when I started looking around for someone to explain what was going on, the professor simply said, "We don't say that here."

What I thought was a friendly way to acquiesce a decision actually meant "I don't give a sh**."

I don't think I've ever been more embarrassed in my entire life.

Have I convinced you now that cultural connaîssance is as important as grammar and vocabulary lists?


Now, if you'll scroll up a bit and look at the title of this entry, you'll notice that it has nothing to do with what I've actually written. I was first going to talk about the paper I was writing on "The Origin of Christianity in Russia" because it truly is an interesting topic, but then I got to thinking about how much I learned from researching the paper and how important these kinds of projects are....and voilà, this is where it took me.

Join me next time for another random treatise. :)


Friday, March 13, 2009

worst first date ever

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So after being asked out a few times by an acquaintance, I agreed to accompany him tonight to dinner and a Nashville Predators professional hockey game. I really enjoy watching the Preds, and--although I didn't really think it would go anywhere--the guy seemed nice, so I thought I should give him a shot. We'll just call him He.

He showed up promptly at 5:30 and we set out to grab a bite to eat before the game. Upon reaching the stop sign at the exit of my apartment complex, He says, "I shouldn't turn left out of here." (It's a two-way, four-lane, busy road.) I reply: "Oh, hmm, I always turn left out of here. Maybe I just always get lucky, but the traffic usually comes in waves, so it should be clear in just a minute or two." Apparently, a minute or two was too long to wait, because after about 20 seconds he pulls out. We are nearly missed by two oncoming SUVs flying down the hill towards us and then we swerve dangerously into our destination lane, cutting off another SUV right behind us. A chorus of horns erupts from all directions. I'm definitely having second thoughts by now, but try to suppress my fears and put on a smile.

100 feet down the road we stop at a red light. The guy behind us throws his driver door open and storms up, in the middle of traffic, to our driver side window, where he proceeds to tap fiercely on the window and yell (in a slightly funky accent), "You're a moron! What, are you blind? You're crazy...you shouldn't be on the road" while waving his hands wildly. At first I don't connect the two events and giggle at him....then I realize just how dangerous that last move was, and am a little appalled as He makes a derogatory comment about the guy as the guy storms back to his car. He didn't apologize for nearly killing me.

Minutes later, we arrive at the "restaurant"....Qdoba, a slightly healthier version of Taco Bell. I'm thinking, okay, the guy's on a budget. I'm a broke college student; I can understand that. We go in. I order. He orders. It's a Subway-style deal where we go down the line and pick out the toppings. We get to the checkout. The very friendly cashier greets us, "Hey folks, how ar'ya doin' tonight. Are these going to be together or seperate?" I decided not to answer and let Him take the initiative. He looks over at me and I kind of half-smile with a little shrug. He says, "Oh...we'll be separate."

I'm in shock. Somehow, I find my credit card and hand it over to the cashier. The cashier likes the cute little sunflower picture on my card. So does He. I show it to Him, thinking, "Would you like me to use it to buy your dinner too?!" My salad was $6.43. That's less than the $10 it costs to park downtown. For someone who persisted in asking me for a date, I was bewildered as to why he didn't see fit to buy me dinner.

We gather our food and drinks and find a booth. For the next hour I politely ask him about how he came to be in Nashville, where he went to school, where he works, about his family, etc. I make an effort to show genuine interest because that's what tactfulness and appropriate date conduct is all about. Apparently, however, He missed the memo, because he didn't ask me one question about myself, my school, or my family the entire night....NOT EVEN ONE.

It's 6:47 pm. We've made it into the arena and found our seats. I'm initiating conversation--as usual--while we wait for the other fans in our row to show up and scoot past us. The first guy comes over, "Excuse me, I think my seat's just on the other side of you." I look up at the guy...."Hey! How are you!" (We'll call him Guy #2.) Guy #2 stares at me for 2 seconds before recognizing me. It's a guy I went on a first date with a few months ago. There was no second date.

By some freak alignment of the universe, I find myself sitting between these two. What are the chances that Guy #2 would be assigned to a seat right next to me?? None of our seats were bought; they are owned by separate companies who hold the season passes for those seats and give them sporadically to customers.

Guy #2 leans over and whispers in my ear, "This your new BF?" "No," I answer, "not at all." Guy #2 makes a point of calling me 'sweetheart' and asking me to hold his beer while he runs to the restroom. I'm trying to keep Him involved in the conversation and feel bad about Guy #2 moving in and trying to take over His date. He doesn't do anything at all to try to keep my attention. No clever jokes, no interesting stories, no informative comments on the game. Meanwhile, Guy #2 seems to be full of stories, jokes, and commentary galore. Guy #2 sustains a permanent lean towards me the entire game, supported by the flimsy arm rest that separates our seats. He, on the other hand, seems to be indifferent, positioned perfectly in the middle of his seat with his arms folded across his chest. I sit awkwardly between them, trying to keep from brushing either of their shoulders or sending any kind of message that would imply interest on my part.

Halfway through the game, a mutual friend of Guy #2 and I is spotted across the arena. I say, "Why don't we text him and then stand up and wave?" Guy #2 says, "Okay." He pulls out his spiffy blackberry and sends off a text that says, "Shirah is stupid!!!!" Great. Just great. What, is this 7th grade? A reply comes back. "No, Shirah is a genius. You, on the other hand...."
Thank you! Finally, someone stuck up for me.

All in all, it truly was an uncomfortable night. The worst part is, when He and I returned to the apartment, He chatted with my roommate for a few minutes before leaving. From the impression that his conduct gave her, everything had gone great. He really thought that the date had gone well. Can you believe that?

Needless to say, there will not be a second date.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

goals for 2009

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  1. consistently exercise 6 days/week
  2. compile & start editing my travel journal
  3. travel to Africa
  4. pay off my credit card completely and start the new decade debt free
  5. maintain my 3.88 gpa
  6. read three books that were not assigned for a class
  7. plan my trip to Francis Schaeffer's international center for Christian studies: l'Abri in Switzerland
  8. start a portfolio of paintings and photography
  9. start playing my flute again
  10. get to a point where God is consistently the first resource I turn to when facing challenges
  11. go on a three-day backpacking trip somewhere in the country
  12. spend more time than the current yearly average of 4 weeks with my family in Oregon
  13. visit the Grand Ole Opry
  14. go to a beach on the US' southern coast
  15. find a new hobby

I'm not quite sure that traveling to Africa is very conducive to paying off my credit card....so I might have to prioritize there. bummer.

spring break!

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Well well, it's that time of year again. Spring has come sporadically to Nashville. January and February have been a meteorological roller coaster; we've had everything from 3 degree days of ice, sleet, and snow, to gorgeous 70 degree days!

I'm so excited about doing absolutely nothing over Spring Break this year. I'm going to stay at Belmont, get ahead in my classes, take a few day trips to nearby National Parks with my roommate....it's gonna be great.

I'll be sure to post some nature pictures!! :)
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