Friday, March 27, 2009

the origin of christianity in russia

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. :)


  1. AAHAHAH! I want to hear you say that phrase in English, Shirah (jk;)!!! AHAHAHA...SO funny!!!

    "Francophones" - What does this mean? Translate;).

  2. Francophones = People who speak French

    Anglophones = People who speak English

    catch my drift? ;)

  3. Hey Shirah, I'm just hopping I wasn't a part of your foul-mouthed fellows :D

    Actually I think that story is very is funny one despite the fact I unfortunatetly don't remember the day you said that.

    Still, I have two questions. First, do you think the way young belgian people are talking is dirtier than american? That's a real question, I don't take it as any offense but I was wondering because we are here used to hear a lot of dirty talks in american movies. But anyway as we say here: "force est de reconnaître" that a room full of 6th grade students is not the best place to learn how to speak a good french.

    Last one and just for the fun: do you remember when I asked to you if it wasn't to frustrating not to be able to express yourself as well as you're used to?

    Anyway, for once that I take the time to answer I wanted to say that it's always a pleasure to read from you so keep writing because, as I'm sure you will go far, I want to know how.

    Au plaisir!


  4. Salut Quentin, ravie de te lire ici :)

    Et non - it wasn't at all you that I learned the bad language from. And lots of Americans use bad language too (I wasn't trying to single out Europeans as the only ones to use it), it's just that I was confused because on one hand, you must use "vous" with professors, so I thought that school was a formal place....but then students would say things like "putain!" or "je m'en fous" or whatever IN the classroom. Even though it wasn't directed at the teacher, I still thought, "Hey, it can't mean anything that bad if they're saying that here."

    Je pense que tu étais avec moi en option Socio. Mais non, t'as pris latin et grec?
    Anyways, un jour au tout début de l'année, j'ai dit 'tu' à Mme Mercken et donc elle a commencé me donner un grand discours des règles de l'école....genre 'tu dois utiliser Vous avec tous les profs. Sinon tu m'insultes.' hahaha j'ai même pas bien compris son monologue parce qu'elle a parlé vraiment trop vite.

    And yes, I do remember when you asked me about not being able to express myself, and yes, it was definitely difficult in the beginning. It took me a while to feel comfortable talking to you guys because I always felt bad that you had to explain so many things....and I spoke sooooo slowly au début!!

    Et toi en plus, je ne saurai jamais pq, mais je trouvé qu t'as un accent un peu différent de tous les autres et c'était vraiment dûr te comprendre parfois, mais enfin c'était bien parce que j'ai appris reconnaître des accents diverses.

    Aiee....j'suis en retard. Je vais au cours.

    A bientôt!

  5. Intresting, I think I do have another accent simply because I've always been around much more French people then belgian and of course because I'm speaking much too fast. But I think I've improved that part.

    Maybe one day we should check that on skype. You tell me.

    Je vais faire comme toi un mélange des deux langues, ça me plait.
    Par rapport à ce que tu disais, je pense que tu as raison et je comprends maintenant mieux la confusion que tu décrivais qui provient de la difficulté que tu devais à voir à séparer ce qui était interdit de ce qui était permis ou simplement toléré.
    Mon interprétation de cela, mais je peux évidemment me tromper, est à rechercher dans l'évolution de la société belge-francophone qui n'a eu de cesse de se libéraliser (au sens américain du terme). Et cette réalité est particulièrement frappante dans le secteur de l'enseignement. (Je ne crois d'ailleurs pas me tromper en affirmant que les "teachers union" aux USA sont une partie intégrante et influente du parti démocrate). Je pense que tu as d'ailleurs pu remarquer que l'ensemble de la société belge se situait bien plus à gauche que la société étasunienne. Alors je pense qu'il y a un peu de ça mais aussi simplement parce que Saint-Dominique est une école située dans un milieu urbain relativement défavorisé.

    Well, see ya'

    ps: an idea for the next topic: what are your plan for the future? I'd like to know

  6. Tu as raison, la système d'enseignement publique est fort associé au parti démocrate. Et oui, l'Europe en générale reste beaucoup plus à gauche que nous.

    I think that an analysis of the history and evolution of both systems would be interesting, but even more revealing would be a current evaluation of how each is run right now. There are definitely pros and cons on both sides: un mélange des deux systèmes ferait un très bon équilibre d'indépendence et de responsabilité pour les étudiants.

    PS- j'écrirai bientôt sur mon futur proche. Et peut-être j'écrirai des postes en français de temps en temps alors que mes amis belges--qui ne parlent pas l'anglais--puissent en profiter aussi.

  7. Hey, what's with all this Franchise stuff!?

    What's the matter with you people? Don't nobody speak American around here?


Blog content © 2015 Shirah Eden Foy. Powered by Blogger.