Friday, May 4, 2012

On language and culture

I'm incredibly frustrated at the moment. It's a good frustration. Healthy.

 I'm focusing solely on language study at the moment and people are frustrated. They saw me in missional action and activity before and they are frustrated that I am "not doing anything" right now.

It feels as though everything is incomplete in my life right now. Russian and Ukrainian both make constant use of complete and incomplete verbs, a concept that is comparatively scarce in English. The difference between a complete action such as "I have read the book" and "I was reading the book" makes a certain amount of sense in some contexts. But often, in English, we don't have this distinction. How do you fall in an incomplete way? When are you completely sick and when are you incompletely sick? It feels as though everything is incomplete in my life right now.

When one learns a language, there is no completion. There is no benchmark of success to shoot for. For every declination of a verb that you learn there are dozens that you can't fathom - and it just takes one person to use one of the dozens that you don't understand to trip you up.

My primary focus is Ukrainian, but I simultaneously take Russian classes. At first I thought this would be confusing - but it's actually terrifically freeing. Although Lviv boasts proud support of the Ukrainian language - many people still speak Russian. On top of all of that craziness, many people speak a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian. It's a spectrum disorder. Some people speak all Ukrainian with a few words of Russian. Some people use all Ukrainian words but Russian grammar and sentence structure. Some people throw in a healthy dose of Polish or Transcarpathian dialect just to keep us on our toes.

When I studied German in school there were tests at the end of the unit. I could believe that I had "mastered" some part of the language. While I can feel myself speaking more clearly, fluently, and comfortably in Ukrainian - it only takes a woman on a bus who is missing a few teeth to reduce my language comprehension level to that of an infant.

I want to be doing the "fun" things that I enjoy. I want to be enjoying the wonderful, growing ministry that surround the student center and UMC in Lviv.

But, instead, I am "doing nothing" for a few more months.

My teachers are wonderful - and they are concerned more with full comprehension than any grammatical understanding. My five primary teachers come from different regions, backgrounds, religious affiliations, political parties, and socio-economic backgrounds. And yet they all believe that it is vitally important that I understand the culture and customs.

In Lois Lowery's poignant  novel, "The Giver" a young boy in a Utopian society is forced to receive and bear all the pain and suffering of all of humanity. My teacher's are adamant that I must understand and experience the pain their nation has experienced. I am eternally grateful for this time and these experiences. 

Today while teaching English I kept referencing Ukrainians and suddenly I realized that I was using the pronoun "we" without any hint of irony. I think more importantly, the students didn't disagree.

I am frustrated and yet I am overjoyed. I am incomplete and yet I am full.