Newsletter 2006

Experiencing Language:
after Elementary Russian I

Before the breakup of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, there was no official state language. However, the Russian language was the primary language used in government, economics, as well as the sole language used by the military. Russian was taught in most schools and was the dominant language of instruction in higher education. Still, it is important to note that over a hundred languages and dialects were spoken in the USSR and spanned numerous language categories including the Altaic, Caucasian, Uralic and Indo-European language families. 

For this reason it is no surprise that I encountered both Russian and Belarusian when I participated in an American-Belarusian excavation in Belarus. While the official language of Belarus is listed as both Belarusian and Russian, it seems that, just like in the time of the USSR, that Russian is really the predominant language. Particularly within government and most printed publications such as newspapers and magazines. 

It was during my cultural experiences on this trip that I myself became interested in the Russian language. Whether it was trying to order food from a Cyrillic menu, leaning animal names and numbers from Belarusian children, or attempting to pronounce the various signs we encountered, I had a desire to gain as much proficiency with the Russian language as possible. With a little nudging from a Russian language student who was part of the crew, I was enrolled this past semester in Elementary Russian I.

Looking back, I wish I had the foresight to take the class before I traveled abroad; it would have enriched the experiences I had with the local people of Belarus. Basic conversational skills would have facilitated a more dynamic experience and allowed for greater immersion into society. Things that I learned in class, such as the use of full names and patronymics when addressing someone of higher rank, particularly our Belarusian project leader and the adults we encountered, would also have been highly advantageous. The knowledge of history, current political situations, and aspects of the general diet would have been good to know before traveling abroad. All this certainly would have had a positive impact and I may have even come to appreciate our crew’s shared affection for
Белая магия.

--Adam M. Schieffer, ‘06