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Why I want to speak my husband’s language

My husband and I met in a PhD program, where we spoke the same language: the international technical language of Anglo-American academic philosophy. In this language, we talked about the things that mattered to us the most, he with an accent so slight that I stopped hearing it. He told me about his Soviet childhood, with its dacha visits, mushroom-picking excursions, Pioneer camps, people who skied to work, and other exotica.  As it turned out, we’d both watched Winnie-the-Pooh cartoons, but I was shocked to find that his version was better. We’d both loved the Sonic Youth album Daydream Nation, but while I’d bought it on CD from some megastore, his copy was pirated, on vinyl, and had been released by something called the United Evangelical Lutheran Church of Russia, Saint-Petersburg. He gave me one of his Auktyon cassettes on extended loan and I started studying Russian to understand what the songs were about. I learned what is still my favorite word in Russian: ptitsa, a bird. The word sounds like the rustling of wings, the precise peck of a beak. When he translated his favorite Russian anecdotes for me – some of the darkest, funniest humor I’ve heard – I had a glimpse into his mind, and I also felt a deep sympathy with what I met. At the same time, we were (and are) quite foreign to one another.

Talking about the many cultural differences between Russians and Americans does aid mutual understanding, but for me nothing has helped quite as much as living a bit in the other culture – which requires language skills. When we became engaged, I studied harder in the hope of understanding my future husband better, being able to hold real conversations with my in-laws, and – possibly – raising bilingual children. Russian isn’t the easiest language to learn, but it might be the most fun. Getting a grip on basic grammar is hard – the genitive plural is a beast, or more accurately, a whole menagerie – but the pleasures of the language are worth it.

For example: In English, we usually answer questions “Yes,” “No,” or “Maybe,” understood as mutually exclusive, but in Russian it’s perfectly acceptable to respond using all three: Da net, navernoe (Literally: “Yes no, perhaps”). Some English loan words are amusing in Russian (gadzhety, “gadgets,” sounds just like Gad zhe ty!, “You reptile!”, which is roughly the equivalent of calling someone a cad or a scoundrel). Here’s a piece of soldier’s slang that showcases both how many consonants you can put in a row in Russian and how semantically useful Russian prefixes are: vzbzdnut’ means “to fart,” while kontrvzbzdnut’ means “to counter-fart,” i.e. to pass wind in response to someone else’s doing so. And a family friend taught me a very useful expression at a shashlyk party last summer: Chyo sukhie sidim? This means, literally and slangily, “Why are we sitting dry?” and can be used as an invitation to another glass of wine (or whatever).

All this may seem silly, especially when you consider that studying Russian enables one to read Pushkin, conduct diplomacy, and make business deals. However, the pleasures of making friends in another culture over tables laden with food and drink, while sometimes silly, are never trivial. I’m not sure exactly when I started to feel like part of my husband’s Russian world rather than someone looking in from outside, but it might have been this moment: My husband and I were visiting Russia and had returned to his parents’ home somewhat late in the evening. My in-laws, normally winding down at this hour, suddenly became a storm of plates and bottles and elbows and forks. In Russian this kind of situation can be described using the phrase vsyo i srazu, “everything and all at once.”

In the kitchen, eating snacks, drinking vodka, everyone talking over each other in a jolly way, my father-in-law told a story about a road trip he and his friends took to Kazakhstan back in the seventies. I ask questions, and he pulled out both a photo album and an old Soviet atlas, and showed us his route. The pictures were amazing, and even my husband didn’t know this story, so his parents were laughing and telling us about their past, and all of a sudden I realized how incredible it was to be there, with my husband, hearing the same story for the first time together.

When I started studying Russian, I had some vague ideas about wanting an integrated family life; now, such unexpected moments signify for me what that means and why it’s valuable. There is an indefinable way in which these shared cultural experiences deepen my understanding of my husband. It’s not only that I can now detect the Russian origin of his linguistic habits, like the disarming forthrightness of his speech. It’s also that I’ve been to the place he grew up, can talk to the friends he grew up with, can detect the tics and habits of his speech that specifically resemble my in-laws’ (it’s not terribly important in a practical sense, but it is moving and sweet), and can more easily find my balance in social situations that are governed more by Russian (vsyo i srazu!) than by American norms.