Spicing up the language

I teach at L’viv National Ivan Franko University on Thursday mornings. (You’ll notice the “350” banner on the main campus building behind Zachary and Adam in the above photo. That’s right—it celebrated its 350th birthday last Tuesday! More on special beginnings later.)

I teach in the Department of Journalism about a half-hour walk from the spot you see here.  (Uphill.) Here my students are third-year students whose English is good. Sometimes I think I may be speaking too fast, because I enjoy the subject and get carried away. But the students seem to be following along, and I make sure to stop along the way to clarify terms and ask for questions. I hope they’re having fun. Oh—and Learning Something!

Clarifying terms is important because the terms we use to name things are specialty sub-languages in each foreign language. For example, when I referred to The Enlightenment in a discussion of historic influences on American values, student faces in the room got pretty darn blank. However, radio journalist and professor Borys Potyaynyk, whose students these are, translated the term for them: Prosvita. On the other hand, most of the words for concepts I use,  such as “ideology” and even “hegemony,” enjoy direct analogues in Ukrainian except for the appropriate grammatical ending: ideolohia and hehemonia. (These examples apply the rule in Ukrainian grammar that pronounces a “g” as an ‘h,” and may indeed be wrong, this sharing them here is my first stab at using them.) You can tell, I guess, that living in a place where I don’t speak the language makes some of the important ways language operates jump right out at me.

In fact, Monday this week, my boys and I attended our first Ukrainian lesson. We will be participating twice a week in an immersion class, just the three of us, for quite some time, so my communication deficiency may soon improve.

Actually, all of us have made breakthroughs this week, each of us in a different realm of language. For example, Adam sounds as if he is simply speaking English with a Ukrainian accent, but in fact, I think he is getting the language grammar-first and adding the vocabulary as he goes along.  This may be the natural result of the fact that Ukrainian is his first language. But the more I think about it, I think it is the result of his great ability for auditory learning, his musicality. He processes everything as if he is learning to sing a song. He is getting the tune down and filling in the right words later. When we walked into a charming coffee bar, the Academia (yes, I had been eyeing it), for a snack on the way home from school, and it seemed too smoky to stay, Adam approached the hostess and asked in Ukrainian for not smoking—ne currite—two words I know but could not reach in the appropriate situation, if I could remember I knew them at all. And the hostess swept open the door to our left to the cutest tea-room you can imagine. The ceilings must be about 15-feet high. The ceiling-to-floor south-facing windows combined with the wide center aisle and generously spaced tables provided an airy atmosphere. Add a bit of elegance with white linen tablecloths, chairs covered in wine-colored brocades and huge satin bows at the back. The view to the street was fun. The service was solicitous (we were the only customers to start), the food was good, and the price was reasonable. Well done, Adam!

As for Zachary, he is getting very good at understanding language through contextual cues. At church this week, when Bill (who’s home in Mooresville by now) put 20 hryvnia in a special offering basket, the lady carrying the basket stopped circulating and asked him something–twice. Bill sputtered, “Ya ne rosumyu.”  I can say that expertly as well—it means, “I don’t understand.” Zachary looked at both of us impatiently and said, “She asked if you want change.” Sure enough, men were tossing in 20s and taking back 10s. Bill did not take any change. As a toddler, and even up until he was about four, Zachary was a listener rather than a talker. (He has grown out of that.  Really grown.) Perhaps his preference for listening, and especially his ability of being precisely aware of where he is in space at all times, being aware of his physical context, reflects that his social context clears his way into language. Well done, Zac!

I am getting better at reading the Cyrillic alphabet. Usually I can point a things and grunt, but spices have been a bit difficult, since I want too little to buy in bulk, but too quickly to buy at the market. (Did I mention my eyes are not giving me a lot of help in the fine-disinctions-in-bad-photographs-on-packaging department? This is what I learned from labels in the produce store this week: Italian seasoning (actually “herbs”) is Italianski trava; rosemary is rosemaria; basil is vasilyk; oregano is orehano; red pepper is chervony perets; bay leaf is lavrova lest. (“Leaf” is lest.) Judging from other words on labels, the Ukrainian word for spice is something like sooshanya. I must say, I am particularly proud of my success—after five minutes and two additional heads—buying caraway seeds this week. Caraway is KMNH. That’s the way it is spelled in Cyrillic. I think it is pronounced kin, but don’t quote me.

I am looking forward to our next Ukrainian class. I am disappointed that my Ukrainian is not improving as quickly as I would like. It seems as it I picked it up rather quickly the last two times I was here.  On the o other hand, as i was saying to my students yesterday, my vocabulary was limited to concrete things and activities that made up the world of a four-year-old: eating, drinking, bathing, sleeping, juice, applies, pears, milk, bread… need I go on?  This time I am participating as fully as possible in adult life. So are the boys. We need to get much more comfortable with the language to be able to weave ourselves into this fabric, but I am confident we can do it!



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2 responses to “Spicing up the language

  1. Marie C. Hébert

    Great description of the linguistic challenges! Felt like I was there with you guys at every step. 🙂 Not challenges for long though from the sounds of it. Way to go Zac and Adam! And to your mastery of spice names already, I say Chapeau! ;->

    • Merci bien, Marie.
      It’s so for me just different diving in without having any classes to give me keys to help me organize what I’m hearing. I wanted to start lessons right away, but couldn’t. On the other hand, I think starting the lessons after two months may turn out to be a good strategy because we’re finally settled at home (except for having a working washer), and following Adam’s lead, we all have something of the rythmn of the language, even if we don’t know the words yet. (The irony that I am learning a language through cooking is not lost on me, but the way.)

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