It started just by talking about pictures.
My Kyrgyz family loves to look at pictures – a trait common with many Kyrgyz people I have met who store multiple photo albums within reaching distance from their guesting area. Guesting, an equally fascinating Kyrgyz practice, deserves its own devotion that will undoubtedly be described ad infinitum later.
I have many pictures on my phone that my family looks at repeatedly. Pictures of my American family, pictures of my house, pictures of my long and winding road trip across the US, pictures of my work with the Obama Campaign, embarrassing amounts of selfies, and the things I have found interesting and photo-worthy here in Kyrgyzstan. (Spoiler alert: its pretty much everything.) Every photo I have with a boy means he is my boyfriend; every photo of my baby nephews elicits squeals and coos (and questions about when I will have babies). Pictures of places always ask, “Where is this? Which state?”
From driving across the Badlands this past December, I have pictures of bison. A lot of them. When I was little, I explained to my host parents, my Dad called me “Buffalo” and I loved seeing them in the wild. Then I had to explain where this buffalo was, and I talked about before there were many buffalo in America.
“But where did the buffalo go?”
I struggled through a (simplified) version of overpopulation of the American West by people and environmental changes.
“What happened to the Indians? I’ve seen a movie and I know that they used to hunt the buffalo.”
“That is true, they did.”
“I also know that they were big and are now small. And they cannot work. And have drinking problems. I saw on television. Why?”
“Hm. I don’t know how to say it in Russian. It’s very complicated.”
How do you explain a dark, difficult, and shameful piece of American history and its contemporary ramifications when you can barely describe who you are in the language? How do you differentiate between unique nations of peoples when you struggle to remember the names of the food you are eating? How do you explain complex, nebulous concepts like racism, forced migration, and institutional discrimination when your verbs are limited to the few you can remember, and mostly only in the present tense? How do you even begin to answer a question like why?
Slowly, and with a thick dictionary.
I find myself confronted with these questions all the time – trying to convey complex ideas with the language skills of a three year old. I’m frustrated all the time, and all I want is to express myself clearly without resorting to searching the dictionary and stumbling through the convoluted grammatical puzzle that is the Russian language.
Intangible questions like, “Who are you?” and, “Why are you here?” “What does it mean to be a volunteer?” and, “Why would you leave America to come to Kyrgyzstan when so many people are trying to move the other way?”
To be fair, it wasn’t always easy to answer those questions in English either.
I feel like I am constantly fighting to be understood, but I am lucky enough to feel like the people I speak with are, for the most part, fighting on my side. My family, who speaks very little English, has pushed me slowly along – putting up with my constant questioning, “What is this? And this? What is that? How do you say this?” my terrible Charades skills, and patiently waiting while I search the dictionary for the right word. When I am too quiet at the dinner table, they remind me I need to practice. When I stumble into the wrong tense or case ending, they politely stop and correct me. We’ve developed a system that any time I ask what something is in Russian, I offer its English equivalent – slowly building our own, personal dictionary in my rapidly-expanding notebook.
One of my goals in joining Peace Corps is learning a new language, and I have to admit – I have already learned infinitely more here than I did in any college course in the US, and more than the first two months of studying abroad. The Peace Corps approach is sink or swim – seven weeks until you are expected to be working in your new language, and PS. Your family, your community, and your coworkers are probably not going to be able to speak much English. So it’s a pretty significant goal. My biggest goal by the time I move to my permanent site in June is to express the vastness of my gratitude to my host family for opening their home to me and teaching me to survive in my new life. And, as always, I am impatient to learn more.
Learning a new language is an awesome feat – endlessly frustrating and extraordinarily complex, but also rewarding in a way that is hard to explain. It’s hard work, but it pays off when your host family brags that you have only been here three weeks, that you just started learning Russian, and that you can speak well enough to find a Kyrgyz husband. I’m hoping that last bit is just a joke, but I think that it’s their subtle way of suggesting. I’ve learned enough Russian to promise that I would be a bad wife, but I don’t think they are buying it. I guess that just means I need to learn more.
My advice to learn a new language? Find a family to open their homes and lives for you, find the best teacher you can, and bring pictures.
Just be ready to explain them.