I once counted that I have studied six different languages at some point in my life. In my resume I have narrowed down the number of languages to the ones I feel comfortable enough to communicate with either in writing or in spoken language. If I only count the languages I have actively used in a work setting or in my free time the number continues to drop.
Really, as so many other Finns, I rely on my fairly good English to navigate through most situations where I need to use other than my native language. After all, English is one of the most spoken languages in the world and we expect people in almost every country to be able to communicate with it or at least understand it. I used to think that learning English would help me sail through most situations, as it did for a long time, when I used it in my travels to Central and Northern Europe and in my interactions with exchange students around the world. But once I found myself living and working in the hauntingly big and culturally self-sufficient Russia, I had to readjust my deep-seated beliefs about what it means to know a language and what is the true benefit of learning g the local language and not just being able to get by using English.
When I moved to Russia, I had a fairly good understanding of the language and the ability to understand and to be understood in most everyday situations. Still, there were many times when I found myself in more difficult situations hopefully asking people “Вы говорите по--нглийскийpeak Englihslanguage, английски?” (do you speak English?) , a phrase taught in every language class whether it is an English class or not. More often than not the answer was a stern “нет” (no) or when interacting with a twenty something a blushing and silent “немножко” (a little). I had no other choice but to speak, use and sometimes abuse the beautiful and astonishingly difficult Russian language.
Why is this then beneficial? Wouldn’t it be more convenient if everyone spoke excellent English? Yes, in passing situations like in business negotiations and when travelling, there’s nothing wrong with using English so that there is a shared language. But to truly understand the country, people and to enjoy the culture, you have to speak the language. This becomes painstakingly obvious when you are not a tourist but you share your everyday life experiences with local people. After all, language is not just a mean of communication. Language is the culture, heart and even politics of a country. You might even say that when you don’t understand the poems, jokes and menus, you are missing out on the best part of culture.
Of course, you can’t expect to learn the language fast even if you are the most enthusiastic Francophile or Slavophile. Learning a language takes time and a lot of effort but it will be worth it. After all, it does not matter how long you live in a country, as long as you don’t take the time to learn the language, you will always stay a tourist.
Author: Hanna Dobrowolski, a student in a course FV119502 Independent Study in English