I get more and more convinced all the time that communication has less to do with vocabulary and grammar than it does with concentration and a sort of mutual conspiracy to understand.
Exhibit A: When Łukasz came to this country in September, he didn’t even know the alphabet. Now he speaks Russian about as well as I do. But regardless of that, we were having conversations about the morals of marriage and the meaning of life and international politics from day one. It took forever, and it still takes a long time sometimes, but because of the necessity to pay exquisite attention to language, we’ve been able to disagree much more strongly, without hating each other, than if all we had to pay attention to was the content. Apart from this, though, our daily, domestic communication relies much more on context and a kind of complex web of inside jokes than it does on actual words. We have a dozen nicknames in three languages for various characters in our lives (which I won’t share here). There are certain words we always say in only one language, such as “plant” in English, and “resaca” [hangover] in Spanish, “miłych snów” [sweet dreams] in Polish, and “ерунда!” [nonsense] in Russian; and certain things we always indicate with sound effects, such as the need to waterproof our boots [“kshhhh”].
Exhibit B: I’ve started a weekly conversation club at the American Corner at the library in town. It’s been going on for a couple of weeks now, and there’s one man who comes every time. His name is Nikolay, and his English is basic at best. The second week I was there, it was just me and him, and in our hour-long conversation we covered a wide range of topics. He told me what he thinks about the conservatism of the Arkhangelsk region, and he explained to me the island communities across the river from mainland Arkhangelsk. Specifically, how people travel between the islands and the mainland when there are no bridges. Some ships still pass through the area, despite the frozen river and dramatically decreased industry, and they carve gashes through the solid ice. When the coast is clear, however, special crossing guards lay down wooden planks over the open water and people walk across between the islands and the mainland. Gaps in Nikolay’s English training include “crossing guards,” “planks,” “break,” and the past tense in general. But with the help of a map of Arkhangelsk and some creative gesturing, he managed to communicate all of this and more.
Sometimes I get frustrated in my conversations with Russians, because I feel like they’re not giving me the time or space to make the elaborate allegories I need to express myself abstractly. To be fair, usually I’m having these conversations in a context where time is limited and information has to change hands. But sometimes I wish someone would take the time to concentrate on me the way I have to concentrate all the time to understand anyone. But maybe that’s the point of the Fulbright. It’s forcing me to concentrate by taking me out of my linguistic comfort zone, forcing me to live in a world where I and my American ideas and words aren’t the center of attention.
That’s the concentration part, but there has to be the second element, the conspiracy. The more I think about it, the more I like this idea of communication as conspiracy. Both parties have to concentrate equally for real communication to happen. And to some extent it has to be in secret; concentration requires blocking out all distractions, in the environment and inside your own head. When I think about what con-spire means–“breathing together”–I think it makes even more sense. Real communication can’t happen without breathing the same air, experiencing the same context. This is what I miss most about talking with Americans, not the language fluency itself–many of my students and the other foreign teachers here speak English beautifully– it’s the cultural context that puts us in cahoots automatically. Łukasz and I have built our own context in our apartment, and as I learn more about Arkhangelsk and gain more experience in living here, I come closer to a point where I can where I can enter this Russian context. Though improving my vocabulary wouldn’t hurt.