a big beautiful mess

A Russian Conspiracy

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.


  1. Mackenzie Mackenzie
    20 February 2012    

    I just wrote a diary entry for myself about something very similar to this the other day. I was thinking about whale song and how animals in group formations probably invent “words” because of shared activities. One individual has a habit of gurgling every time he turns left so gurgling becomes associated with the physical sensation of “left.” Meaning transcends words and one way you can see that clearly is by recognizing a shared thought in a non-English speaker’s brain.

    also, I used to play charades very frequently with the same group of people. you can bet we developed such a reliable sign language that newcomers completely eschewed our invitations to join us. and it was all based on previous memorable jokes within past games.

    Anyway, thank you for sharing your nice theory on the conspiracy of communication. I like it a lot. Overall, this article made my brain feel awesome.

    • 20 February 2012    

      Making brains feel awesome is what I strive for here ;)

  2. 21 February 2012    

    it has to be published

  3. 23 February 2012    

    Very sharp. Sometime after I started my language-learning por viaje a decade ago, I realized that communication always seemed possible when the people involved wanted it to happen. You’ve expressed that beautifully here.

    • 25 February 2012    

      “when the people involved wanted it to happen.” Yes. Exactly.

  4. 5 March 2012    

    Yes, this type of “deep” understanding of a language, that occurs in the space beyond fluency, is delightful and mysterious. When I catch glances of it in a language I’m learning, I feel I’ve reached something close to the soul.

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  1. How do you approach grammar? « Polyglot Posturings on 20 February 2012 at 9:45 pm

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