I recently received an e-mail from a friend. He wrote to tell me about a woman who pulled her jaw out of joint while trying to learn Russian. I laughed out loud at the thought of it! I can relate to her difficulty and strain in trying to pronounce Russian words correctly.
The study of Russian is challenging. It is mind-bending, yet we are progressing slowly. I must drill single words over and over while holding my jaw in place with every syllable. It is not easy for my husband, either. We are stumbling along in the dark, hoping the light will dawn soon.
I am having a hard time relating emotionally to the Russian words themselves. For example, “drazvyooytyeh” is hello. Now it has taken me weeks to get this word down deep, so I can actually look someone in the face and sincerely say, “drazvyooytyeh.” I cannot relate to this word; it seems this is how vampires say hello to each other. It should be followed by “I live in Transylvania.” I cannot say “drazvyooytyeh” with a straight face yet. I just picture vampires, capes, and fangs. So, I stick with “preyviyet” which is an informal “hi,” but that word sounds like I am asking for a mini-preview of something or other.
The minimalistic Russian use of proper names is interesting as well. The first five women I met in Ukraine had the name of “Tanya.” You can imagine my surprise when I shook the hand of the 5th “Tanya” in a row! Last year, we had seven “Natashayas” in our Bible school and five “Lyenas.” Ninety percent of all male names start with “V”: Vladimir, Valentin, Vlodia, Vasilly, Viktor, and Vitally. So the large population of the former Soviet Union toggles among a few traditional names with a few exceptions like, “Nikita”, now dead and buried, and “Oksana”, now skating on American ice and winning gold medals.
Our Russian teacher is precious and a good instructor. She became a believer by missionaries in town who used her to tutor them. That is really eternal and exactly what being a missionary is all about. Now she instructs other missionaries like us. She does not speak a word of English, so sometimes our classes are comical. Often we think we understand and then look the words up in the dictionary when we get home and discover we were, in fact, speaking Greek. But, I have an inkling this actually aids out learning because we cannot rely on English one iota.
But, after time, I have decided Russian is a beautiful language and I enjoy the poetic sound of many of the words themselves, e.g. “karandash” is pencil, “solpheggio” is music theory, and “oodaraineyah” is accent. I believe languages lend themselves to poetic sounds and rhythms. Since Russians gave the world some of the greatest poetry and literature, it stands to reason their language is in itself quite musical.
I must run to study my Russian and take a bath before the water goes off for four hours. Yes, some things never change in this Ukrainian land of limited water. What they lack in water, though, they make up for in long words!
And there are definitely no vampires here, but a lot of Tanyas. I think I’ll try my “drazvyooytyeh” on the next one I meet.
Bonnie Wilks, from Shady Grove Church in Grand Prairie, TX are the on-site directors of the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute in Odessa, Ukraine. When not breaking her tongue on Russian, Bonnie teaches Hebrew in the institute and Creative Writing in a missionary school. They have one daughter, Julia.
View the original print magazine where this article was first published.