February 06, 2005

A Milestone in Linguistic Acculturation

This weekend marked an occasion that I've been eagerly awaiting since I first arrived in Russia a month ago.

As a bit of background, whenever I'm in Boston or Chicago, I experience a weird thrill whenever I hear someone speaking Russian: my ears perk up and I often find myself eavesdropping, even before I pick up any actual Russian words. (You can often tell that someone is speaking Russian based on a combination of their intonation and their accent, even when it's hard to make out precisely what they've said.) Part of my reaction, I think, is related to my interest in the Russian language. If I had to put my thoughts in these situations into words, they'd go something like this: "Cool! That person is speaking Russian, and I can understand!" Then there's the more sinister part of me, which delights in thinking something like this: "Ha! That person is speaking Russian, and thinks that no one can understand! Little does he know..." In short, both my naive, childlike enthusiasm for the culture I'm studying and my more unpleasant, busy-bodyish side come into play whenever I overhear someone speaking Russian in America.

My problem is a simple one: I experience the same thing whenever I visit Russia, and it's kind of jarring when you automatically snap to attention every time you overhear someone speaking the local language. Luckily, however, this phenomenon decreases in intensity with time. Every week that I've been in Russia, I've found myself less and less surprised to hear people speaking Russian on the streets of Moscow. And every time I've come to Russia, I've eventually become sufficiently acculturated that I found it oddly thrilling each time I overheard someone speaking English.

Which brings me back to the occasion I'd been eagerly awaiting. On Friday evening, as some fellow grad students and I left a restaurant downtown, I overheard a group of preppy, rich-looking college kids speaking English--and I found it just as jarring as I find the use of Russia in America. I snapped to attention without thinking about it, a sure sign--I think--that my brain no longer thinks that English speech is the expected, completely typical background noise of my life. It's nice that I'm becoming more comfortable in my Russian surroundings, and that I no longer feel any close kinship with the more spoiled members of my country's expat community. With any luck, this linguistic acculturation will help make my Russian communication a little easier in the months ahead!

Posted by Ed at February 6, 2005 04:57 AM

When I came back from London, I spent several weeks being very excited to hear American accents on the street. It was a fascinating couple of weeks in Chicago, as you can imagine.

But I'm glad most things are going OK. I think I'll be in Budapest in about a month and may be doing some travelling for work before then.

Posted by: Kathleen at February 13, 2005 07:19 PM
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