Yale foreign language departments know how to have fun. The Spanish students have Cinco de Mayo. I hear the German department screens movies every week and celebrates some kind of German “cheese day.” Foreign language here is so wild, pre-frosh who wandered into HGS earlier this week thought they had walked into the middle of an Old Navy commercial.
Sadly, the pre-frosh just missed the hottest party of all — last Friday’s Slavic Talent Slam.
Every April, professors of each class in the Slavic language department pass out fluorescent handouts soliciting our participation in the annual “talent show” for students studying any of those guttural, consonant-happy languages spoken in countries where you can trade your Levis for three or four sheep.
A week ago my Russian professor, Constantine, passed around the flyers and stared at us hopefully. Unfortunately, we all needed to study our verb conjugations and were unable to make eye contact with him.
He pleaded with us to perform a folk song or a short skit. But we had no “talents,” we assured him. That’s why we’re taking Russian in the first place — so we can finally have a novelty to show off at cocktail parties.
We felt guilty about slacking off — after all, we do study the language because we want to learn how to speak it. We shifted uncomfortably in our seats as he begged us to memorize a stanza or two of Pushkin.
After ten minutes of tense negotiations, we agreed to perform an excerpt of a charming 1920s Soviet comedy, involving lots of jokes about vodka and the New Economic Policy, in exchange for Constantine’s promise to grant us extra credit for participation, postpone our test for a week and devote all class time to rehearsing our skit.
Hey, our professor is from Moscow. We figured bribery was part of his cultural idiom.
On the day of the talent slam, the Hall of Graduate Studies conference room looked like social hour at a Warsaw insane asylum. The Polish kids huddled in the corner in psychedelic flower children costumes, rehearsing their dramatization of a Polish music video. A few solemn Eastern European graduate students paced around, arms crossed, quietly reciting their cuttings of Blok and Lermontov.
I ran through my lines and stared at the Russian pastries on the refreshments table. I couldn’t indulge because of the half dozen cotton balls I had Scotch-taped around my mouth –the mustache to complete my “Bernardov, the eccentric doctor” costume. Constantine sat in the front row, hands clenched, like a nervous father in the ninth inning of the Little League championship.
Our performance was a smash hit. We poured our vodka shots, raised our toasts and screamed our curses like authentic Russians. When we forgot our lines, the room was filled not with embarrassment, but with a dark, stirring Slavic silence.
Of course — as is the case with every skit and poem in every Slavic Talent Slam every single year — none of our fellow students understood a word we said. They stared blankly and picked at their plates of crackers and dip. Only the four or five teachers in the room appreciated the witty commentary on Soviet bourgeois pretension.
Something is wrong here.
I have toiled through six credits worth of Russian language. An interest that began innocently enough — with a few Soviet propaganda posters my father bought me for Christmas — has somehow swelled into a good third of my coursework at Yale. And yet my own and my classmates’ incomprehension at the Talent Slam made me realize just how far we have to go before we will really be able to use this language.
I don’t remember ever making the conscious decision to devote my Yale career to Russian. Like the unwitting scientist who leaves a petri dish of dangerous microbes uncovered overnight, I woke up one morning to realize that flashcard-making and verb-memorizing had quietly taken over my life. And I worry I’ll live to regret it.
In theory, there is nothing more noble, useful or marketable than fluency in a foreign language. In theory, there is something empowering and important about a skill that allows you to communicate with another country or two full of people. In theory, there is nothing I’d rather spend my time doing.
But it’s tough to stay excited about theories when I’m up late memorizing catch phrases so I can bluff my way through an oral exam; when I realize that fluency in a language means a lifetime commitment, not an A on the semester final.
And I know the only way to really learn a language is to live in the place it is spoken. Perhaps I should be spending my time at Yale in classes with great reading lists and renowned professors instead of sitting in a windowless HGS basement classroom, memorizing adjectival endings.
But as I sat in the audience last Friday, I couldn’t help thinking that in Russian class, I’ve done a lot more than memorize vocabulary.
Studying the language and literature has gotten me hooked on Russian culture. Besides, I’ve learned how another linguistic culture puts ideas together. I’ve come to better understand how my own language works.
And in a few decades when I’m grotesquely rich and pay the Russians a few million to let me ride shotgun up to space station Mir, I’ll at least remember enough to understand the cosmonauts when they mock my funny American baseball cap and brightly colored American trousers.
Maybe the process is just as important as the goal.
Of course, the Slavic Talent Slam alone is a convincing reason to take a language at Yale. I’m trying to secure my Russian class a table at next year’s frosh bazaar — keep an eye out for our encore performance.
Molly Worthen is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Her columns appear on alternate Tuesdays.