Thursday, November 02, 2006

Why I took Russian at BYU

I grew up in a very conservative Mormon family that was inevitably staunchly anti-Communist. We had family prayer every morning and evening and a staple of those prayers was praying for the leaders of the church and pleading that all of the countries of the world would allow the missionaries to come in and teach the true, restored gospel of Jesus Christ. The fall of communism and the breaking down of the iron curtain were necessary in order for the gospel to fill the earth and for everyone in the world to have the opportunity to join the kingdom of God.

I remember hearing that church members needed to proactively learn foreign languages in order to demonstrate faith so that we would be prepared when the Lord opened up new countries. Then Ensign had an article in October 1982 on this very topic and it must have inspired me because I signed up for Russian at BYU. Russian was a 5 credit hour class which meant that it met for 1 hour every day of the week and took as much or more time than most of my core engineering classes. I wound up taking 3 semesters of Russian as a freshman and sophomore at BYU before getting called to Bolivia on a mission where I learned to speak Spanish.

Russian was hard. It has a completely different character set based on Greek. It's grammar is very different from English and has everything conjugated. They don't only conjugate verbs, but also nouns, adverbs, and adjectives. It is also a highly irregular language with exceptions to every rule, just like English. Finally, it isn't based on Latin or German so the words lack common roots with English so learning vocabulary is very difficult because if you don't know the word then you can't Russianize an English word.

The church used to require prospective missionaries to complete a language aptitude test. This was a test that was given orally by playing a cassette tape. The whole test was based on an artificial language that was made up for the test. It consisted of telling you certain words and phrases and then saying something and asking you what it meant. With high school Spanish and 15 hours of college level Russian under my belt I thought that the test was kind of fun and pretty easy. I found out later on my mission that I had one of the highest scores on the test of any of the missionaries in our mission.

Spanish was easy by comparison. It shares a common Latin root with English and it becomes easy to figure out which English words have Latin roots and convert those words to Spanish equivalents. The grammar is very regular and even the exceptions to the rules are regular. Pronunciation is a piece of cake because everything is spelled and pronounced phonetically. I picked it up very quickly in the Missionary Training Center and quickly became conversational in it when I hit Bolivia.

Anyway, it's fun to know something completely irrelevant like Russian although it's difficult to explain to non-Mormons what possessed me to take it. By the way, I never really learned much Russian or became even borderline conversational. Did I mention that it's hard?


Sister Mary Lisa said...

You reminded me of when I was applying to be an AFS foreign exchange student. I had to list my top 5 country choices, in order...after I listed Germany, Switzerland, Austria, it didn't matter to me, so I listed Norway and then YUGOSLAVIA. Can you imagine if I knew the Yugoslavian language, and how it wouldn't probably do anything for me now?? I ended up in Austria, thank God.

Bull said...

I'd actually like to go to Russia. It'll probably never happen, but who knows.

Sister Mary Lisa said...

When it does, (because it CAN if you BELIEVE!) you'll be better off than most people since you'll have some Russian under your belt. Da!