Language-Learning Abroad: Not Just Word Lists and Grammar Workouts

When learning a language, it is important to commit new words to memory and work through grammar exercises at the beginning stages.  After a while, conversation skills start to develop and understanding in the target language grows until one can participate in daily conversations and even academic discourse.  This is pretty much what I did to learn Russian and German.  But with Kazakh, I have found that the grammar is very, very different from any language that I have ever touched.  In order to be able to learn and say anything, I need to be able to just accept the brain-teasing ways of saying even the simplest things.  This is, however, the type of challenge that makes the Kazakh language just that much fun and exciting to learn.  Once I accept these differences and let my mind “go with the flow”, I find my conversation skills to be more fluid. As my professor and I have agreed: learning the Kazakh language is like taking some of the hardest engineering math classes for the first time—learning even one new sentence in Kazakh or one new engineering math concept is confusing, draining, and you feel like you will get nowhere.  But, after sitting for 10 minutes and examining the sentence or concept, it finally clicks and you forget all about life before understanding it.


Now that I’ve compared my language studies to my undergraduate studies, I have one more thought to share in this post.  Just like how learning Kazakh requires me to relent to the seemingly convoluted grammar and sentence structure, living in Almaty has made me go with the flow of a completely new way of life.  At first, I would question some of the new aspects of Almaty life.  For example, that people would simply catch a “taxi” by holding out their hand on the side of the road and pay a stranger a couple dollars for the ride.  It’s not that I was opposed to this practice, but I kept trying to think about it, rationalize it, imagine its practice in America, and finally, try to think about all the pros and cons of this system.  Then, I realized that this is not the way to acculturate myself to Kazakh life.  I decided to stop thinking too hard about it and found that sitting in the taxi was much more enjoyable—I would strike up conversation with my driver and take in the surrounding city scenery.  This also helped to be more confident as a student living in Almaty.  This method was also helpful in dealing with other very conspicuous differences (and nuisances) that surround me in day-to-day life.  A couple of these include: a driving culture, in which cars egg pedestrians on to cross the street faster even when the pedestrian light is green; women asking why I am not yet married with children (I’m 23); and, people asking me why in the world I would ever need to know Kazakh.

I realize that if I were to worry about and muse over each and every instance of these and other situations, I would just be living situation-to-situation and never see Almaty for all that it is—as I call it, “the city by the mountains smack-dab on the other side of the world”.  Or, put another way—“my crazy-busy, loud and bustling, hardly sleeping, home and inspiration for the past one-and-a-half months”.


By: Victoria Saadat

Program: Eurasian Regional Language Program

Term: Summer 2014

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