Talking to Strangers in Kyiv

“I need more words,” I said to the book vendor when I recently purchased a full-sized Ukrainian-English dictionary at the книжний ринок (book market) outside the Petrivka station in Kyiv. I had been studying Ukrainian in Kyiv for three weeks and was eager to add to my fast-growing repertoire. This progress was the result of a new pattern of behavior. My method of language learning in the past has been skewed towards reading and writing, and I admit to some avoidance of speaking. My perfectionist tendencies make little grammatical mistakes seem like grievous sins, and I’ve been reluctant to utter any sentence that I have not meticulously crafted in my head beforehand. The problem with this method is that I cannot predict every possible response to my “perfect” construction or any follow-up questions. Here in Kyiv, constant contact with my host family and the one-on-one experience with my teachers have brought me out of my shell. Moreover, I have made deliberate efforts to initiate and extend conversations. This means that I have to start speaking without knowing where my sentence will end up, what grammatical cases may be necessary, and what verbs I will need on down the line. I would have thought that relinquishing control in this manner would be truly unsettling, but it has actually been a little exhilarating, and humorous. While a tad frightening for me, it keeps me on my toes and makes me improvise solutions when I hit a wall.

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Church of St. Nicholas the Miracle-Worker on the Water.

This new adventurousness began almost immediately upon arrival to my homestay. On my first night in Kyiv, I found myself sitting up late with my host mom drinking the bourbon I had brought as a gift and attempting to explain the difference between whiskey and bourbon, as a true Kentuckian would do. I quickly picked up toasting protocol, the call and response (будьмо!), and the popular saying “even the poorest houses drink three times,” which is said if someone tries to stop drinking too soon.  On the second occasion, we found ourselves discussing who we liked better, Dostoevsky or Gogol. Obviously a trick question when asked by a Ukrainian. I gave an equivocal response because I do love my Dostoevsky and I’ve recently been working my way through Demons and The Idiot. My new focus on communication rather than grammar comes as a wonderfully pleasant surprise to me as I had not thought myself capable of making such a change. Of course, I am still not totally in control of my Russian impulses and I find that I’m usually crafting Russian-Ukrainian hybrid sentences, but the ratio is tipping every day more in Ukrainian’s favor.

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Evening on the Dnipro (Dnieper) in Podil district.

Breaking out of my comfort zone has made this study abroad experience feel more productive and immersive than my previous study abroad trips. Conscious of my past avoidant tendencies, I deliberately go where former me would dare not tread. Exploring on my own and figuring out how to complete everyday tasks keeps me engaged in my new surroundings and actively learning the language. The challenge of navigating exchanges in a different language makes me feel all the more accomplished when I successfully acquire a hot dog wrapped in pastry at a street kiosk or purchase tickets for the upcoming ballet at the opera house on the beautiful Volodimirska street. Most recently I have been gathering advice from locals about how to make a few day trips to nearby places like Chernigov and Pirohyv, and I’m excited to take a swing at it this coming weekend and go exploring!

 

By: Jordan Hussey-Anderson

Program: Eurasian Regional Language Program

Term: Summer 2016

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