“Why are you learning it?”
I’ve been asked these questions countless times in the last few months by family and friends. My answers have varied, and probably have often been incomplete and unsatisfactory. So I think I should first address these questions.
Here is the brief summary of what and where I’m studying. I’m in Irkutsk, which is a reasonably large city in Siberia. I came here because I’m studying Buryat, which is the language of the numerically largest indigenous people of Siberia. In Russia, it’s spoken by fewer than 300,000 people.
In the US, when I’ve told people about this, the reaction is usually somewhere between confusion and surprise. After that, what I wrote above is not exactly common knowledge, and “Siberia” tends to elicit images of a cold, nearly unpopulated expanse. Meanwhile, in Russia, people ask why I’m studying in Irkutsk instead of Moscow or St. Petersburg. Irkutsk is not a typical destination for American students. I explain that I’m here because I’m studying Buryat, which elicits even more surprise. Not once have I met somebody who has nodded and said “yes, of course you are.” In short, both in America and Russia, the fact that I’m here studying Buryat is decidedly not what people would expect.
Of course, while the decision to study Buryat here has surprised some people, I’ve also encountered my own fair share of surprises since I’ve come here. First, a positive surprise: living abroad here has not been too stressful and difficult. I’ve studied abroad once previously, and although it was a valuable and life-changing experience, it was incredibly hard. My schedule was challenging, and even basic tasks were often difficult for me (or I was too exhausted to do them). I was frequently sick, and it was hard for me to keep up a healthy lifestyle. Therefore, I expected to face similar problems here. However, while there have been some challenges, things have gone quite smoothly, in large part thanks to the help and generosity of the people around me.
On the flip side of things, learning Buryat has proven more difficult than expected. I’ve studied (and subsequently quit) several languages besides Russian before, so I have a good deal of experience, but even with that, it has been challenging to learn Buryat. For example, pronunciation has proved to be a major challenge. Buryat simply does not sound like the languages I’ve learned before, and it shows in my pronunciation. However, even this difficulty has been interesting. As a linguist, I like to puzzle out why my accent is off, or why the languages sounds the way it does to me.
Another challenge is that few people in Irkutsk speak Buryat. I’ve been fortunate enough to already have a good number of friends, but out of them, only one knows the language. That’s not surprising. Overall the number of speakers is declining, even in Buryatia.
I’d be lying if I said that this hasn’t discouraged me at times. As I said earlier, I often receive questions about my motivations for learning the language, and sometimes I don’t know myself. Still, even though fewer and fewer speakers are speaking the language now, we don’t know the future and things can change. And at any rate, I’m enjoying learning the language. Beyond that, my experience here in general has been wonderful. The weather is far more pleasant than the usual 100+ degrees of my hometown of Phoenix, Arizona; the people I’ve met have been welcoming and helpful; and I’ve already been able to travel outside of Irkutsk. Part of me wants to come back to work and continue learning Buryat after I graduate. In short, despite the difficulties I have encountered, my first three weeks here have been a fantastic (and unique) experience.
By: Tyler Lee
Program: Eurasian Regional Language Program
Term: Summer 2019