Sunday, August 22, 2010

Often people in Canada assume that we know Russian or Ukrainian. At least a smattering of it! We know enough to get into trouble but not enough to get out of trouble! Even when we take a walk around Molotchna and look at the bountiful harvest this year, at best we nod or greet the locals with “Zdrastvuyte.”
Now, after 5 terms here in Ukraine we are starting to feel that there are advantages to not knowing Russian or Ukrainian. Maybe we shouldn’t be embarrassed about our poor language skills. Consider this:
• if you don’t know the language you don’t have to spend time explaining why you want to do something. Ukrainians are masters of the shrug and hopefully we can learn from them! That doesn’t mean indifference, it just means “sorry, I don’t understand you.”
• when people realize you don’t know the language they don’t feel threatened around you–they can say anything they please. In other words, you are not a big interference in their lives. The other day while having coffee Ben noticed that when some people finally understood that he didn’t know any Russian they talked to each other much more freely.
• when both sides can’t communicate with each other it can be a great equalizer–no one has power of words over the other. Any sense of coming here with Canadian superiority quickly disappears when you can’t tell anybody about it.
• in a sermon your mind is free to wander–you can imagine what you want the speaker to say. Similarly, you can imagine how your forefathers used to live here, and there is no one here to correct you!
• when you can’t speak the language, behaviour is often more important than words.
• not knowing the language allows you to claim ignorance when you get into a fix. Someone suggested that, when stopped by a policeman, don’t say, “nye pahneemahoo” (don’t understand), demonstrate your complete ignorance by saying “nye pahmeedoree” (don’t tomato)! At this point the policeman will know he is dealing with a total buffoon.
• you are forced to rely on body language, eye contact, the smile, gestures, etc. It can actually be a delightful way to communicate.
• when you can’t understand you actually try to listen more carefully, hoping to get one or two words in a sentence to give you a sense of context.
• there is great delight when you actually find a common words or a common insight–a bond is quickly established, more quickly than if you just use words to convince or ignore.

Two weeks ago we suddenly had no translator in the Mennonite Centre, and five Moms came for their regular support group session. The regular leader had to be away unexpectedly, so we were left to lead the the Mom’s group. We brought out our laptop and started showing pictures of our family–our children and grandchildren. One mother had brought her teenaged daughter who knew about as much English as we knew Russian and quickly we were communicating. Through pictures, gestures, heads nodding, laughing, blank expressions, etc., we told the story of our family. The time flew by; we ended with a meal together and we could see they wanted more. We didn’t need many words–pictures were more important. Let your imagination go when you look at the pictures of our Mom’s group with some of their children. “Dasvidaniya.”

Ben and Linda
3675 North Service Road
Beamsville ON


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