Monday, November 5, 2012

Lost in Translation: "Can You Spare a Square?"

There's nothing quite as humiliating -- or hilarious -- as when you're using a public restroom only to realize halfway that you have no toilet paper in your stall.  Equally as terrifying is the decision to ask the person in the next stall, quoting Seinfeld here, "to spare a square."

Until, of course, it dawns on you that you don't even know how to say that properly in any language, but English.  

It's times like those when I feel genuinely frustrated with the uselessness of my language skills.  (Seriously, language teachers, consider adding this to your repertoire of in-class skits! Ordering food can easily be done by pointing at menus, but asking for toilet paper requires a far more specific vocabulary and a subtle understanding of cultural norms).

Now that I've been here two months -- crazy, I know -- it's time to evaluate one of my many goals in coming here: improving my Russian and Kazakh.  Technically I've studied Russian directly or indirectly for 6 years, including a semester abroad in St. Petersburg, and Kazakh for about 2 years.  However, as most foreign language students know, no classroom compares to real-life, in-country experience using the language in a variety of everyday situations.  Bilingual Kazakhstan, where most people know both languages fairly well, if not fluently, is the only place where I could have hoped to work on both Russian and Kazakh in some respect.  Especially here in Astana, located in the more Russian-speaking northern part of Kazakhstan, I felt sure I would find the opportunity to use both, even though I knew I'd be using English at work.  

Besides, as a student of both language and politics in this region, the politics of language use offers an interesting case-study in this bilingual country.  Kazakhstan has two "official" languages -- Russian and Kazakh -- though Kazakh has the added distinction of being the "state language," while Russian retains a peculiar status as the "language of international communication."  Government jobs require some proficiency in Kazakh, though it is possible to be a Kazakhstani who knows very little Kazakh.  Unlike some other former-Soviet countries -- here, Estonia comes to mind -- minorities, especially Russian-speaking minorities, hardly face the same types of language barriers to citizenship or employment.  

Many Kazakhs, especially those living in the northern part of the country or large urban areas, tend to use Russian with each other, even when they are also fluent in Kazakh.  For example, when Omar and I went to our old Kazakh professor's birthday party last week, she asked us to be sure to speak Kazakh with her mother and aunt since the other members of her family would most likely be chattering away in Russian to each other, despite all of them growing up in a Kazakh-speaking home.  Nor do all Kazakhs know Russian, either.  Two of the young children who live on my floor, who sometimes giggle quite rudely at my pathetic Kazakh, know about as much Russian as they do English.  I've interacted with another couple on my floor, who are Kazakhs from Mongolia, part of a returning diaspora called the "oralman" who were repatriated to Kazakhstan after the fall of the Soviet Union.  This group, which includes Kazakhs from China, tend not to know Russian, and sometimes have trouble reading Kazakh in its current Cyrillic script.  For example, while the wife, Darigul, speaks an interesting mix of Kazakh and Russian I find easy to follow, her husband only addresses us in Kazakh.  

Omar and I went to our old Kazakh professor's birthday party (Marzhan in the center).  We conversed mostly in Russian and some Kazakh, but both managed to participate in the very Kazakh tradition of toasting.  I can say that I made a heartfelt -- if not totally grammatically correct -- toast in Kazakh and Russian, which has been one of my language successes here, so far!
As for me, personally, the results are mixed.  

My grasp of Kazakh was tenuous at best when I arrived.  Though my comprehension skills are fair, I had to come to terms with the fact that I speak the language like a child.  In fact, the three five-year-old girls who live on my hallway explode into giggles every time I attempt a conversation in Kazakh with them.  (True, they generally giggle at everything, but, to be fair to them, my Kazakh is also just that bad).  In other situations, people appear generally confused when they hear a foreigner speaking Kazakh (or my Kazakh accent is so horrendous that they can't understand it) because my few attempts to use Kazakh on public transportation or at restaurants have been met with a blank stare or a rapid response in Russian.  Unfortunately, this negative experience has largely made me wary of trying to speak Kazakh in public, which is antithetical to my goal of practicing it.  I had set-up a semi-language exchange with one of the Kazakh language teachers, but both our schedules are so full, our meetings are too sporadic for it to be truly beneficial.  I'm beginning to think I need to take a 10-day trip to an aul -- a village -- where no one speaks anything but Kazakh, if I hope to gain some passable skills in this language I've lost a lot of sleep and hair studying (not to mention learning all the different words for parts of the horse!).  

Part of the problem, unfortunately, is the ubiquitous nature of Russian in Astana, and my reliance on the fact that I can, at least, interact with strangers in Russian, if not Kazakh.  On the whole, it's not a bad problem to have.  While even my Russian has its limitations -- the aforementioned toilet paper debacle being one of them -- my latent knowledge of the language is enough to get me through most situations where I need it: taking a taxi, haggling at the bazaar, asking for directions when I'm lost, complaining to the facilities manager about the seemingly random electrical outages in my room, chatting with my neighbors in the dorm. 

A Russian-language student performance of "Chicago" I went to see at Eurasian National University.  I understood about 80 percent of what they said (to be fair, I do have the soundtrack memorized from sophomore year in college). 
Oddly enough, I feel most comfortable when I can mix both Russian and Kazakh, knowing full well that this will do little to improve my skills in either language.  At work, my one regular non-English interaction occurs with one of the cleaning ladies on the first floor with whom I generally converse in this peculiar mix of Russian and Kazakh (in return, I occasionally teach her American colloquialisms like "that's cool" and "no problem" -- we're working our way up to "what's up dawg?").  Besides being one of my big cheerleaders -- she never fails to remind me how awesome I am for knowing Russian and Kazakh -- it's a reminder that though my skills are limited, rusty, and, occasionally, pointless, they allow me to feel less isolated from the world around me.  

I have often wondered if I would have the temerity to survive in a country without knowing the language; now, I am more sure than ever that I would not.  While I am by nature a bit of a misanthrope, I derive a certain masochistic pleasure in engaging strangers in conversation (a good skill for a former reporter, I suppose), and the ability to interact with people I don't know has made me feel more at home here in Kazakhstan.  So while I can't always think of the right words in the situation, my Russian, at least, has allowed me a certain semblance of normalcy I am glad to have, even if it means occasionally flubbing case endings (ugh, genitive plural is still my worst enemy), talking around a vocabulary word I simply can't remember, or learning the hard way to check for toilet paper before I get down to business. 


  1. Maybe you can download a translator app / or make a recording of "do you have a square?" in Kazakh

    1. They need to invent the universal translator, already...

  2. I don't really know any other languages, but I have a mediocre knowledge of sign language (which does come in handy!), so I completely feel the same way! Whenever I try to sign with someone who is fluent, I suddenly feel like an overly formal child with horrible grammar. I wind up signing things like "Vacation tomorrow. I happy."

    1. I just had to prove I wasn't a robot at least 6 times. Google images are so difficult!

    2. I have SO much trouble with Google Images, too! Haha, I love saying (or in your case, signing) things that are ridiculous statements in English. The other day I told someone I'd "pick up their office." Oops.

  3. I've seen this happen a lot. My mother thought she knew German until she tried to communicate in Germany. I learned the perfect line to use in France only to have French people laugh at me, or just stare blankly. Sign language helped! But the kind where you point at signs. I think your idea of going into the village is a good one, and find someone sympathetic and patient.