The year was 1990, my junior year abroad. The place: a village outside Moscow. My Russian friends and I had decided to visit an acquaintance’s dacha (usually a small, garden-enclosed summer house) in the dead of winter. Huddling around steaming cups of tea, someone inevitably passed along a guitar (this was what Russians of my generation did when they got together), which was eventually taken up by a young woman, who began to sing and play a melancholy ballad about two lovers separated by the Russian Civil War and their hopes to somehow reunite.
The song hung on repetitions of adjectives modulating into masculine, feminine and neuter forms. I was struck by a beauty not just of meaning or images—but a beauty of sounds, images and meaning all working together. Another thing impressed me as well: This person, who was roughly my own age, who was not a musician or a master of guitar technique, had conveyed something of profound aesthetic beauty. Was this within the ability of all of us?
Though I initially studied Russian because I was intrigued by the communist Other, I became increasingly drawn to diverse expressions of beauty in this heretofore “foreign” language: from the futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky’s urban landscapes in his “reading room of the streets” to the way in which Afanasy Fet achieves movement in a poem without using a single verb. Indeed, Russian became for me not just a means of communication but also a way to convey beauty, which is, of course, another way of communicating.
Throughout the years, a number of students here at Vassar have developed and are developing their own visions of beauty in and through the language. Some have combined their love of Russian with music, poetry, prose or the visual arts (or a union of the aforementioned). We even have a Russian Department student band, called “The Post-Soviets,” which plays traditional, rock and other types of Russian music.
All this inspires a number of questions: Can a knowledge and appreciation of the beauty of another language, to paraphrase Lawrence A. Wilkins, further “humanize” us and make us more empathetic to others by continuing to open our capabilities of understanding and expression? Does our identity transform with the learning of a new language as we take on an additional vantage point from which to engage the world? While we’re not called to become natives of the country and/or culture whose language we are studying, as Karin Maxey (German Program, Northeastern University) has said, students do and should “aim to create their own multilingual identities.”
I believe every student ought to study a foreign language – it’s not just about what you’ll learn, it’s about the beauty you can convey and about who you’ll become.