What It’s Like Studying a Useless Language

When I first told my parents that I had enrolled in Russian my freshman year of college, all I heard was:

“Why did you do that?”

“You have no use for Russian!”

“You are going to fail the course!”

My parents called me every day and the first questions over the phone were: “Did you drop Russian? Are you going to drop Russian? When are you going to drop Russian?”

The two-week deadline for dropping classes had passed and still my parents pressed me to take something else. To be fair, I had not had much luck in the past with languages, but something inside of me was absolutely determined to learn this language. When I showed them my first semester grades and they saw that Russian was my best grade, I wish I was able to have freeze-framed the look on their faces.

Since I was a kid I wanted to study Russian. Every time I asked my parents, they would always say “in a few years!”. A few years later, “how about now?”. Nope. Finally came college and when I received the class catalogue and I saw Russian was listed, I thought: “Finally!”. What my parents failed to see was why I wanted to study it. My heritage is Russian and Russian is my grandparents’ native language. I don’t know my grandparents all that well, but at a family reunion, the first person I would introduce to you is my grandpa. Grandpa here, he is one cool dude. He grew up speaking nine different languages.

The first time I held a conversation with my grandfather in Russian I had never seen him quite so happy. Quoting my mother, “You pushed all those old buttons”. I had reminded him of some good memories from when he was younger, reminded him of a different time. It is one of these moments witnessed by my mother that convinced her that maybe, just maybe, my studies in Russian language and other areas of Russian culture are not as useless as she and my father thought.

So how do you convince someone the language you have been studying is not useless? Think of how much it means to someone you can speak with in another language. If you take my example, it means the world to my grandfather that I have taken the time and energy to connect with him in a means that no one has for a long period of time. No matter how much someone tells you what you are studying is worthless,  stick with it. My Russian studies have led to so many good things in my life I wouldn’t know where to begin telling you about them.

Despite the positive that my studies have brought into my life, there is always the downside to it as well. Part of my studies is to be up to date on Russian politics and other issues. People who are politically conscious immediately assume that I have an opinion on US-Russia relations or Russian relations with another country or the Ukraine crisis. Actually, I was talking to a man in his eighties and our conversation went a little like this:

Man: What is your stance on Russia and Ukraine? I bet you are pro-Russia aren’t you?

Me: I really have not followed the situation.

Man: You must have an opinion on it!

Me: Not really.

Man: You’re pro-Russia! Are you a communist? I bet you’re a communist!!!!

(I made up that last line but that was what I gleaned from him for the rest of the conversation.) Since I study Russian language and their society, older people I meet who are made in America like myself, assume that I meet the stereotypes of a Russian. They seem to forget that I am an American like them and while I am sure that some stereotypes of other cultures be it Russian or any other may be true for some but the majority of the time, the stereotypes are not true.

But despite all this, I’m sticking with Russian.


Elana Yoffie is a junior at William Smith College in Geneva, NY, studying Russian Area Studies Major with a minor in English.



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