Language lesson #2: Direction asking
While cycling in Belarus, I got lost and had to ask for directions. Yes, this was before GPS smartphone offline maps era so people had to ask directions. It’s also probably a single best excuse to approach a stranger in a far-far away land and also in a different tongue.
I stopped and approached bypasser. “Privet. Gde Minsk?” my voice was quiet and slightly shivering. This was one of my first words in Russian. I never knew I could speak the language or, more importantly, be understood. Not really waiting for a feedback that a person understood I repeated sentence a bit louder “Gde Minsk?”. The local smiled and asked “Ty ponimaesh paruski?” (do you understand Russian?). I answered with most doubting voice ever “Daaa???”. My answer “Yes” sounded more like a question. However, the local being assured that I actually understand the language, he explained the route. I didn’t understand much. It could have been something like this “Now go straight for three blocks, turn left, after you see a shop, turn right, and go straight”. What I noticed during his monologue that he used “nalieva” and pointed fingers to a left, but later saying “naprava” he directed to the right. I tried to remember these words and assumed they’re correct.
Few more minutes later I got lost again and asked another local for directions. This time I was already aware what “naprava” and “naleva” means. He pointed to the same direction and explained the route. Once again, I understood only a few things. One more thing I noticed, that when he pointed an open palm straight with fingers, he said “priama”. I assumed it means straight.
Once again I was lost and asked a passerby for direction. Now my “gde Minsk” was loud and confident. This time no one doubted from my question that I actually understand the language.
As I was cycling from city to city, I kept on asking directions mainly because I was lost but also a need to practise a language.
I started to listen and catch more and more new words. One was “svetafor”. It kinda reminded my Lithuanian word “sviesaforas”, or English one “(traffic) semaphore”. I reckon word traffic light is frequently used while giving directions so I assumed that “svietafor” is traffic light.
Another pass-byer used the word “Most” as a verb in a sentence like “will be Most”. I’d no idea what it means but probably something that reassembles a lot in city planning architecture. A noun “most” reminds me of Lithuanian word “mostas” which is rarely used for a sharp turn. So I was going straight looking for a sharp turn to either side but got lost again and asked for directions. Weeks later I translated word “most” which apparently meant “bridge”. No wonder I got lost.
This was a thing with the Russian language, that I couldn’t use a translator because I don’t know Cyrillic and my spelling is roughly enough to match words in a dictionary. Well, Google is clever enough to convert my Latin spelling to Cyrillic and find meaning, but my dictionary apps at a time couldn’t do that. Therefore whenever I catch a phrase, I wouldn’t use a translator but try to come up with a meaning myself based on context. It’s highly beneficial technique to memorize a word too!
As soon as I got slightly lost, I asked again… and again…
I wanted to ask where is a grocery shop, but for this, I didn’t have to look up because one learns a lot just by looking around for signs. In socialist countries, an advertisement and marketing is not a thing. Ad banners are non-existing. Branding is unheard off (Visit Cuba or North Korea and we’ll see). Therefore a business would not put it’s own name and advertise but people still have to know what is inside so business owners put a big sign “Shop”, or “Restaurant”. This is facilitated vocabulary learning for me. For example, you drive and see a building with few parked cars around, and people leaving with full carrier bags. It also has a big sign on top “Produkty”. Later you notice a several stories high building with many identical windows. Maybe a friendly looking receptionist is visible as well. A sign on top of the building is “Gastinica”. One also might see a building in city centre many people sitting around tables watching big windows and eating delicious plates. The building with a sign “Restaurant” (or sometimes Zakusovka) on top. It has few tables with chairs outside, and people might be eating outside too. This gives great jump start for a traveller.
After a while asking “Where’s …” was no longer a challenge. I thought I’ll spice up my sentence and learn new words. I used my dictionary to search for “not expensive”. Next time I got hungry, I tested my sentence on locals “gde ni daroga zakusofva?”. I seemed to work as they gave me directions.
It seemed that the more I asked, the more confident I got on direction asking. After few weeks of wonder, I should’ve received Professional Bachelors in Russia language of direction asking.