Kathryn Smart – Learning the Local Language to Learn the Culture (Russian, Chechen)

All Student Stories, Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies

Story written by Kathryn Smart, NPTS, ’17

While living in Chechnya, it was common for me to be walking down the street and suddenly hear deep voices yelling something in my direction. Sometimes it was someone asking for directions or yelling at me for breaking social norms.

Other times, however, it was the police. All the policemen were tall, sturdy men, who always had their right hands on automatic weapons. And they were always shouting in Chechen. Once, one wanted to check my documents, not expecting to see a U.S. passport. Another time, one yelled at my friend to ensure she showed me Chechen hospitality to its fullest. Other times they were not actually talking to me, but to someone past me. Thankfully, as I studied more with my private tutor, I started being able to guess what the officers wanted and how to respectfully answer to avoid any problems with the Chechen authorities. Language helped bridge those cultural gaps.

I was in Grozny, Chechnya to study female suicide bombers, but as soon as I arrived to the southern Russian republic, I understood that I would have to focus on my Chechen language studies even though Russian is the official language of this small republic, their local language is preferred by most. I needed to know Chechen in order to properly navigate Chechen so

ciety, which is completely different than anything I had ever been exposed to before.

The Graduate Initiative in Russian Studies at The Institute supports its students in undertaking research projects in the Russian Federation with the financial help of the Carnegie Corporation in New York. This initiative made it possible for me to study there.Knowing a foreign language has shaped me personally and professionally.

Learning about another language and culture fosters understanding and it introduced me to other approaches to life different than my own. It has made me less afraid of failure. Mistakes are unavoidable in a foreign language, the only option is to learn from them. Learning a foreign language has also made me more observant and a better listener. When I was in Chechnya, I could not rely solely on verbal communication to understand Chechen society, so I had to watch how people were acting.

I will forever be grateful for these language-learning opportunities. As I finish up my studies at MIIS, I will continue to study both Chechen and Russian. After graduation, I plan to study these two languages indefinitely, because language study is a life-long learning process.