The Grammar of Learning

“I am learning Russian . . . Я учусь русскому.” Though this simple sentence encapsulates nearly all the mental and emotional activity I exerted during my nine-week stint in the Provo Missionary Training Center, I struggled, ironically, to both understand and execute the correct grammar construction of the sentence itself.

Part of my struggle lay in the vastly different structures these two languages employ. Unlike English, Russian uses an inflected case system, meaning that nouns, pronouns, adjectives, or other parts of speech modify their forms or spellings based on the position they occupy in a given sentence. For example, nouns like “dog” or an adjective like “red” subtly change, usually in their suffixes, depending on their role in a given sentence or depending on whether a verb acting in the sentence demands that the word be inflected into a particular case. So, while the English version of the phrase “I am learning Russian” leaves the word “Russian,” the object of the verb “learn,” unchanged from how it would appear if it was the subject of a sentence (i.e., “Russian is a difficult language”), the Russian translation of the sentence “I am learning Russian” modifies the spelling and pronunciation of the noun “Russian” from “русский” [russkiy] to “русскому” [russkomu]. Here is a simple illustration that reflects how these constructions differ between the two languages:

I am learning Russian –> Russian is a difficult language

Я учусь русскому –> Русский – сложный язык

However, the shift from “русский” to “русскому” is not a shift from the nominative or subjective case to the accusative case, the case associated with the direct object of a sentence, like in English. Rather, Russian language demands that the word receiving the action of the verb “learn” or “учиться” [uchit’sya] shift into the dative case, a case used in Russian either to indicate a recipient, indirect object, or beneficiary of an action, to indicate an emotional or physical state of the subject, or else to indicate certain types of directionality in a sentence such as “to” or “towards.” A rough conceptual translation of the sentence “I am learning Russian” from the Russian could be rendered as “I am learning to / toward Russian,” modeling how this construction somewhat jars the English ear.[i]

Being new to the complicated and foreign process of morphological inflection, I repeatedly failed to correctly say the basic phrase “Я учусь русскому” [Ya uchus’ russkomu] during the first few months of my language training. The English in my brain kept telling me, “You don’t learn to something! You just learn something!” I wasn’t alone in my struggle. Many of the missionaries around me had similar reactions of frustration and confusion about how and why verbs like “учиться” demanded these disconcerting alterations our native understanding and use of speech. But now that I’ve grown more accustomed to the linguistic structures of Russian, I’ve recently begun reflecting on some of the abstract implications of the verb “учиться,” specifically how the verb’s particular grammatical features reshape my conception of learning and the nature of knowledge.

As I thought more about the grammar of учиться, a different expression came to mind: “The body of knowledge.” This expression frames fields of learning, spheres of inquiry, arenas of knowledge, curiosity, mastery, skill, and profession as bodies. While the concepts, activities, skills, or even ontologies that characterize a professional domain are not necessarily perceived as actual bodies when we use the expression, I can’t help but connect my rudimentary translation and mental drilling of the phrase “Я учусь русскому” from my weeks at the MTC to this expression. What if we treated the subjects of our learning with a bit more of the directionality implied in Russian’s dative case? What if learning necessitated that a learner approach knowledge as an actual body, as something living? What if learning meant more than just gaining possession or mastery of ideas, concepts, or skills? What if learning meant that we come to or toward the thing about which we seek to learn with deference, with respect?

In her 2013 book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, Robin Wall Kimmerer speaks beautifully about reframing learning and language as animate bodies. Richly intertwining both botanical science and the ontological and linguistic features of Potawatomi (the language of Kimmerer’s ancestry) and other indigenous languages, she advocates for the adoption of “the grammar of animacy,” or a mode of language, speech, and behavior imbibed with deep respect toward the inherent aliveness of all creation. As a botanist, Kimmerer speaks at length about the way in which a grammar of animacy might, on the one hand, facilitate more rapid and willing reparations for the dwindling health of the environment. But she also describes the grammar of animacy’s implications on the act of learning. “Imagine,” she writes, “the access we would have to different perspectives, the things we might see through other eyes, the wisdom that surrounds us . . . there are intelligences other than our own, teachers all around us. Imagine how much less lonely the world would be.”[ii]

I’m stirred by the possibilities of a grammar of animacy. And though languages I currently speak and study, Russian and English, lack the same ecological and spiritual sensibilities of indigenous languages, lack a linguistically embedded respect and deference to both nonhuman life and nonliving matter, I see in the simple phrase “Я учусь русскому” a glimmer of animacy’s grammar. I want to try and better envision and enact my learning as an act of gaining kinship with living bodies, whether they be literal, literary, or otherwise.

Despite the potential shakiness of my linguistic metaphor, I’m reassured by another connection between the Russian verb учиться and Kimmerer’s work. Throughout Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer explores the concept of reciprocity, or the way in which ecological networks between plants, animals, and people—under the right conditions—symbiotically benefit all. She extends this phenomenon of material and environmental reciprocity between humans and nonhumans beyond the environment, noting a myriad of ways in which an ethic of reciprocity both expands and enriches how we learn, how we govern, how we entertain, how we work, and how we love. We are all a part of what Kimmerer calls “the great poem of give and take, of reciprocity that animates the world.”[iii] But “reciprocity,” Kimmerer writes, entails “responsibility.” “What can humans do?” she asks. “We may not have wings or leaves, but we humans do have words. Language is our gift and our responsibility.”[iv]

Thinking about reciprocity and responsibility brings me back to учиться. The word falls in a category of Russian verbs called reflexive verbs, actions that in some form or another indicate the concept of the self. Many verbs in Russian can be made reflexive by the simple addition of the suffix “ся” [sya]. This is the case with учиться, which is simply the verb “to teach,” or “учить” [uchit’], made reflexive. Taking this grammatical principle to heart, I can re-think my life’s “learning” according to both the dative directionality of Russian and the grammar of animacy. In this way, learning toward living bodies of knowledge can both change me and be changed by me.

I hope to keep participating in the rich reciprocity of learning, to grant the subjects of my education and bodies of knowledge about which I’m passionate greater animacy, and to better fulfill all responsibilities—ethical and environmental, spiritual and scholarly—that the grammar of learning requires.

This post was written by Sam Jacob, Humanities Center Intern.

[i] The translation I give here is merely meant to illustrate my initial conceptualization of the difference between English and Russian and not the way that native speakers necessarily conceptualize the act of learning. The Russian verb “учиться” does not imply literal directionality or movement, I’m simply trying to illustrate how I adopted this particular mental inflection during the course of my own language study.

[ii] Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Milkweed Editions, 2013, pp. 58.

[iii] Kimmerer 344.

[iv] Kimmerer 347.

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