Last year, results of a study crediting bilingualism with delaying the onset of diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s were published in several prominent newspapers. Learning and speaking multiple languages, the results suggest, improves cognitive skills and boosts brain performance. Switching between languages reportedly stimulates the brain and builds up a cognitive reserve.
So, this should be good news for me. Even when my head is jumbled between speaking Russian with colleagues in the office and writing emails in English to partner institutions and translating legal contracts and health care policies going back and forth in the languages, I’m supposedly building up my cognitive reserve.
Unfortunately, dealing with another language is only a small part of the translations/conversions/calculations I find myself doing daily while living in Russia, and sometimes they can be completely overwhelming. Here’s a list of the most persistent issues:
1). Time. Vladivostok’s time zone (VLAST) is GMT/UTC +11. We have no daylight saving time/summer time/what have you. Most of my personal contacts live in the United States, so to calculate their current time, I add 5-9 hours (dependent on where they are in the U.S. and whether they’re on daylight saving time or not) and then subtract a day. My professional contacts are all over the world, so I find myself subtracting 3 hours, or 7 hours, or 11 hours, to determine when someone is available for a skype meeting etc. However, most frequently I find myself subtracting 12, because military time means NOTHING to me, and it is used rather frequently here. And don’t get me wrong, I can easily interpret 16:25 or 19:50, but I’m always going to instantly convert those to 4:25 p.m. or 7:50 p.m. My mind simply thinks in 12 hour time.
2). Measurements. I do understand that it would be completely economically unfeasible to switch the U.S. to the metric system, but when Americans go abroad we are at a serious disadvantage. I have linear metric measurements somewhat in hand at this point, and can appreciate the length of a kilometer or my own height in centimeters, but weights and cooking measurements still throw me. And baby stats! Tell me how many pounds, ounces and inches a baby is and I can comprehend you… but I have no frame of reference when I hear how many grams and centimeters a newborn is.
3). Temperature. Understanding what the weather will be like for the week is pretty important, so I’ve done a good job of adapting to Celsius in this regard. 0 C is cold -15 C is quite cold. 20 C is pretty great 30+ C is hot. But if you ask me what the temperature is like in Minnesota this time of year, I will seriously struggle to give a Celsius equivalent. “Uh, I don’t know… it’s not Celsius there, it’s Fahrenheit… it’s maybe 50-65 F?” I also struggle to know what a healthy body temperature is… I mean 98.6 F is pretty ingrained. 37 C just doesn’t have the same association.
4). Currency. At this point, a Russian ruble really has its own understanding of value in my mind. I appreciate the value of 30 rubles, 150 rubles, or even 5,000 rubles. Beyond that, which is about $160, I need to calculate the sum back into U.S. dollars, but this only comes up if I’m buying plane tickets, exchanging money etc. On occasion, a colleague will ask me how many rubles 2 U.S. cents is (about 60 kopecks, actually, not even a ruble), or tell me the ruble to Chinese Yuan exchange rate and the Yuan price of a hotel in China… and then I get completely confused and need to do a whole series of calculations.
So, are all these constant calculations (often prompted, examined and expressed in a mix of English and Russian) building my cognitive reserve or just slowly making me insane? Time will tell…