Easy as 1, 2, 3

“She could, but she didn’t want to. She wanted to, but she couldn’t.” … The second one is how I feel about Polish.

If you want to feel great about yourself, don’t try learn Polish.

Seriously, I can think of no more effective way to feel incompetent, insufficient, and all-around dumb… except maybe by taking Calc II as a history major.

In case you aren’t aware, I started learning Polish in June 2013, when by a series of seemingly random events I ended up at the University of Pittsburgh’s Summer Language Institute. When I first started, I didn’t even know what pierogi or pączki were; I just politely nodded and smiled when people talked about them (though by now I’ve eaten more pierogi than I could possibly count, haha). That first summer, I spent 10 weeks in intensive language courses, with the first 6 in Pittsburgh and the last 4 in Kraków. I continued last summer with another 6 weeks in Kraków, and this year, thanks to the kindness of the University of Pittsburgh Summer Language Institute staff, I’m finishing up another 6-week course in Kraków before my research year in Berlin.

If you’ve ever tried learning a foreign language, you know that the acquisition process comes with ups and downs. But when you’re riding one of the “ups”, you feel like you can conquer the world; nothing is too difficult for you. You can have conversations with native speakers (who aren’t your teachers), you can befriend the local grocery store clerk, ask for a half kilo of mushrooms at your neighborhood produce market, and even correctly answer that guy on the street when he asks you what time it is. When these moments happen, you feel amazing, great, fantastic, like you can conquer the world. And when you have those moments while learning Polish, you find yourself this close to buying one of these t-shirts:


But the Polish-gods don’t like people to be happy, at least not for very long. And sure enough, as soon as I was finally feeling confident about my Polish-speaking skills, I encountered my worst language-learning nightmare:


Yes, I know what you are thinking. Counting is one of the most basic parts of every language; everyone who’s ever ordered a taco knows how to count to 10. And I did learn to count to 10 way back in my first week at Pittsburgh. But that’s not how Polish numbers work. In fact, they very rarely look like that, unless you’re counting to three before taking a picture or playing hide-and-go-seek.

You see, the numbers are easy if all you’re doing is counting or basic math. But heaven help you if you want to actually use them for anything else. Want to buy two bananas to share with your two sisters? You’re going to need two different words for “2”. Hoping to find 2 chairs so you can say that you and your friend are sitting on these 2 chairs? Again, you’re going to need two different words for “2” (and these will be different from the two “2’s” you already used in the first example!) That’s right; Polish has something like 18 different ways to decline their numbers! That means there are approximately 18 different ways to say “2”, depending on the gender, number, and case of the noun you’re describing!

But the number insanity doesn’t stop there. Because as if the above examples weren’t terrible enough, the Polish language has a special set of numbers that are only used when describing groups of men and women (but you have to KNOW that there are men AND women in the group; you can’t just assume), groups of children and/or baby animals, and permanently plural nouns like scissors, glasses, and doors. Just to recap, that’s—


The other day a friend told me that a Polish language textbook began with the following sentence: “the Polish number system is so complex that no one has ever successfully explained it fully.”

Quit while you’re ahead? More like, “quit before you even start.” Which is what this particular friend did.

One thing is for certain, Polish is not for the faint of heart. In fact, if I had known exactly how difficult it would be, I’m not sure I would have started. Some days I find myself wishing I had opted for an “easy” language like Italian or French. And yet for some reason—maybe I like challenges, something about communism intrigued me, I like to sound cooler than I am?—I decided to go with Polish. Deep down, I knew that if Polish were easier, it wouldn’t be worth it.

The other day as I was complaining about Polish numbers (yet again), I realized something: I use the same exact language to describe my walk with Jesus. Christianity, like Polish, is not for the faint of heart. If I had known how difficult, confusing, and frustrating following Jesus could be, I may have thought twice about it. Sanctification (the process of being made more like Jesus) can be challenging and painful, and oftentimes I feel like I take one step forward for every two steps back. Right when I feel like I’ve finally mastered a spiritual concept, I then find out that there is so much I don’t know or understand. Or to continue with the Polish metaphor, I then discover whole slews of scissors and doors and baby bunnies waiting to be numbered. And that can feel daunting and discouraging.

If I’m honest, sometimes I get really frustrated with this life of discipleship. Sometimes the criticism and correction—gentle, loving, and well-intended though I know it is—feels like a bunch of red marks on my grammar homework. But then I have to remember that a) Jesus never said that following Him would be easy (kind of like the “spoiler alert” at the beginning of my friend’s grammar textbook), and even more importantly b) the most worthwhile things in life tend to be difficult. The challenge creates the beauty. What’s true of Polish is even more so for our walk with Jesus: not easy, but therefore worthwhile.

Well, that’s all I have time for today. Now I need to get back to my homework. Before I start, though, has anyone seen my scissors? I had two pairs, but one seems to have disappeared… 😉

Cute, but terrifying.
Polish: the only language where 6 baby bunnies are terrifying.

Just Say “No”

Poland Cztery 111

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved words. Especially big ones.

My all-time favorite long English word (featured on my “About Steffi” page—yes, this word should feel special) is arachibutyrophobia, which is the fear of getting peanut butter stuck to the roof of your mouth. Onomatopoeia (BOOM!) is another quintessential choice, and you really can’t go wrong with words like jurisprudence, rhododendron and flabbergasted.

At some point, I got bored with long English words. (Sorry, “antidisestablishmentarianism.” You just aren’t that cool. And let’s be honest, your “anti” and “dis” technically cancel each other out, and then all you have left is “establishmentarianism.”) So I decided to move onto bigger- and better-worded pastures. And where did I land? In German, of course. When I looked around and saw words like Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän (Danube steamship company captain), siebentausendzweihundertvierundfünfzig (7,254) and Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz (beef labeling regulation & delegation of supervision law), I knew I’d found my Heimat.

This summer’s Polish intensive course added a new element to my long-word language obsession. Even though the words were substantially shorter than the aforementioned German giants, the consonant clusters should count for extra credit. Words like przepraszam (excuse me), dziewiȩtdziesiąt (90) and proszȩ przechodzić przez skrzyżowanie (please cross at the crosswalk)—these are the stuff of Slavic language learner’s nightmares (No lie. When the Russian students at Pitt complained about their language, their teacher would show the crosswalk sentence… and they never grumbled again).

And yet despite conquering the absurd precision of German and the next-to-impossible dreaded Polish consonant clusters, my hardest word is still one of the shortest in the English language. No matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to master this monosyllabic morpheme:


That’s right, these two letters—or rather, the lack of these two letters—have caused me more trouble than any German, Polish, or antidisestablished word combined. For some reason, I have a ridiculously hard time saying no.

In high school, this meant that I was over-committed to too many things. The best (or worst) example comes from the second semester of my junior year when I found myself taking two AP classes, running varsity track, playing club volleyball, in charge of Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and in the spring main-stage play—all at the same time. (I remember one particular afternoon when I had triple-booked myself and had no idea how to be three places at once… and then we had a snow day. Thanks for enabling me, nature!) College wasn’t much better, and I managed to fill up my plate(s) yet again to overflowing. If you’ve ever tried to keep full plates spinning, let me tell you a secret: it inevitably makes a big mess. You’d think I’d have learned my lesson by the time I reached grad school, but history repeated itself (no pun intended). And that’s how I found myself exhausted, burnt out, and on the edge of tears when I arrived at my church’s small group leader retreat two weeks ago.

The week had been terrible—another classic instance of Steffi taking on too much and not saying no. As president of my university’s Graduate History Society, I’d been in charge of not one, not two, but three GHS events that week in addition to taking three courses and TAing for one. By the time I got to the retreat that Saturday morning, I was spent. And Ashley, my Education Pastor, could tell.

“How are you doing?” she asked.

“Okay,” I replied.

“Really?” (with one eyebrow visibly raised)

“No,” I admitted.

“I didn’t think so. Let’s talk.”

So we did. In the course of a very tear-and-snot-filled hour and a half, God used Ashley to show me His heart—and the value of saying “no.” You see, all my life I’d never felt good enough. Yes, God had opened doors for me to do the things I love (like learning Polish this summer or going to graduate school for history), but I never felt content with it. Or more accurately, I could never let myself be content. Instead, I felt guilty about God’s blessings, so rather than receiving them with gratitude, I tried to add to them the things that I thought were somehow “more valuable,” such as leading a small group at church or doing one more extracurricular leadership activity. Driven by shame and fear, I constantly overcompensated and wound up over-committed… which left me feeling overwhelmed, burnt out, and guilty. Because nothing I did—and nothing I could add to my already-full spinning plates—was able fill the void I felt inside. And ironically, my attempts to add meaning and purpose to my life caused me to miss the calling God had so lovingly, graciously (and let’s be honest) obviously placed in front of me. By trying to make myself better, I was missing out on God’s best for me.

And so I said “no” to being a small group leader this year—a very unexpected take-away from the small group leader retreat, to say the least! Though in hindsight, I shouldn’t have said “yes” in the first place, God was sovereign over that decision too: if I hadn’t initially agreed to be a leader, I would have missed out on a huge lesson about a very little word. You see, contrary to popular (or at least, Steffi) belief, saying “no” isn’t a sign of failure or weakness. Rather, it’s an indicator of maturity and strength. While I definitely have a long way to go, I’m starting to understand that sometimes the best way to say “yes” to God is to say “no” to something else. As finite human beings, we can’t do everything, but by God’s grace we can do some things to make His kingdom come—things He’s specifically prepared in advance for us to do. With His help, I’m going to follow His call wherever He leads. So here’s to living in freedom and obedience…

…one two-letter word at a time. 🙂

A very serendipitously timed text message from this week.
A very serendipitous (big word!) text message from this week.

As the Romans Do

It was a day like any other day. I’d been third grade for almost a week, and it was alright. More of the same classmates, more Shirley grammar assignments, more math review before starting multiplication tables. Nothing exciting had appeared on the horizon, and it looked as if I’d simply be repeating the bland, boring life of second grade. And then it happened.

Mrs. Semple walked into our classroom, toting a stack of Level 1 Latin primers. And before you could say, “Amo, amas, amat,” I was in love.

Now I know what you are probably thinking: Why in the world would a third grader be learning Latin? At my classical Christian school, Latin was an integral part of the elementary curriculum. We started in 3rd grade and continued until 8th, when we shifted to the wonders of Logic and Critical Thinking. Oh, the syllogism-filled joy!

(Note: I realize the second question you might be asking is, “Why in the world would a third grader be giddy about learning Latin?” Rather than re-delving into my already oft-explored intellectual idiosyncrasies, I will simply direct you to my other blogs on this subject. Simply put, I’m a hopeless nerd.)

For the next five years, I thoroughly enjoyed my tri-weekly Latin classes and was truly saddened when I had to choose between Latin and German upon entering high school. Don’t worry; I got to take Latin IV my senior year. #bestclassever.

Now some of you out there are still unconvinced that Latin was worthwhile. Yes, it’s a dead language. And yes, no one speaks it anymore (that’s why it’s called a “dead language,” in case you were wondering.) But Latin really does come in handy in everyday life. If you’re taking the SAT or GRE, you’ll find Latin roots everywhere—and your score will drastically improve. Like the show Law and Order (or the movie Legally Blonde)? Understand bona fide terms like pro bono, mens rea, habeas corpus, and quid pro quo. Plus, Latin makes you look cool, albeit in a rather nerdy way. 🙂

So as you can see, the uses and applications of Latin are multifaceted and conglomerate. And because we are still using Latin, this dead language is very much alive! (Or should I say, “vivacious”?) Isn’t that magnificent? But wait; there’s more.

This week at the Kanakuk Institute, we studied the book of Romans. And although this book was written almost 2,000 years ago to a group of people who, like their native language, are now very dead, we can stilll learn so much from it today. So strap on your sandals, tighten that belt, and readjust that toga because we’re going on a quick journey through the book of Romans.

The scene opens on the apostle Paul. He’s just finished up his third missionary journey through Asia Minor and into Greece and Macedonia. The year is approximately 57 AD. A church has been growing in Rome ever since the Messianic Jewish believers returned there after experiencing Pentecost in Jerusalem. Though Paul has never personally visited the Roman church, he plans to do so soon. In the meantime, though, he decides to write them a letter explaining all the tenets of the Christian faith—the culmination of his years as a bondservant of Jesus Christ. In a sense, you could call this book his magnum opus (Latin for “great work,” of course.)

The overall outline of the letter is simple: Behavior follows belief. In other words, you have to know what you know before you can live it out. Thus, he spends the first eight chapters on belief. Like the Marines, he completely breaks down all their paradigms and rebuilds new ones. Then in the last five chapters, he explains what to do with it.

“Now wait,” you might be thinking. “Aren’t there 16 chapters in Romans? That only adds up to 13!” Yes, your math skills are exquisite; I did leave out three chapters. But don’t fret; we’ll come back to those.

Okay, so back to the beginning. Let’s break this down.

In chapter one, Paul explains a central truth: God has revealed Himself. That’s right; all of creation shows who God is, His divinity, and His unlimited power. (Don’t believe me? Visit Niagara Falls.) God also reveals His wrath. Why? Because He is completely, fully, undeniably righteous. And we are not. As the epitome of righteousness and as our Creator, God has a right to hold us to His perfect standard. But instead of choosing to submit to and obey Him, we choose to go our own way and make gods for ourselves. Result: Sin. And a general state of crappiness.

In chapter two, he addresses the Jews. Aren’t they special because they’re Jewish? No. (And yes. But we’ll get to that later.) No, they aren’t special because they have failed to keep God’s law. They’re failures. Just like the rest of us.

Chapter three: We stink. Badly. God gave the world His law to show us how to live, and we didn’t keep any of it. He’s the only righteous One. Like arrows missing the target, we’ve all fallen hopelessly and miserably short of His perfect standard. But according to His great mercy and love, He did something incredible. Instead of leaving us to wallow and decay in our sin, He sent His only Son Jesus as the payment for use. By His blood, He bought us back and redeemed us. #awesome. #understatement

Cut to chapters four and five: We are saved through faith alone! It’s only by Jesus’ sacrifice and grace that we can have a right relationship with God. Before Jesus, we were ruined by the sin born into us through Adam and Eve. But now because of Jesus, His righteousness and holiness is imputed—spread through—to us who believe. #reallyawesome #anotherunderstatement

Moving right along to Romans 6: What do we do with this grace? Keep sinning? Heck no, techno! No, instead we are continually made new through a process known as sanctification; this is a fancy word to say that God is setting us apart for Himself to be like Him. We are now dead to sin; it’s no longer our master. Instead, we are alive in Christ and free to live for Him.

Chapter 7: No more Law! According to the “power of suggestion,” the Law tempted us to sin even more. No bueno. This internal struggle of the sin nature (old self) versus the spirit (new self) continues through the process of sanctification. Paul expresses his frustration about it. #bummer

(And now for my favorite chapter in the Bible. Romans 8! Go read it for yourself! Right now!!! I mean it!)

Did you read it? Okay, good! Romans 8: Just as we are waiting to be finally made perfect and be freed from the frustration of sin, the world waits eagerly to be redeemed. Even during this in-between time, God is working powerfully. Everything happens according to His greater purpose of conforming us more and more into the image of His Son Jesus. Nothing can separate us from His love, and through Him, we can overcome anything.

Now we come to those special three chapters: 9-11. These all deal with God’s chosen people, the Jews. Paul is beyond distressed about the condition of his kinfolk. He so desperately wants them to be saved, that he would trade his own salvation for theirs. They are special in God’s sight, but they will only be saved through Jesus. He will restore Israel in due time, but right now, theJews have rejected Jesus, so Gentiles could be brought into the covenant.

How to apply all this? Let’s look at chapters 12-15. As believers, we should give ourselves fully to God as living sacrifices, ready and willing for Him to use us. We honor Him when we use our gifts for His kingdom, when we treat others with love, when we submit to His will, and when we worship Him with our entire lives and beings.

And last but not least, the end of 15 through 16: Paul concludes by telling the Romans to get ready, get set and go. Prepare to take the gospel to those who haven’t heard it. And then go do it!

So whether you’re a third grader, a Law and Order cast member, or just someone who stumbled upon this blog (no pun intended), I encourage you to carpe diem and read Romans for yourself. Examine it. Study it. Internalize it.

And then “do as the Romans do.” 😉