tales of learning russian

It’s been a while since I’ve talked about my Russian language process, so here’s an update.

The thing is, the “process” is a lot less clear than it was last time I was in Russia. That time, I went from “I can sort of make half a sentence?” to “I can speak in grammatically correct paragraphs” in four months. The first three weeks or so were torture, and I didn’t improve at all, but after that I was sailing right up the fluency scale. Then again, I was speaking pretty much only Russian, taking 20 hours of Russian classes a week, etc. By virtue of the fact that I came to Russia this time around to teach English, I knew it would be different… but I don’t think I expected it would be this different.

Last time, I had to improve drastically if I wanted to get around life. My pragmatic self had a goal (live like a normal person, express needs, make friends), and there was one way to get there: marked progress.

This time, I arrived already mostly-functional. I mean, I succeeded in getting wireless internet set up at our apartment on Day 3, and that process included multiple phone calls with Russian tech support. On the train ride to Ukhta, I realized I could read a whole chapter of Anna Karenina without looking up any words and still understand all of the important stuff. Sure, I couldn’t understand 100%… there would be maybe a two to four words a page I didn’t know. Still, I think all that qualifies as mostly-functional. Improvement in my language ability wasn’t exactly necessary to accomplish what I wanted or needed to do. So pragmatism wasn’t going to push me the way it had before.

I think the thing that’s pushing me the most this time is actually embarrassment. Like all of the six interviews I’ve given on camera, of which I’ve only managed to watch two from beginning to end without great internal discomfort. It’s not that my speech is unintelligible or my accent insufferable… it’s just that it takes me about three times as long to get information across as it would take a native speaker. I’ve actually had people tell me that: “Speak faster, and you’ll sound a lot better.” Of course, I still make grammatical errors… I wish I could go back and take a red pen to every one of my interviews (gah! that sentence needs imperfective, not perfective! and why did I use пушистый instead of пышный?? and that verb definitely takes dative, not accusative)… but I think the main thing on my docket to conquer is fluency, like the actual pace of speech. And while fluency isn’t strictly necessary to getting around, like the ability to form coherent sentences is, it is necessary to me feeling like a higher level contributor to society.

I do wish that I had come into this year with more specific, measurable, and challenging language goals. “Getting around” and “Reading Tolstoy mostly without a dictionary” were too low to aim, and I think I knew that somewhere deep down when coming in. “Getting better” is too vague. “Sounding native” is impossible. …And to be honest, I’ve just sat here for 10 minutes trying to think of good milestones to aim at, and nothing’s coming to mind. So I’ll keep at it, and we’ll see what happens.

I do, however, think it wouldn’t hurt me to be more diligent about adding words to my active vocabulary. So here’s to vocab lists and flash cards for the next 5 months!

One fun story to share regarding progress: I was at a bar/restaurant with some colleagues, and I wanted to order some food. I went up to the bar, where I was supposed to order, and started looking at the menu. My friend German was there, and he usually prefers to talk to me in English, so he did that. One barman heard and went on to speak to me only in English. Fine. I ordered, and then waited. Waited. Waited. Another barman came to take my order, and I was super confused because I’d definitely already ordered, and I explained that to him, in Russian. And then he got this slightly-stressed-out look on his face and asked, “Какой у вас родной язык?” (“What is your native language?”). I said, “Английский” (“English”). Then German and I had a good laugh, and I got my food. The upshot of the story is that I can have a three-sentence conversation and cast doubts on my nationality, yes!


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