That means, “I speak a little Russian.” Unfortunately, I am not yet qualified to say that phrase, not in good conscience. Sigh.
Ah, language learning. At an upcoming conference for our English Language Fellows group, I am going to facilitate a discussion on how our challenges here are informing and improving our teaching — a positive spin I try to employ when the going gets tough. The Fellow who will co-facilitate with me was reflecting recently on the experience of living in a country where she doesn’t know the language, and how it will give her more compassion for her students once she returns home. There’s practically no better way to improve as a teacher than to be a student again. I know this well, but am refreshing my memory by the bucketful.
So as you’ve gathered, I’m trying to learn some Russian (since I didn’t learn it on the flight over as I had hoped). Why Russian instead of Ukrainian? Well, Russian is spoken and understood by everyone here, and I would like to invest my time in a language that I can use both while traveling and with students back at home. Of course, I’m learning some useful words and phrases in Ukrainian as well. It’s a bit overwhelming having not one but two languages to contend with here, so I decided to try to buckle down and learn a bit more of just one. I have hired a nice tutor named Larisa who has been teaching Russian to Peace Corps volunteers for many years, and we are meeting twice a week, which is all I can handle.
Those of you who know me know that I love languages, so you would think that I am thrilled with this. In theory, yes. But the theory hasn’t been applying itself quite so well to the practice, so I’ve had to come up with a corollary: language learning is not quite so much fun when I can’t remember the words. I hate to say it, but it seems to me that the language-learning capacity of my brain has, well, diminished. Not that I used to remember new words without effort, but seriously, this is ridiculous. I spent all morning this morning clicking on little audio symbols to master my nemesis, the Russian numbers. This is key for me to learn, as much of my interaction with others involves numbers, and usually people have to write down costs for me. So there I was, click, click, click, listening over and over again. Then when I went to review them, the pronunciation had run and hidden somewhere in my memory like a child who doesn’t want to take a bath. Hellooo! Where are you?
11 – одиннадцать
12 – двенадцать
13 – тринадцать
14 – четырнадцать
15 – пятнадцать
16 – шестнадцать
17 – семнадцать
18 – восемнадцать
19 – девятнадцать
Larisa came this afternoon to work with me, and when she would point to a number, I would sit there looking at it with the response time of my computer — you know, when the swirly symbol just keeps going round and round and round — until it seemed I had frozen and needed to be rebooted, or had perhaps forgotten that I was in a language lesson, and then just when all hope seemed lost –surprise!- the word would finally come out.
In Russian, some of the vowels and even some consonants can sound one way here and another way there. I realize that the other languages I’ve learned have gone easy on me with their gracious sound-symbol correspondence. I’ve always nodded sympathetically with my students when they complain about the ruthless sound-spelling correlation in English, but now I know some of this linguistic cruelty first-hand. Does that letter “o” sound like o, or a, or uh? In Russian, it depends on the stress in the word, which is unfortunately completely “free” (i.e., random). I seem to have a knack for choosing poorly.
In truth, I know that my complaints pale in comparison to what learners of English experience. More compassion to them.