Thursday, March 30, 2006

Putin Will Try The, How You Say, Fried Chicken

Which is an old headline from The Onion and it always makes me laugh. You see Russian speakers often leave out the ‘do’ from questions: how you say in English? What means this? Why you like football? etc, as they don’t really have it in their mother tongue. They just say a normal sentence and change intonation to make it a question.

Now, the purpose of this post is not really to reflect on the difficulties Russian speakers have with English, rather to beat up on myself for my failure to learn Russian. I’ve lived in Kyrgyzstan for two and a half years, and the number of things I can comfortably do in the language could be counted on two hands (probably with enough fingers left over for a very rude and very typical British gesture). In Russian I can:

- Order beer and food in a restaurant

- Ask and answer some basic personal information (how are you, name, age, job etc)

- Ask and answer questions about what I like and dislike

- Buy basic items in a shop (milk, food, cigarettes, beer)

- Tell a taxi driver where I want to go and negotiate a price

- Name quite a few wild and domestic animals (this comes from listening to my relatives playing with my son and his toys)

- Explain to locals that I’m foreign, can’t speak Russian very well, ask them to repeat, say I don’t understand etc.

And that’s about it. Written down it looks fairly impressive (and I was actually quite surprised when I went back over it), but sadly this is not something to be that proud of. You see, given the opportunities I actually have to speak Russian, I should be able to do a lot more in the language AND do the things on that list a whole lot better. I hear Russian all the time in the street, in shops, in my home and I read it constantly on signs, posters and newspapers. My mother-in-law virtually lives in my house and she constantly chatters away to me in Russian and I reply with my usual strings of ‘da, da, da’ (yes, yes, yes for those non-Russian speakers out there) until she asks me something specific or requires a ‘no’ answer and then I just get a puzzled look and a shake of the head.

Now, I’ve rationalized this in many different ways. In fact, if I spent a bit more time learning Russian rather than finding reasons to justify to myself why I haven’t learnt it, I might be a better at it. Oh, it’s a difficult language, will I need the language if I leave the country, my wife never speaks to me in Russian because she speaks English fluently. It’s amazing how many pat explanations you can give yourself when you should be finding ways to practice it.

And of course the worst of it is that I’m a language teacher (and trainer) myself, and my job is to help students develop more effective strategies for learning a foreign language. And you know, I’m pretty damn good at it – I just can’t seem to do it myself. You see, I know the theory – I know I should be willing to take risks, find opportunities to practice the language – but my laziness and fragile adult ego always seem to stand in the way. And I really have tried. I’ve bought books, dictionaries, read newspapers, computer magazines, asked my wife to help me. But deep down I know this is all avoidance of doing the one thing that would really help me learn – actually speaking the bloody language with people!!! This is a technique I’ve studiously avoided in my two years here and boy does it show: the paralysis when a shop assistant asks me something beyond my narrow range of fixed questions and answers, the pregnant pause on the phone when someone rings up and babbles something quickly.

But things will change (I can feel it). I finally have a real motivation to buckle down and learn it: my son is getting to the age where he’s beginning to form words, and some of them are going to be in Russian and some in English. If I don’t get to grips with half of what is going on in his brain, I’m going to be denied access to many aspects of my son’s life. And that’s not going to happen. So, I’m off now to the kitchen to have a little (and I mean little) chat with my mother-in-law. I Will Try, How You Say, The Tea With Milk.

6 Comments:

Blogger Michael said...

Ochi horisho, David, ochi horisho!

(Which thus exhausts about 75% of my knowledge of Russian so far, the other 25% consisting of "Uminya?" (ie, "At my place")....or was it "At your place?"?...dammit...)

10:42 am  
Blogger David Read said...

Spasiba, Michael. And yes, 'uminya' is 'at my place'. Wonder why that phrase has stuck in your head....?

8:57 am  
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5:43 pm  
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8:16 pm  
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8:17 pm  
Blogger Michael said...

Well, as you know, many people say that *motivation* is the key to successful language learning...

9:44 am  

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