Mother Tongue Tuesday: Russian

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After a day in Tian An Men Square with a trip to the mausoleum to see Mao Tse Tung, I stayed in a hotel nearby with many other tourists. I went down to the lobby to write for my first NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) because my mother was sleeping in our hotel room. I was surprised to hear Russian from the group sitting crowded together on the couch across from me.

After so many days and months of struggling to pull out words from Mandarin, the Slavic sounds felt comforting and reminded me so much of my life before that they made me homesick. I even felt slightly capable again because I could pick out the different words so much more easily. Slightly capable.

Russian has crazy verb changes, more consonants than I can often wrap my tongue around, and enough challenges to keep me occupied even when it makes me nostalgic to hear it in Beijing.

Russian Tidbits 

  • Russian uses the Cyrillic alphabet with two letters that don’t make a sound in themselves but change the sounds of the letters written before them. My Russian speaking friends have enjoyed watching  me try (unsuccessfully) to get these sound changes right.
  • Russian changes words. A lot. Women put different endings on adjectives to describe their feelings than men do. An English equivalent would be something like: He is happy and she is happiette.
  • Probably because it has so many changes in the words to indicate the use of the words, the order is very free. A Russian speaker often uses Subject Verb Object order but can switch things up and still easily be understood.
  • The basketball star Sue Bird for the Seattle Storm has a father of Russian ancestry. Their name was originally spelled ‘Boorda.’

It feels somehow wrong because so many of my students would object to the lack of dignity, but here is one way I like to work on my Russian: My son watches kid videos on YouTube and doesn’t mind if they are in other languages. It gives me a little language challenge and keeps me from getting bored like I do in English with trains that have a very limited plot line.

 

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Money where the Language Mouth Is

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IMG_0101This past week I decided that to become a better teacher, I needed to commit to a language again. This has been on the back of my mind for some time. I’ve had several excellent excuses for not working on my own language learning, including an infant who was not fond of sleeping or letting his mother sleep.

He’s three now. He sleeps. And last summer a speaker at the state ABE/ESL conference in Yakima, WA let me practice my rusty German with her. Heide Spruck-Wrigley (link this) always gives a wonderful presentation that I would recommend seeing if you are in the language business and get the opportunity. She backs her words with solid research and sprinkles in hilarious stories like this video of a poor guy learning English:

Heide is also is a native German speaker. I pulled up my courage and told her in a small group session that I once spoke German and she gently shifted our conversation into her first language to let me practice. The experience of trying to decode another language while frantically trying to remember the vocabulary and structure I needed to respond in something like a conversational time frame stuck with me.

“Ah!” I thought. “This is what my poor students feel like everyday! No wonder they aren’t so chatty with me before class.”

Of course, I know this when I use my native language with them. But experiencing it myself gave me such a powerful feeling of empathy. I wondered what else I could get from learning another language alongside my students.

I said something along these lines to the Russian speaking administrative assistant Inna who works in the office where I go to make copies before class.

She nodded and said she tells new learners: “Nothing works. Not books or any special program. Just practice.”

“Hmm,” I thought. Sounds a lot like writing and anything else worthwhile.

So I asked my patient coworker if she’d help me by practicing with me in Russian. She agreed with a smile and a nod.

It’s not like I haven’t walked this path before. A part of me is screaming: “You’ve done this! You’re just going to find another excuse and make a mouthful of mistakes again!”

I’ve learned Russian in fits and starts for as many years as I’ve had Russian speaking students. One of my other Russian speaking coworkers shakes her head at me when I bring students in to her for interpreting.

“You should know Russian by now,” she says. She’s right. If I’d kept at it from the start I would.

Life pulls me away, I get busy and, because it’s not vital to my everyday existence, it’s easy for me to let it slide. So far this first week of practicing I’ve worked on a few phrases with Inna, found a free program on the Internet and cracked open a few of the books on the language section of my office library at home.

I suppose I’m hoping that writing about it here will keep me going through the embarrassment and drudgery that learning a new language brings because, since I started Russian on my own in (gasp) 1997, I have managed to learn a few things. And not just words to use with my Russian speaking students but also experiences to share with those who speak a multitude of other languages in my classes.

Besides. Something indescribable happens when I speak another language — something about the practice opens new worlds and novel ways of seeing the world I’m in right now.

Do wish me luck.