This blog does not necessarily represent the views of the CLS Program, the Department of State, or American Councils.
I was going to name this post “Successes, Failures, and Lessons Learned,” but that title would put an insomniac to sleep. So now that I’ve deceitfully gotten your attention, you at least deserve to know how this random title popped into my head. So here it is: I have always secretly wanted to kick a bird. No, not a sweet, defenseless little sparrow. Who do you think I am? That would be cruel! I’m talking about one of the monstrous geese that strut arrogantly around my quaint New England campus. An early morning walk to class is simply not complete without the faint honking of fifty-some geese congregating on the quad in a feeding frenzy. And I’ve always wondered what it would be like to feel my foot punting one of those masses of honking meat into the wild blue yonder.
In Russia, I experience this temptation on a daily basis, as the Slavic strain of pigeon shows absolutely no fear when humans approach. So today, while walking home with my friend Cody talking about the science section of the ACT test, I almost kicked a pigeon. Well, not really, but I pretended to almost kick a pigeon. And then and there we decided that “Kicking Birds and Science” would be a great blog title. But I digress.
What I really want to share with you all is some serious reflection on the progress I’ve made, both linguistically and personally, through these intense two months. My time in Vladimir has been simultaneously challenging and exciting, frustrating and fulfilling, exhausting and energizing. Immersion is a very fitting word for this experience, for although language learning can be refreshing and invigorating, more often than not it feels like you are drowning and vainly grasping for something solid to hold on to. And this week, I’ve been tempted to get down on myself about my progress. I know that in reality, I have made great gains both linguistically and personally. But quite frankly, I am burnt out. As the Russians would say, I have kasha v golovye, the equivalent of “my brain is currently filled with soggy oatmeal,” and I’m beginning to feel that it’s pora domoi “time to go home.” But in order to remind myself of the great strides I’ve made, I think it’s important to reflect upon the five goals I set before I embarked on this adventure.
1. My first goal was to feel comfortable discussing news and current events in Russian. My Russian Mass Media Class has been extremely instrumental in helping me reach this goal. Before I began the Critical Language Scholarship program, I never dreamed that I would be able to successfully interact with Russian newspapers and television at my level of proficiency. I used to look at a newspaper, realize that I didn’t know 50% of the words, and immediately give up. But CLS encouraged us to not be intimidated by not knowing every word, and instructed us to instead, look for the general idea of each article. Each week, one student in our class had the responsibility of giving a presentation on a Russian news article and leading the class discussion. And this girl, who used to balk at the sight of a Russian newspaper, successfully, albeit imperfectly, led a discussion on the recently passed adoption agreement between the U.S. and Russia! And next week, for my final project, I will be giving a presentation of the culture of bribes and corruption in Russia. Although my presentation will be far from “fluent,” the Hope of two months ago would be petrified to give even a two minute report in Russian!
2. My second goal was to successfully overcome inhibitions in one or more of my problem areas, such as organizing travel/buying tickets over the phone or in person; describing symptoms to a pharmacist or doctor; bartering for purchases, etc.
In America I am overly shy. I hate making phone calls, I get nervous talking to professors, and I avoid at all costs approaching strangers on the street. And to a girl conditioned to what Russians often consider the “fake” American smile, their neutral gaze can often come across as an annoyed scowl. But circumstances forced me to get out of my comfort zone, and I successfully bought train tickets to Nizhniy Novgorod, and not once, but three times explained my symptoms to a pharmacist, thanks to my purple bearded infection! I even was able to give one woman in St. Petersburg directions to the train station. Of all my goals, this is the one I feel in which I made the most progress.
3. My third goal was to increase my conversational proficiency by spending at least two hours outside of class pursuing intentional conversations in spheres of conversation out of my comfort zone.
The first day I met my language helper Alyona, she talked so fast that I could barely understand. On our first walk through bustling Vladimir, I strained my ears to pick up the general idea of what she was saying. As the summer progressed, I not only began to understand more, but became more confident in my own conversational interactions. Alyona has been a great conversation partner, inviting me into her circle of friends and being very open about her life, and from quiet walks through the city to boisterous games of charades in the countryside, I have had more than ample opportunity to practice my conversational skills in a low pressure environment. People like Alyona and her friends remind me of the reason I fell in love with Russia in the first place.
4. My fourth goal was to maintain my emotional and physical health.
Yes, I started running! But really, the most important piece of this puzzle was finding a church. When I arrived in Vladimir, I felt like a skydiver without a parachute, ripping through the air, trying to grasp for something solid. I have never been outside of a community of believers before, and I felt very alone. I was so blessed to come into contact with a sister of a friend who lived in Vladimir last year doing mission work. She connected me with a church and a youth group, and the people I have met there have been a great encouragement to me.
Finally, my last goal was to build a good relationship with my host family.
And all I can say to that is: I love my host mom! My host mom, Tatiana, is one of the sweetest, most patient, down to earth people ever. I am so thankful to have been able to spend the summer with her. Our conversations started off slow, but when I found out that she absolutely loves to cook, I tried to steer the conversations toward cooking and recipes as often as possible. And lately, we have made even more breakthroughs in the depth of our relationship. She began to give me advice about marriage, saying that I “need to find a man that you can raise like a child, take him like a horse by the reigns and steer him to do what you want.” Pause. “Or someone rich.” I almost died of laughter. But beyond the wedded-bliss commentary, Tatiana’s words have been extremely encouraging to me. It seems that on the days that I am most down on myself about my language progress, she compliments me on my abilities or work ethic. Yesterday, after a frustrating speech class and a brutal history test, I was feeling especially insecure, and Tatiana shook me out of my self-abusive mode with her kind words. A host family can make or break a study abroad experience, and Tatiana’s warmth, friendliness, and encouragement has definitely made mine an unforgettable summer. I will truly miss her!
So all in all, although this week it has been hard to see past my exhaustion, it is clear that I have made strides in my language learning. No, I am not fluent, my grammar is far from perfect, and I still have miles and miles to go in this language learning journey. But I am amazed at the progress I have made, and even more amazed at the depth of relationships with both Americans and Russians that God has blessed me with in my short time in Vladimir.