What Language Learning is Really Like

“Just go live in the country for a few months; you’ll come back fluent for sure.”

“You just have to immerse yourself in the language. Once you hear it spoken, you’ll pick it up and be speaking in no time.”

Comments like these to the aspiring language learner are well-meant, but, as I’ve learned, are not completely accurate. Before my first semester studying abroad in Russia, I heard countless variations of these words from friends and family. I had already learned the basics: the Russian case system, basic verbs of motion, and commonly-used vocabulary. Filled with enthusiasm and hopeful naivete, I believed them. I closed my eyes and pictured myself rattling off perfect Russian, spiced with apt jokes and subtle puns. And I pictured myself doing this after only three months.

Let’s just say that the reality of language learning did not live up to my expectations. When I arrived in St. Petersburg, I realized I could not understand the majority of what people were saying. When I tried to order my food in Russian at a Pizza Hut, the waitress ignored me until I spoke in English. When I arrived in Nizhniy Novgorod a few weeks later to begin my studies, I made it my goal to take every opportunity I could to speak with Russians, hoping the magical “immersion pill” would start to kick in.

Throughout my three and a half months abroad, I immersed myself as best as I could, going on long walks with Russians, chatting with my host family over late night chai, and pouring myself into my three hours a day of Russian class. Without a doubt, I enjoyed all these experiences immensely, but almost every day, I would beat myself up about my “slow” progress. Instead of celebrating learning a new word, I would chastise myself for not yet achieving this glimmering “fluency” that I so idolized. By the end of the trip, I am sure that I did improve both in comprehension and in speaking. But because I had held so tightly to comments like “just live there for a few months and you’ll be fluent,” I felt that I had failed. After all, from what people said, I should be fluent by now. I should be able to effortlessly translate the sentence that Russian spy said in Get Smart. I certainly shouldn’t be making these stupid mistakes anymore and stuttering through simple sentences!

You would think I would have learned that I was creating overly high expectations for myself, but I entered the Critical Language Scholarship Program last summer with much of the same attitude. Again, although I improved quite a bit, my unreachable expectations made me think that I had failed.

After returning, every time someone asked me, “So, are you fluent now?” made me want to scream and throw everything in the vicinity like a madwoman. I would disguise my frustration with a saccharine smile, answer with a gentle, “well, conversationally fluent, but I still make a lot of grammatical mistakes and there are many topics I don’t know the vocabulary for.” When I left the conversation, I would beat myself up again, thinking “you are supposed to be fluent by now!” One of the biggest mistakes I have made time and time again in my language-learning journey is to expect too much improvement in too little time. Immersion is important, but time is just as important!

Now I see that my reaction should not have been dismay, but rather an excited “Wow, I can communicate with Russians on a number of topics, isn’t that cool! I still have a lot to improve on, but I’ve come pretty far!”

As I embark on my next trip to Russia, I want to throw out unreachable, pie-in-the sky expectations of speaking Russian like a native speaker effortlessly and without a mistake. It’s not because I’ve lowered my standards. No, I still hope to attain a much higher level of proficiency…in time. But for now, perhaps the best expectations I can make for myself are small and measurable, like “learn x number of new words a week,” and “discuss x with three Russians.” Slowly but surely, I will improve. But I want to enjoy the journey and not get overly caught up in the seemingly asymptotic destination.


Your Tongue Will Get You All the Way to Kiev

Язык до Киева доведет. Your tongue will get you all the way to Kiev. My RD in Vladimir last summer shared this proverb with us to remind us of the power of using our voice. For many people, this little epigram is simple to carry out, but no matter how badly I desire boldness, assertiveness eludes me like the Roadrunner outruns Wile E. Coyote. It is embarrassing to admit, but despite my many times abroad, I cringe at the thought of approaching ticket counters. In reality, no one cares other than me if I make a fool of myself, but I still carry around the inflated image of scowling matrons and customs officers disgusted by the incompetence of stupid American girls. This image has stopped me many times from using my voice. On top of this my reticence to approach the ominous “other,” I rarely travel alone, so I have gotten into the bad habit of defaulting to the eagle-eyed directional skills of my friends.

When it comes to travel, I am a follower.

When it comes to travel, I am too timid.

Not wanting to impose upon the very people whose job it is to be imposed upon, I walk around terminals and train stations with unsure steps, hoping and praying that I actually board the right plane or train.

You’d think I would have learned by now that timidity in traveling is a vice that needs to be vigorously fought; after all, it was not asking questions that once landed me in the wrong airport without money or a phone. But still, no matter how badly I want to be assertive, no matter how many times I try to reframe the situation with psychological tricks, it still takes everything inside me to confidently state my question or concern to an unsmiling stranger. Add to this a language barrier, and the fear level spikes. I will never forget the adrenaline-filled trepidation that overwhelmed me as I approached the ticket counter to buy my first train ticket in Russia. Of course, it wasn’t as scary as I had imagined, but still, when I successfully bought the ticket to where I needed to go, I felt as victorious as if I had won a marathon, and almost as exhausted.

Now that I’m going to be doing extensive independent travel in my year abroad, I realize that putting so much emotional energy into such an everyday task will be exhausting. I’m going to need a lot more смелость (boldness) if I’m going to thrive in the rigors of the Russian travel system. So as a “warm-up,” I decided to take a trip down to Boston this week. It was my roommate from Gordon’s 22nd birthday, and I thought it would be fun to surprise her. All that stood between me and our reunion was a bus, a few subway rides, and a commuter rail. And I feel a little funny saying it, but I was scared. I was scared, but I couldn’t let that fear cripple me. I had to exercise my tongue. And as is often the case, things went much more smoothly than I had imagined in my worst-case scenario addicted brain. I almost got lost a few times, but I used my tongue when I needed to. And today, as I strode through the bustle of the Boston South Station, my steps were imbued with a purposeful bounce. The familiar traveling smells of coffee and cigarette smoke and city air brought back broad memories of trekking through Moscow and St. Petersburg, and at once I was confident, able, смелая. Язык до киева доведет; my tongue will get me all the way to Kiev, but first I had to let it get me as far as Boston.


It has been three months since I left Vladimir, but the memories are still as crisp as ever, and the chronicle of my time there just wouldn’t be complete without a reflection on my favorite day of the summer, an enchanting, vivid trek to the outskirts of town…
I dedicate this post to the friends who shared this unforgettable experience with me.
It was our last Sunday in Vladimir. The waning summer begged us to one last adventure, a journey to the pond where the boggy grass squishes under bare feet, water pooling and the ground shifting with every soft step. We swam and laughed and ate, all the while taking photographs to make the moment seem less mortal. I sit on the shore now, muscles stretched, pond water soaking through my old pink t-shirt, and I think I am content. My friends jump into the water again despite the shiver that the setting August sun has birthed, and I resist until I see them crawl onto a mound of dirt rising out of the pond in the distance. From some almost-forgotten dimension, childhood pulls me. My blood turns to fiery life and some long lost, gleeful little girl says “now!”

I jump into the laughing water, crispness engulfing my raw, rosy body, and I am young again. At twenty one years I somehow find myself grey inside, aged and arthritic for my striving and chasing mirages, ambition clouding my vision and melancholy clouding my mind. But now, I race through the magic water, chilly breaths shooting ecstasy into my lungs, the sky breathing softly on my face, January-cold twinges in the brown, organic lake lighting my feet with tingles of life.

The island oozes odorous dirt and rotting grass into the deep water as I pull myself up. My heart giggles and I am transformed into the five year old eager to muddy my skin by any means possible, to feel the earth at its most intimate touch. I used to come inside on hot summer days, painted in brown, grinning, content and more alive than life itself. Mom learned not to be surprised by my need for the dirt, the sensory abandon to something that lauded life beyond rules and structure and trying to be good.

I fall here now in an old brown bathing suit and embrace the island, letting the muddy mixture massage my skin. The constraints of consciousness are broken and all is sharp, clear and stunning: He never meant for me to grow up into the fragile senility of sin. Surely I am in Eden right now, innocent and intoxicated with a love that is not diluted and distorted by days trod to the rhythm of Ecclesiastes, the hopelessness of being small and insignificant and aging by the day. Here, His voice boldly caresses my ears with what I’ve always known in a vague whisper, in a displaced, misplaced love letter: that I am nothing, and that my nothingness makes His love that much more matchless.

I stand up and grin and pick up a wad of my chosen weapon; earth crawls under my nails. The war begins, and soon grenades are launched and twelve hands are spinning in joyful mischief. Each splatter of mud melts my mask, and I become clean, shining and whole. I fall and bathe once again, pale white skin washed and renewed by lovely soil, chunks of the island tangling in my wild hair. All I have striven for is eclipsed in this messy perfection that hints at heaven. Beauty surrounds me, beauty is breathed into me and I am Eve before the fall. He colors me with deft painter’s strokes; He makes me beautiful, and no constricting dress or wobbly heels could compare to this lovely living wet earth. He adorns me with freedom, and I now know love from the eyes of a vibrant little girl, screaming “Daddy, Daddy, watch me!”

Russian Prison? I Don’t Think So!

When I got on the wrong plane that fateful December day two years ago, I thought Moscow was done playing cruel tricks on me. I thought that my international missing person story was the trump card for dinner party comparisons; as Brian Regan would say, an “I walked on the moon”  tale. But I was wrong.
After my experience with Russian airports on my last trip home, I penned “The Ballad of the Flight,” a little poem that chronicles my terrible time in rhyme. And over the past three surreal, nightmarish days, this verse reverberated in my head:
“Naïve to what the day would bring
We, singing, left our grand hotel;
But there’s a joke in every truth*,
The joke to tell, our airport hell…”
So here, dear readers, is the chronicle of the United 13, a baker’s dozen of Americans who escaped time in a Russian prison by a mere 11 hours. I dedicate this post to you, my dear Amerikantsi, who showed me what our narod is made of!
We arrived at the airport early, got in line and waited patiently for an hour. I was at the back of the line when I heard someone say “cancelled.” No, they weren’t joking. Shocked, I reacted in a laughing, smiling stupor. I turned to the group mates behind me and told them the news.
“Hope, stop it; you’re a bad liar,” one of the guys in my group said. Somehow I couldn’t wipe the idiotic smile off my face. He clearly wasn’t amused, and I wouldn’t be either if I thought someone was joking about something as serious as this. But it soon became clear, that yes, our flight was cancelled. In a normal situation, we would immediately be re-scheduled, get sent to a hotel, etc., but “normal” situations in Russia are about as common as black caviar.  About half our group ended up getting tickets, but the rest of us were not so fortunate.
Psychological Experiment, or Just Russian Bureaucracy? The Story of the Lines that Never Moved
After finding out our plane was cancelled, out Russian teacher and assistant RD left, leaving us without cell phones, money, and help in the midst of a situation that would quickly reveal its seriousness.  We were hopeful at first, but after waiting in line for over two hours with absolutely no movement, we were told to move to a different line. We rolled our bulky suitcases to a new desk and began to wait. And this is where it got weird. The line didn’t move. No it didn’t move slowly.  It didn’t move at a snail’s pace. It did not move. The woman behind the desk sat there, face blank, helping no one. After two more grueling hours, we were told to move again. I began to wonder where the hidden camera was. We waited again.  The line did not move. It felt like hell.  We did not know who to contact, what to do. We were hungry, subsisting on overly-sugared chocolate that gave us headaches and stuck to the roofs of our mouths.  All in all, we waited there, helpless, for 8 hours. Finally, one of my heroic group mates Sam was able to get a United Rep to put us up in a hotel. They sent us to an avtobus, on which we waited another hour and a half. We still had no idea of whether we would get out of the country, but at least we would have a bed for the night. Later, we found out that this day had marked the merger for Continental and United airlines, and there was a freeze on all ticket booking from 11:00 to 5:00, the window we were there.
The United 13
We finally got to the hotel, but the break was short. It was crisis mode. After all, one of my group mates actually knew someone who had been sent to a Russian prison after overstaying her visa four hours. And no, her friend was not a rabble rouser raiding the Kremlin, but a sweet girl trying to get out of the country, waiting for her plane to take off. The Russian police came on to the plane and forcible took the girl to prison. Our visas expired in almost 48 hours. So this was no game.
One of the guys in my group called a formal meeting, which I thought was a very smart idea. This is where things started to resemble my favorite TV show. If you’re not familiar with the premise of LOST, in a nutshell, it’s the story of a motley group of people trying to get off a mysterious island after their plane crashes. One of the reasons I’m so obsessed with it is because I love analyzing group dynamics, the leadership roles people assume, and the tension that builds as they try to reach a common goal. Our group was in much of the same situation. We needed to get off the proverbial island, and when one of the guys called a group meeting, it was extremely reminiscent of Jack Shephard’s rallying of the troops in season 1. He and a few others took the lead in trying to organize a plan, because the clock was ticking 24 style and if we weren’t out of the country by Tuesday, we would be at the hands of the Russian “justice” system.
The Adventures of the Valiant Shelby Macy
Skip to the next morning. Two of us had gotten flights, but the rest of us were pretty sure we wouldn’t be flying out until Tuesday. My amazing friend and hotel roommate was woken at 8:20 the next morning to hear: “You have a flight today at 12:50. You need to get to the airport as soon as possible.” Shelby reacted like a seasoned soldier to the sudden change in plans, throwing her stuff together quickly, yet retaining her characteristic calmness and presence of mind. I ran downstairs to order her a cab, but the receptionist would not comply to my petition. “She’ll have plenty of time with the shuttle,” she said dryly. I tried to explain to her the gravity of the situation, but nonetheless, the young receptionist with the frizzy hair wouldn’t listen. And I could do nothing about it. I had no cell phone. I had no money. No one did. We were literally stranded in the biggest city in Europe. After a very emotional goodbye, Shelby got on the shuttle, and I wondered if I would ever see my dear friend again. I went to my room to relax for a few hours, when I got an e-mail from our coordinator saying that Shelby’s flight was overbooked and she was coming back to the hotel. The avtobus dropped her off three blocks away from the hotel, and she was forced to carry her luggage through a construction zone to the hotel (which I am pretty sure weighed more than she did)! As she maneuvered her gargantuan red suitcase through the ruts and dirt of Moscow construction, the workers started yelling after her “devushka, kuda vui?” (Miss, where are you going?). They seemed clearly amused, and one even helped her carry her suitcase. Shelby notes this as a victory because she made a Muscovite smile! (I’ve heard rumors that this is being considered as an event for the 2014 Sochi Olympics).
The Rage of Russian Babushkas
Skip to the next morning. It was the third day, August 21st, and we arrived at Domodedovo determined to leave this purgatorial madness. Righteous anger pumped through our veins, and we were ready to do almost anything to reach our native land. A large group of Russian study abroad students stood at the United Counter, and we stepped in front of them, trying to explain our dire situation. The leaders, two adult woman, shrieked at us telling us to get to the back of the line. One person told them we weren’t moving, and they screamed again. Another girl from our group yelled back, saying that we had been there for two days. More abusive language from the drill sergeants, American f-words in charming Russian accents. And that’s when I lost it. I looked right at one of the woman and yelled “Our visas expire today!”
She fired back, anger in her eyes “WE DON’T CARE!”
Determined to have the last word, I yelled back, more quietly this time, “We don’t care either!”
In the meantime, two elderly ladies stared at us in disgust, hatred, and advised the younger women on how to deal with the American breed of homo sapien, clearly an evil, under-evolved creature.
“Don’t speak to them in English! They come to our land to war against us! Speak to them in Russian so they can’t understand! The American government is full of corruption.” Then one of my group mates informed me that they both gave our group the middle finger. Classy.
Thankfully, before any blood was shed, the United Representative recognized us and gave us priority. She couldn’t believe that we had been stranded for two days. We got our tickets and boarded the plane to the land of the free and the home of the brave. I breathed a sigh of relief. I shouldn’t have.
You’re Going Home- JUST KIDDING!
Landing safely in D.C.? Check. Customs without a hitch? Check. Rushed goodbyes before sprinting to catch my puddle-jumper to Philly? Check. I sat in the Philadelphia airport, content. Sure, my throat screamed from my newly developed cold, my skin was sweaty with that distinctive traveler’s grime, but I was nursing a Dunkin Donuts hazelnut coffee with cream, chatting on the phone with a good friend from the group, and confident I would be hugging my parents and brother in a matter of hours. So when I handed my “ticket” to the lady at the gate, euphorically awaiting an uncomfortable seat in the US Airways jet, I died a little when she told me the boarding pass, well, wasn’t really a boarding pass. Apparently, the ticket had been “improperly bought.” I hate it when people cry at airport counters. I usually think they’re acting. But this was no role play. Desperate, I lost it. I broke down into tears, explaining my situation to the ladies at the desk. Unfortunately, there was nothing they could do, and my plane left without me. One of the women at the US Airways counter I know was sent by God. She was a short little grandmother with short platinum hair and kind blue eyes. She treated me like her own daughter, calming me down, getting me a magazine, and even walking me to the hotel after she had punched out for the night. Her presence was like God saying, “hang in there honey; it’s going to be alright!” And it did turn out alright in the end. After a sleepless night watching Seinfeld reruns and trying to ignore my growling stomach, I got on a plane the next morning and was able to give my family the huge hug I had wanted to for so long. I am currently sick in every way possible, with a fever, sore throat, and nasty cough, but I am home. And there’s nothing more I could ask for. In the end, this whole ordeal has been a testament to the amazing faithfulness of God in the midst of uncontrollable circumstances. Although it was difficult, along every step of the way, God provided for my needs, and brought me to a place of greater trust in Him.  As the psalmist says in Psalm 20, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses (or airlines and airplanes), but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.”
*Note- This reversal of the phrase “there’s a truth in every joke” was coined by my dear friends Andrew and Mitchel who had a knack for butchering idioms during our time in Nizhniy Novgorod.  I think that the reversal fits the Domodedovo Airport quite well- the truth is that the Russian airport is a tenth as efficient and helpful as American airports are, and the sadistic joke, was that we, poor, helpless Americans, could do absolutely nothing about it!

Kicking Birds and Science

         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. 

 This blog does not necessarily represent the views of the CLS Program, the Department of State, or American Councils.