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.