As you know, I officially speak one language. English. Thank goodness it’s the world’s current lingua franca and thank goodness I’m a native speaker so that I can use the one language I know to make a living. Otherwise, after being made redundant from my corporate job and being sick and tired of corporate life anyway, I have no idea where I’d be. I’m very grateful that I speak the one language that enables me to live a life I love.
Having said that, I’m still of the opinion that native English speakers mentally lazy when it comes to learning other languages. Because our language is the lingua franca, we assume that everyone else must speak it. And because our language is the lingua franca we don’t learn other languages out of necessity – to create opportunities for better futures for ourselves, for example.
I made it through seven years of high school Spanish classes and came out not even vaguely resembling a competent Spanish speaker. I spent a further three years “studying” it by attending after-work classes, as a means of relieving the boredom of my life and am still functionally incompetent at speaking the language. I can read and understand it to a limited extent but speaking it confidently is a mountain I haven’t yet conquered.
So off I went to Indonesia to live and work and I had high hopes of coming away from there a fluent speaker of bahasa Indonesia. I allowed the Acehnese imigrasi people to douse my enthusiasm, plus, typical of a native English speaker, I had Emma as my personal translator anyway so I became lazy and didn’t put much effort into learning the language. I left Indonesia after ten months just barely communicative. At least I can say that by that time I was able to make myself understood – for the most part – without using Google Translate, but it was all still rudimentary conversations. Therefore, when I left Jamaica for Russia almost three months ago, I would still call myself monolingual, with a smattering of Spanish and Indonesian language skills.
Now here I am living in Russia for an undetermined period of time and I’m resolute that I will learn this language to a reasonable level of fluency. The good news is that I’m doing it in an environment that is conducive to my learning style.
Back in Indonesia, my language learning was sketchy at best. At first, I was trying to use a beginner’s workbook that a previous occupant of our house in Aceh had left behind. Then one of the local teachers there was trying to help me out by tutoring me but our lessons were sort of all over the place and I wasn’t learning much. Still, we had fun together. Then Emma and I moved to Jakarta and another local teacher there started trying to help me but her tutoring was even more all over the place than the other lady’s and I abandoned her help after a couple of weeks. In the end, I decided to rely on an app to help me and many mornings I would sit out on our front stoop learning new vocabulary. But I never truly grasped the grammar aspect of the language, even as simple as it was supposed to be.
The thing is, I don’t learn well by people throwing a bunch of words at me and I realise now that that’s what was happening in Indonesia. I kept having people trying to teach me a bunch of unrelated new words and my brain just doesn’t work that way. First of all, I find that I learn best in an organised fashion. Also, I love classroom learning but even if I’m not being taught in a classroom, as long as the learning is organised and is explained to me in a logical way, my brain absorbs it better.
Here in Russia, I’m learning the language from two angles. First, I have a Russian language teacher. She’s trying really hard to teach my classmates (of which there are only two others) and me and I find her classes to be useful but she gives us so much information in each one-hour session that it can be a bit overwhelming. I think one of my classmates has dropped out, although he acts like he hasn’t. Still, after a few weeks of her classes, I can finally see the logic of the route she’s taking us on and it’s starting to make sense.
The other angle I’m using to help me learn the language is a podcast. I found a great one for non-speakers of the Russian language. It’s teaching me really useful daily language and explaining things that my non-English speaking Russian language teacher can’t explain because, well, she doesn’t speak English. I try to practice the things I learn with my colleagues at school and then with strangers, like when I go to the market. I’m coming along slowly but I’m very hopeful.
A big lure of this language for me is that it’s like a puzzle that I’m trying to solve because even most of the letters are new to me. I love puzzles therefore, I’m loving learning this language. As a supplement to my classroom and podcast lessons, I bought a Russian kids’ puzzle book to help me practice new words and to help me with switching my brain between the two languages. I also bought a kids’ fairy tale book to start myself off on reading whole texts in Russian but I haven’t dived into that one yet.
I feel pretty good about where I’m going with this and I keep praying to God for His help in getting me there. This time, I’ll do it!