Language Learning for the Socially Awkward

I became fluent in Spanish for a ridiculous reason: my friend got a better score on a quiz than I did, and I was determined never to let that happen again. That wasn’t my only source of motivation – I grew enamored of Gabriel García Márquez and Octavio Paz, I loved speaking Spanish with the kids at the preschool where I volunteered, and I adored the sheer challenge of mastering the subjunctive – but competition was undoubtedly a part of it. When mastered, obsession can be a powerful force, and it constitutes the main ingredient in my efforts to learn French and Russian. The full recipes look something like this:

  • verb conjugations in red crayon on a restaurant table + stories of my grandmother driving through cornfields to escape Nazi-invaded France + a profound love of Coeur de Pirate and Stromae + three weeks in Burlington, Vermont + discovering Charles Baudelaire + feminist cannibals = low advanced French, though it’s a bit rusty at the moment
  • vague desire to become a spy + fascination with the Cyrillic alphabet + finally stumbling upon three books in a store in London + the first conversation I ever had with a Stanford professor + the prospect of stealing animals from the Moscow Zoo + verbs of motion + a new friend in Belarus + the endless catching of butterflies + Polina Sladkova = upper-intermediate Russian, shooting for low-advanced by the beginning of 2021
  • feeling moderately cheated by the fact that I spent five years in Hebrew School and only learned the alphabet + determination to put my knowledge of the alphabet to good use + imagining what Rosh Hashanah services would be like if I understood every word + the knowledge that five languages is the threshold for becoming a polyglot + maybe it would make Arabic easier + I’ve already memorized tons of prayers and songs, so why not? = starting Hebrew by next fall, if not sooner

Allow me to elucidate the above ingredients via flash nonfiction. I won’t elaborate on everything, though. I like to leave at least a few mysteries unsolved. Chekhov would disapprove.

There are three types of French verbs. My grandmother writes -ER, -IR, -RE in the space between my napkin and her plate of olives. The first category includes verbs like manger, parler, écouter…

A waiter arrives at the table with a pizza in one hand and a dish of sautéed Brussels sprouts in the other. My mom instructs me to put the crayons away; it’s time to eat. My grandmother moves her glass a few inches to the left, water dripping onto the third R, but it’s too late. I’m hooked. I echo the syllables silently to myself as I chew: je mange, tu manges, il mange, nous mangeons…

Alors tu vois commes tout se mêle / Et du coeur à tes lèvres, je deviens un casse-tête…Now that I’ve started listening to Coeur de Pirate, I doubt I’ll ever stop. Spoken French is a disappearing act. Letters vanish in the space between page and tongue, leaving me scrambling to fill in the gaps. Still, the rewards are worth it: the Latinate origins of fenêtre, marked with an elegant circumflex; the glistening diphthongs of naïvement and jamais; the liaisons pronounced with impossible grace; the echoing cadence of je m’envole, vole, vole.

One sweltering July morning on a college campus in Vermont, I hand over my phone and headphones to a counselor, who passes me a keycard in return. I’ve officially taken the language pledge, vowing only to speak, read, write, and listen to French for the entirety of the coming month. In the weeks that follow, I write essays by hand, memorize poetry, am almost recruited into a secret society, struggle to buy a coffee at Dunkin Donuts without speaking a word of English, and read Le Petit Robert for fun. During the year after that, Les Fleurs du Mal, an AP textbook, and the undeniable beauty of Garance Marillier propel me to low-advanced proficiency.

The above paragraphs make language learning sound easy and effortless, so I should clarify that it wasn’t. Although Spanish is objectively simpler than French and nowhere near as complicated as Russian, I struggled with it simply because I had not yet learned how to learn. My middle school offered language classes for one hour three times a week, which is nowhere near enough to build the momentum needed to reach fluency. The aforementioned quiz initially spurred me to study grammar obsessively, practice each day, build enormous stacks of flashcards, and cover one of our kitchen walls with homemade verb conjugation posters. The National Spanish Exam and the possibility of placing into AP Spanish during my freshman year of high school kept me motivated, as did the fact that I was finally starting to read books in Spanish and understand them. I began with familiar titles like Harry Potter and The Mysterious Benedict Society before progressing to Allende, Paz, and Cortázar.

By the start of high school, my reading, writing, and comprehension had improved dramatically, and I was eager to add French to my repertoire. Speaking continued to be my greatest challenge. In certain ways, my love of languages had inspired me to venture out of my social comfort zone by starting up conversations with strangers and translating for my family when we traveled. Nevertheless, I opted to study alone or in the classroom whenever I could. I avoided spontaneous language practice for the same reason I avoid all forms of spontaneity. There are too many unknown variables, too wide a range of possible outcomes, too much room for the unexpected, and too high a risk of anxiety or shutdown. 

By the start of my senior year, I felt relatively confident about my fluency in Spanish and proficiency-bordering-on-fluency in French. It was time for a new challenge. I chose Russian because it sounded cool and seemed hard. I didn’t put that much thought into the decision. Instead, I got on Amazon, ordered a textbook, made an account on Duolingo, and began to study the Cyrillic alphabet. It turns out that trying to teach yourself Russian is difficult – like, really difficult – but I refused to concede that I’d bitten off more than I could chew. The only way forward, then, was to chew harder.

Russian – Step 1 (HVLC.05.012) – Additional exercises for the Russian Course

I’d like the record to reflect that hospitals are not an ideal setting for independent study. There are machines that beep and medications to be taken and doctors with wildly inconsistent schedules and nurses that check on you every fifteen minutes to make sure you’re alive, and you’re sick, too, which is no small obstacle. During my gap year, I made slow progress on Russian, but it was still progress. As I got healthier, I was able to concentrate for longer periods and remember more and finally read that book of Chekhov stories I’d been given for Hanukkah cover to cover. I had no one to talk to and limited access to technology, so my spoken Russian was virtually nonexistent. In fact, the very first Russian conversation I had was with the head of Stanford’s Slavic Studies department for my oral placement test.

I was moderately terrified going into the call – this was the first time I had spoken with any Stanford professor, let alone in Russian – but Zhenya wasn’t nearly as intimidating as I had feared. At the end of our conversation, she decided to place me in the third-year course, which she would be teaching. She explained to me that the other students in the class would be ahead of me in speaking and that I might have to do a little extra work to catch up, but she would be happy to help me with whatever I needed.

That conversation gave me some much-needed confidence when I moved into my dorm a few weeks later and started classes a week after that. Once I figured out which building it was held in, third-year Russian wasn’t intimidating in the slightest. Our class consisted of just six or seven students, and we met twice a week, each time for two hours. Zhenya didn’t believe that typical testing methods – quizzes, midterms, then one big final – made sense for language learning, so instead, she assigned projects, readings, essays, and oral presentations nearly every week. She also encouraged us to plagiarize – or, rather, to copy entire phrases from articles and videos instead of learning words individually. A simple English verb like “to go” can have dozens of Russian translations, depending on the direction of motion, the means of transportation, the completion of the action, and more. Instead of memorizing every single conjugation of вылететь (class 5a perfective intransitive unidirectional verb meaning “to fly out, to fly [from a place]”), memorize in context: Мы только что вылетели из Сан-Франциско. We just flew out of San Francisco.

At some point during the first few weeks of the quarter, Zhenya told me I needed to be less creative. She might have been referring to the writing assignment in which we were supposed to use verbs of motion; I had written my essay about a fictional start-up in Menlo Park whose engineers developed identity crises because they were all named Sasha (one of the most common Russian names). Or to the oral presentation on travel itineraries, during which I had described a plan to smuggle animals out of the Moscow Zoo and hide them in the freshman dormitories until the end of the school year. Or to the dialogue I wrote where a friendly get-together devolves into a conversation about telepathy. She explained that I had to learn the rules of the language first, which meant that until further notice, I should write the most boring essays possible. It was a fair point, and I heeded her advice.

Fast forward ten months to the end of the school year and the Slavic Studies department party. Usually, this would happen in person, but it now took place over Zoom like the rest of our lives. E. had instructed each of us to come up with a short presentation to share with the attendees. The first-year class made a cartoon video, and the second-years recorded a scene from a play. One of my classmates recited poetry, while another filmed a “special news report” on cybercrime. As for me, I walked viewers through a 15-part slideshow to outline a plan that, if executed properly, would have me to and from Moscow in less than 48 hours, returning with a fox, a penguin, and a ferret in tow. I had spent the previous months studying grammar, practicing pronunciation, and building my vocabulary, so E. approved.

Then it was summer: no classes, no Zoom, just hot weather and bad news and blank walls. I reviewed my flashcards and skimmed a few articles in Pravda, figuring that occasional exposure to Russian was all I needed to maintain my skills. I regretted my laziness just three weeks into the break when I called E. to discuss plans for the coming year. In less than a month, my speaking had deteriorated substantially. I needed more practice if I wanted to remember everything I’d learned, but there was just one problem: I didn’t know anyone outside of Stanford who spoke Russian. Conversations with Siri would only get me so far. To achieve my most important goal, I would have to do my least favorite thing: meet new humans.

Part II coming soon to theaters near you…

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