The Endless Catching of Butterflies

Катя любит ловить бабочек чужими руками. Вот безконечная ловла бабочек…

Katya* loves catching butterflies with other people’s hands. I know this because I met her father, Kolya*, on a language exchange site earlier this summer, as I anxiously searched for someone who might help me brush up on my Russian. I must have exchanged messages with at least seven or eight people, both French and Russian, but my partnership with Kolya was the only one that lasted. These websites are like a geekier version of social media: people post profile pictures and DM one another, and some of the users are more interested in flirting than learning. (Fortunately, I had a friend who looked at screenshots of messages people sent me and helped me figure out if they were hitting on me…this is the kind of thing I have trouble figuring out on my own.) Unfortunately, these connections tend to be fleeting. I would go back and forth with someone for a few days before they or I lost interest, and soon enough, I had started more conversations than I could possibly continue. Still, I was determined to figure something out because my Russian was growing rusty, and the last thing I wanted to do was to forget everything I’d learned during the school year.

Enter Kolya. Our first conversation via Skype was strained and awkward. He spoke English with a moderate accent. His grammar was solid, and his vocabulary wasn’t bad either, but it was clear that he didn’t feel completely confident in himself. In contrast, my Russian was a mess. I stuttered and stammered as I tried to retrieve words, mangling diphthongs and choking on consonants and realizing my grammar mistakes only after I’d spoken. The plan was for us to talk for an hour every day, half in English and half in Russian. Kolya had sent me a textbook full of conversation prompts for the International English Language Testing System test, but I knew of no such equivalent for English-speakers learning Russian, so I struggled to come up with topics and questions to keep our conversations going. We tried reading a few articles together, which I had chosen from a Russian newspaper. One was about a mafia indictment; the other described the falling stocks of an Estonian tech company. Or maybe they were rising – I wasn’t entirely sure. As much as I enjoyed getting to know Kolya and talking to him in English, I came to dread our Russian conversations. I was so sick of being at a loss for words.

Nevertheless, I didn’t want to give up. That is not something I do. I figured there was only one way to fix the paucity of words, and that was to find more. I began to scour the Internet for conversation starters and phrases to add to my vocabulary. During one call, I stumbled through the first chapter of a textbook, reading exercises aloud as Kolya corrected me. During another, I counted to 50 four times as Kolya sat patiently, stopping me after every mispronounced word. The next week, I found something slightly better: a list of questions for ESL students that I translated to Russian before our call, then pasted in the chat. I was making the slow transition from reciting lists to presenting monologues to engaging in actual conversation.

Interestingly, the anxiety and uncertainty present when I talk to people I don’t know well, particularly for such long periods, had all but vanished. In a language exchange, everyone’s nervous, and as a result, more forgiving. Mistakes are expected and often amusing. Paradoxically, the more words I got wrong, the better I felt. I learned the difference between белок (protein) and белка (squirrel), though I suppose they could be one and the same under certain circumstances. I also made the critical discovery that two pronunciations of the word написал have entirely different meanings: “he wrote” (написал) and “he pissed” (написал). I’ve pronounced it correctly ever since.

Cyrillic alphabet | Cyrillic alphabet, Fonts alphabet, Alphabet

By the end of August, my calls with Kolya had evolved into real, meaningful conversations. I still had a lot of room for improvement, but we’d blazed through half of the 131-page IELTS textbook, discussed my impressions of life at Stanford, and practiced the difference between the palatalized and unpalatalized л. Our discussions also gave me a window into Kolya’s world. He told me about the political situation and media censorship, how his parents and in-laws in rural villages only had access to a few state-controlled TV channels. He explained the difference between Russian and Finnish saunas, neither of which sounded terribly appealing. Then again, it’s 60 degrees in Palo Alto today and 29 in Moscow, so maybe once I study abroad, I’ll change my tune. I told Kolya about his family, and he told me about his. I got to meet his three-year-old daughter, Katya the Naturalist, lover of butterflies, snails, slugs, grasshoppers, chickens, dogs, and pretty much every other animal around. The Russian language is full of diminutive terms of endearment. Katya is short for Екатерина (Yekaterina), which can turn into Катенька (Katenka) or Катюша (Katyusha). “Lucy” gets transliterated to Люся (Lyusya), a diminutive of Людмила (Lyudmila). I suppose Russians could call me Люда (Lyuda) or Мила (Mila) if they felt so inclined. But because I’m a) not Russian and b) an adult, Katya calls me Тётя Люся, meaning “Aunt Lucy,” which is fine by me.

What with the lengthy phone calls and the pronunciation drills and the occasional tours of Soviet-style libraries and Katya’s cameos, I’ve gone from dreading conversational Russian to enjoying, even adoring, it. And the more stuck I feel in the learning process, the more determined I am to persist. Over the last month or so, I’ve ramped up my studying, piling on flashcards and watching video after video, and writing at least two or three paragraphs a day. In January, I’ll return to Stanford part-time to do what they call a “flex term,” where I can take five units’ worth of classes (a regular course load is 12-20) and participate in clubs. My first class will be Russian, my second class will be Russian, and my club – surprise! – will be Russian. I was planning to double-major in Russian and Philosophy until I learned that there’s a major called “Russian and Philosophy.” With any luck, once this pandemic is over, the Slavic Studies department will give me a stipend to study abroad. I’ll spend a semester in Russia and find a flat near where Kolya lives. We’ve already started planning the English discussion group we want to create together, and perhaps even a small tutoring company, and I promised him I’d help teach Katya English. There’s so much to look forward to: snowy winters, buckwheat blinis, fluent Russian, Pushkin’s monument, and of course, the endless catching of butterflies…

Featured Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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