russian

The Endless Catching of Butterflies

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.

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…