RUSSIAN & ENGLISH: THE LANGUAGE PROBLEM

My wife gave me a shirt some time ago from an on-line “store.” It has the Russian alphabet on it. At the bottom it says, “No doubt we will speak Russian in heaven, only because it takes an eternity to learn.” I love reading Russian history and going to visit places like Kronshtadt like I did earlier this week. I’ve been here enough to have a pretty good grasp of the culture and people. The most difficult part, however, is learning the language. That is the goal right now.

I took three years of French in high school and college. At seminary I studied Biblical Hebrew and Koine Greek. Then to get into a graduate program I had to pass a test in German. Koine Greek, which is basically the language spoken by the common people from about 300 B.C to A.D. 300 in the Roman Empire, became my love. I went on to do graduate studies in it and taught it for 14 years at the university and seminary level. At some points having studied Greek helped me with Russian. The Cyrillic alphabet came easy to me because of the impact of Greek on the formation of Cyrillic. Also, the cases are similar, except Greek has a five case system and Russian has six cases. But there are problems as well. The cases have the same names pretty much, but they are not used the same way. For example, both have a genitive case, but Russian uses it in far more varied ways.

An explanation on cases may be in order. For us English speakers the formation of the ideas of a sentence are primarily bound up with word order. That is not to say some writers cannot form complex and intricate sentences in English. What I mean, however, is we English speakers think in terms of “subject-verb-direct object” and then fill in the rest of the ideas, qualifiers, modifiers, etc. In Greek and Russian (and certainly other languages as well) the word order is not dominant. The role a noun plays in the sentence is determined by the way it ends. The word is spelled differently depending on what part it plays in the sentence. In English if I say, “The car is outside,” the word “car” is spelled exactly like it would be in the sentence, “I see the car.” Here is where it gets really sticky for us English folks. Nouns in Greek or Russian are either masculine, feminine or neuter. And they end differently in the different cases based on their gender.

You can stick the words in the sentence any place you want to (w/in certain guidelines), because the way the word ends signals whether it is the subject, direct object, indirect object, etc.

When I lived in St. Petersburg I had a very limited vocabulary of Russian—what they call “survivor Russian.” I learned how to read directions home, how to ask for whatever I needed in the market, etc. I recently saw an article on line and the title was, “How to Learn Russian in Russia.” I clicked on it and the first point was, “Go live in a small Russian town.” The author’s point was that living in places like Moscow or St. Petersburg you really do not have to learn Russian. There are plenty of Russians in the large cities who know English and will gladly practice their English with a “native speaker.” He’s right. I never really had to know Russian in St. Pete. But in Luga, it is a necessity.

I have never studied Russian in a classroom. I may have mentioned before I did Pimsleur’s three levels and I’ve continued to study privately for over four years. But I still am underwhelmed with what I know. Two main problems: It takes me forever to think through which case endings to use. But the time I figure it out, the conversation has moved on. I think the only way to overcome this is by practice. The other problem is the speed of the native speakers. This is common to all of us who want to speak another language. I have to really concentrate on what is being said, especially if there is more than one Russian speaking. I can sit there like the proverbial “knot on a log” and get the general gist of the conversation. I am not to the level of meaningful participation by a long shot. The good news and bad news is most Russians who listen to me say my pronunciation is very good. I get that “left-handed” compliment, “Wow, you don’t sound like an American when you speak Russian!” That is a good thing. I’ve never heard anyone but Russians or other Eastern Europeans speak Russian so I guess I did not get corrupted. The bad news? Since my pronunciation is good, Russians tend to overestimate my listening skills. They hear me speak and think I am more knowledgeable that I really am. So they feel free to speak with me as if I am fluent. What I am at that point is lost!

Let me anticipate a question I get a lot—well, usually a comment functioning as a question. “Hal, your wife is Russian. She speaks English and Russian. You have a Russian teacher in your house!” First, let me say my wife amazes me. She took her first English course in elementary school when she was ten years old. She says knew right then that would be her life. She would get a degree in English and teach. Ten years old! I am at the point in life we lyingly call “middle age,” and I still don’t know what I want to be when I “grow up.” Oksana can carry on a conversation in English and Russian at the same time. Further, she learned British English, but lived in the American south for eight years so she can speak “the Queen’s English” and then slide into redneck English. One odd point is that when she speaks British English I don’t hear the Russian accent. Others have told her the same thing. So one would assume I have a ready made, easy access Russian teacher right here. There are problems. First, sometimes a wife and husband teacher-student combo does not work well. It is a different dynamic. And then there are three kids in the house who will not surrender the time to us. Second, Oksana was my interpreter here. I knew NO Russian when we met. It is very, very difficult for her to speak to me in Russian. When we were living in America we were at this church picnic. I was really trying to practice my Russian. So Oksana and I were setting up our “place” and our food and I was really trying to speak only Russian. My friend was standing nearby and said, “Yall are weird.” I said, “Hey man I have to practice my Russian at every opportunity.” He said, “I understand that, but the whole time Oksana was speaking English and you were speaking Russian.” Neither one of us realized that. The third problem is that teaching Russian to an English speaker is a totally different animal than teaching English to a Russian speaker. She is a marvelous linguist but sometimes I ask her, for example, “yeah, I know what the instrumental case is but explain why you use it here!” Her favorite answer is, “This is how it historically came to be.” So at some point I will have to have an experienced teacher who teaches English speakers that complicated Russian grammar!

Another difficulty is that although they tell me my pronunciation is good, I still do not get some words exactly right. And if my pronunciation is not really good or exactly right then many Russians just cannot figure out what I mean. Accenting a word correctly is extremely important in Russian. If I don’t put the stress on the right syllable, many here in Luga simply cannot understand. Americans are used to hearing English spoken in a number of ways. We are a land of immigrants and you just get used to hearing people “butcher” the English language, and you become pretty good at figuring out what they mean. Russians in small towns do not hear as many variations of their own language. And I sometimes cannot hear the differences even when they are explained to me. For example, Russian has this “letter” called the “soft-sign.” It was obviously invented just to make things extremely difficult for Westerners. It supposedly changes the pronunciation of the previous letter but I can’t hear it. And it also makes recognizing the gender more difficult. I hate the soft-sign. It was a Communist plot even before there were Communists here!

I learned a lot from my Russian students. Mainly, their deep desire to learn the language. They are, in general, extremely motivated to learn English. So much information is in English these days. I had several physicians in my classes. I asked one why I always have a lot of doctors in my classes. She said 85% of medical information on the i-net is in English. Further, international conferences, webinars, etc. are usually in English. One computer tech joined in and said he communicates with techs in China, but they don’t usually learn Russian and most in Russian don’t learn Chinese. So they communicate in English.

To understand another culture, however, one must familiarize yourself with the language. The better you learn the language, the better you understand the people. Russia and the United States are clearly not getting along these days. I cannot get into all the reasons, but I will repeat what I said in an earlier blog. We have reporters writing news reports on Russia who do not know the language or the culture. To some degree that is becoming true of our diplomats who increasingly are being appointed as ambassadors because of their political contributions rather than their knowledge of the culture and the people. In my opinion Jack Matlock was the best diplomat we have had in my lifetime in what was then the Soviet Union. He was Ronald Reagan’s chief adviser on Soviet matters and went on to be Ambassador to Moscow under George H.W. Bush. Reagan said things that would tend to upset people on this side of the world. He was known as ardently anti-Communist. But he had Jack Matlock. Matlock knew the history, the culture and the language thoroughly. He was not even a Republican, let alone a contributor to Reagan’s campaign. Reagan didn’t want his money; he wanted his diplomatic skills. Those were tense days of the Soviet Union and the United States at odds on many things. But it turned out there were a lot less nuclear weapons afterwards and the tension was nothing like today.

Russians thoroughly appreciate any efforts by Americans to learn Russian. They may not always understand my Russian, but they love the fact that I’m trying. They know there is no real reason for an American to learn Russian unless he or she is interested in Russia. So I’ve got a long way to go for sure. But I will not be able to live in these two worlds of mine without putting forth the continued effort to learn this language.

I will close by observing it isn’t like English is the easiest language to learn or that it always makes sense. When I taught in St. Petersburg I taught on Monday nights at Pratt & Whitney, Russia. The class was mostly engineers who knew English but needed as much practice with a native speaker as possible. They did a lot of work with folks in Toronto. They asked me one night to explain baseball and some of the idioms because the folks in Toronto used them a lot. I said, “Oh sure. Baseball is an easy game and there are a lot of idioms from the game.” I started by explaining strikes and balls.

Me: If the batter tries to hit the ball and misses it or if he doesn’t try to hit it and the umpire judges he should have, it is called a “strike.”

Question from Alexander: Dr. Freeman, please sir, let me ask, if I hit the table with my hand like this (hits the table) you can say I am striking the table?

Me: Yes.

Alexander: If you hit me in the jaw with your fist, I can say, ‘He struck me,’ yes?

Me: Correct.

Alexander: Then why do you call it a strike if he misses it or does not try to strike (hit) the ball?

Me: I’ll have to think about that and get back with you. Now, if the pitcher throws it and the ball is not where the batter can hit it, then it is called a ball.

Alexander: What did he throw when it was a strike

Me: He threw the ball.

Alexander: But you said he threw a ball only when the batter couldn’t hit it.

Me: Yeah, it is just a term. Now, if he hits the ball and makes it to 1st base before the other team can get the ball to first base, it is called a hit.

Alexander: What if they get the ball to first base before he does?

Me; It is not a hit.

Alexander: But you said he hit it.

Me: Yes, he did hit it, but it is not a hit.

Alexander: Please sir, I am confused. If he does not strike the ball it is called a strike, if he can’t hit it then it is called a ball, although he threw a ball when it was a strike. And if he does hit it then he still didn’t hit it if he does not get to the base before the ball he did not hit gets there.

Me: Okay, well, we probably need to….uh, let’s just cover some general idioms and forget this little baseball lesson.

Aren’t languages a fun thing?

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2 thoughts on “RUSSIAN & ENGLISH: THE LANGUAGE PROBLEM

  1. It is not easy to learn language and I can see why you will need someone other than your much loved wife to get you past some of the language learning. It will take time but I believe with persistence it will come for you.

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