I thought I would write about a Russian dinner party I went to last night. In a way, it was a culmination of my Russian studies for the last 7 years. It has been a very long journey so I thought I would allow myself one indulgent post )))
Last night my Russian wife and I went over to some old Russian friends for a dinner party. What made it particularly interesting is that there was an American there who spoke nearly perfect Russian.
Going to the party I was nervous about my Russian for the first time ever. I have been speaking Russian since day one of studies starting in 2007 when I lived in Novosibirsk. I read my first lesson and I used those lesson phrases in a Novosibirsk store that very day. I have never ever once been shy about speaking - until last night. Before last night, I was just an American trying to learn an impossible language. But now, the situation was completely different. There was an American who spoke that same impossible language way better than me. Now it didn’t mean the language was too hard. It meant I was insufficient and it was now a reflection on me.
For the first 30 minutes at dinner I froze completely and said hardly anything but basic phrases. When I did speak I spoke super slowly and I worried about getting the grammar correct. I looked like an idiot. I wasn’t being brave like a man should be and I spoke like a mouse. I then whispered to my wife - “This sucks. No one is going to make me feel bad about myself. I am going to start speaking like I always do. I don’t care about mistakes.” So I did and afterwards everything was awesome.
This other American’s Russian was nearly flawless and I was in awe. My wife had whispered to me that he makes almost no mistakes and has a very small accent. I got to talking with him and he tells me that he lived in Russia for 15 years or so. I asked him how long it took him before he felt comfortable with Russian and he said 8 years. Then he said with emphasis, “You know, I went through 3 years of intensive study at the premier East Coast School and then lived in Russia for 5 years before I was comfortable.” It did not come easy to him he said.
Over the 3 hour dinner, I understood almost every single thing that was said - often as easy as English. There were only 2 times I got truly lost. This was full speed natives speaking to each other. I have never been able to hear it that easily before. At one point last night I was intensely listening to this woman because she was speaking crazily fast. Her husband saw me focusing and said “I am sorry. She is excited and speaking way too fast.” I smiled and answered, “I understood everything she said.”
I was at this same house for a dinner party 2 years earlier and I almost left in tears as I understood almost nothing. There is a big difference between listening to someone speak Russian to you (as they often adjust their speed and complexity to your level and you have some control over the conversation) and listening to Russians talking crazily fast to each other with the speakers and topics jumping all over the place. Last night was the first time I ever felt in my heart - I know Russian.
Later in the evening the men went and sat in the nearby living room and the women stayed at the table. I overhead one of the women say to my wife in astonishment - your husband speaks fantastic Russian! How?"
The lessons I took away from the night:
The experience, communication, friends, and culture is the goal. This is something Mr. Kaufman talks about. I enjoyed last night so much and I got to enjoy it thanks to all my efforts in learning. I got to again experience Russian culture, meet new friends, and just soak it all in. What a huge treat in life and I felt so terribly lucky to be there.
Enjoy the learning experience. I was an idiot during my studies. I was always fretting about this and that. Always worried about progress. I just needed to enjoy the ride because it is a long one. I needlessly suffered a lot with Russian over 7 years. Worse, it hampered my learning.
You need to have the right expectations. It is a long journey if it is your first foreign language. imho - forget the idea that you are going to study 6 months and all of a sudden truly speak a foreign language with true proficiency. I always had that type of expectation and that constantly made me feel like a failure even while I was succeeding.
You need to trust that your ear will eventually hear what is maybe impossible for you at first. I always thought that my ears were different and I would never hear it. I remember listening to the phrase перед тем, как from the “Eating Out” series over 100 times in a row. I simply couldn’t hear it no matter how many times I listened and it caused me great stress and pain that I couldn’t. Like I mentioned above, 2 years ago I couldn’t hear the lightening fast conversational Russian from a dinner party. I never believed I would be able to hear Russian even as my hearing got better and better. I just needed to believe in myself.
Don’t let anyone or anything make you feel bad about your language abilities (or about anything for that matter). I did for a few minutes last night and shame on me for doing so. I studied my butt off for 7 years and I let some guy I have never even met make me feel bad about my level of Russian. Really??
Finally, as of yesterday, I feel I can say I know Russian. Being proficient means different things to different people. But I reached my original definition from when I started all this. Not only did I reach my goal but I did it with severe ADHD that even medicine only partially helps. It is one of the proudest accomplishments of my life.
And a huge huge thanks to Mr. Kaufman, lingq, and all the people here who have given me help and advice. It was and is invaluable.
Now, back to studying ))))