This is your brain on русский язык.

My old college Russian-English /English-Russian dictionary finally perished last week as I was looking up obscure vocab  in a Russian detective novel I’ve been struggling through for the past year.

Yes, year. I read about five to seven pages a week as homework for my Monday morning Russian lesson with Inna, a Russian émigré with a wicked sense of humor and, apparently, a sea of patience. It takes me about an hour if I want to get a rough sketch of what’s going on, often more than two hours if I want to look up all the unknown words and fill in the details. It’s a slog, and I still very often totally misunderstand some passage, to comic effect.

The death of my trusty Katzner college dictionary leaves me pondering the tens of thousands of words I’ve looked up over the years (many of them the same words over and over – I keep forgetting them) and asking myself, is studying a second language worth the effort when I have virtually no chance whatsoever of becoming truly and effortlessly bilingual?

Since majoring in Russian in college, I’ve struggled off and on with maintaining and even (a bit hopelessly) trying to improve my intermediate-level Russian skills, with mixed results. A semester in Moscow in 1991 improved matters; but to really master a second language, I’d need years of immersion, or better yet, I should have started learning it before the age of ten.

Instead, I’m stuck at a level of Russian that Nabokov describes quite condescendingly in this article for The New York Review, an attack on his friend, critic Edmund Wilson, who had foolishly launched a very public feud with Nabokov by criticizing his translation of the poet Pushkin.

“A patient confidant of his long and hopeless infatuation with the Russian language, I have always done my best to explain to him his mistakes of pronunciation, grammar, and interpretation. As late as 1957, at one of our last meetings, we both realized with amused dismay that despite my frequent comments on Russian prosody, he still could not scan Russian verse. Upon being challenged to read Eugene Onegin aloud, he started to do this with great gusto, garbling every second word and turning Pushkin’s iambic line into a kind of spastic anapest with a lot of jaw-twisting haws and rather endearing little barks that utterly jumbled the rhythm and soon had us both in stitches.”  (Quoted from David Remnick’s article in the New Yorker, “The Translation Wars.”)

If Inna were a nastier sort, she could similarly ridicule my weekly butcherings of mystery author Boris Akunin’s prose. Among the many singular difficulties of the Russian language is the pesky unpredictability of where stress alights upon a word, even electing to move around at times along different verb conjugations and noun cases.

This means that there are times when I mispronounce almost every word in a sentence, even words I know pretty well, because I read them much more often than I say them or hear them. So there I am, sounding out words I don’t know and mangling words I sort of do know, with poor, long-suffering Inna correcting me every few seconds. Which makes me feel very much like a second-grader. Not to mention that Russians think it’s perfectly OK to assemble absurd clusterings of consonants that no human tongue could possibly maneuver around properly. The word, “взгляд” leaps to mind (approximate meaning = “glance”), which, transliterated, would be something like, “vzglyad.” Go ahead. Take a shot at that one.

But focusing on pronunciation, or even the Cyrillic alphabet, as the Russian language’s chief impediments to learners would be a lot like talking about the difficulty of the approach hike for climbers attempting to summit El Capitan. Russians have constructed an inscrutable hellscape of case usage and endings that leaves me, many times, wondering what the hell the original word even was…let alone attempting to formulate the appropriate word with case ending in everyday speech. And the breathtakingly elaborate formation and usage of Russian participles may actually constitute some kind of conspiracy to prevent infiltration of Russia by the West.

Here’s what David Remnick, New Yorker editor-in-chief, has to say (in the same article quoted above) about the ego-shattering near-impossibility of tackling Russian as an adult:

Parenthetically, it’s impossible for me not to sympathize with (Wilson). Russian was the bane of my academic life. I’ve never given a subject more time and concentration only to feel broken before the task. In college, to the dismay of the two émigrée dominatrixes who were my teachers, I spent hundreds of hours poring over a brown-and-blue text called Stillman and Harkins (and, later, a more advanced green one by Charles E. Townsend), hundreds more hours in language laboratories mispronouncing verbs, and all to very little avail—so little that I dropped out of school for a year and, upon return, shifted to the sunny promise and mathematical logic of French. Later, I resumed my Russian studies with a young tutor from Novosibirsk, who, upon hearing me attempt a participial phrase with a reflexive, heavily prefixed verb of motion in the anchor position—a maneuver that I considered the triple salchow of my conversational repertoire—winced, as if stabbed, rolled her eyes into the back of her skull, and, upon recovery, seemed eager to return to the communal apartment she had shared in central Siberia. She produced a blue text called “Russky Yazyk dlya Vsyekh—“Russian for Everybody”—a beginning grammar published in Moscow, and said, “So, we start from page one, yes?”

I love David Remnick for admitting this. I, too, studied from Townsend and from the “Russian for Everybody” primer, and I, too, have often felt broken by the Russian language–as ornate, cursed, and colorful as the land itself. But I don’t regret trying. Is it still worth studying piano, even if you’ll never play like Rachmaninoff? Is it worth riding a bike if you can’t run the Tour de France?

I tend to think so. A wonderful Latvian professor of mine once said that studying foreign languages changes how your brain is wired and, perhaps, can even shape the way you think. I believe it. But more than that, it opens up the world for you in miraculous, unpredictable ways. In 1991 I spent an unforgettable hour speaking with an elderly rest room attendant in St. Petersburg who told me unimaginable tales of surviving the Siege of Leningrad. And a few years ago, I got the amazing opportunity to befriend a Soviet WWII combat airwoman, whose war memoir I agreed to help translate and edit for U.S. publication. It was slow going, and I often felt rather underqualified. But it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

Even if your language skills are on the rudimentary side, it’s a wonderful feeling to be the person in the room with the power to connect people. I remember how it felt to climb out of our friends’ boat in Guatemala a few years ago as a policeman approached us, and knowing I was the person automatically appointed to handle it. Guatemalan policemen can tend to produce anxiety in folks, and even the ability to throw out a friendly, “Hi, what can we do for you, Sir?” can ease the tension a bit.

I also believe that shoving your ego aside to take on something new, even at advanced ages, is not only worthwhile but terribly necessary. I still get a kidlike thrill from learning a new word or phrase, or from managing to puzzle out a passage in a Russian detective novel. I’m fascinated by the ways that delving into a new and difficult language casts new light on my own and maybe even helps me understand why people who speak different languages may also view the world differently.

There’s a fascinating article in the latest New York Times Magazine about how speakers of other languages, say of languages that apply gender to nouns, may view the objects these nouns represent differently based on whether they are masculine or feminine nouns. And what amazed me even more was a study about an aboriginal language in Australia in which speakers never use terms like left, right, or behind. Instead, they use cardinal directions whenever they want to indicate position or place, as in, “Scoot over a little bit to the east.” And what that means is, these people always know which way the cardinal directions are, intuitively, from a very young age, at every moment of the day. They have to, otherwise they can’t communicate! I love this!

Drinking pink wine with Soviet WWII veteran pilots. An experience I recommend.

I’m pretty sure my comedic struggles with Russian and Spanish have not improved my sense of direction. But I’ve used them on multiple occasions to ask for directions, and my middling knowledge of them has certainly, to a great extent, determined my life’s course. Engagement sparks fascination, and my (somewhat futile) embrace of Russian language has also spurred me to enjoy reading Russian history and literature, to follow with interest current events in Russia, to make a mean borscht and salat olivier, and to maintain rewarding correspondences with my Russian lady-pilot friends.

So I’ll keep up my struggle, if for no other reason than to have an excuse to visit the inimitable Inna every week and to enjoy her grimly irreverent jokes. Just understanding them in the first place must mean I’m not entirely losing the battle. But, just to make sure, I’m re-arming myself with the newest edition of Katzner’s Russian-English dictionary.

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2 thoughts on “This is your brain on русский язык.

  1. I really appreciate you sharing your own difficulties in mastering and keeping up with Russian, because it helps me feel not quite so bad about how my own Russian, German, Greek, and Latin have slipped away from me after studying each for varying periods of time.

    Now that I’ve studied two dead languages in high school and college and one live one in college, I can say I’m amazed that the average person manages to get to even intermediate level with the standard 3 one-hour class periods and maybe an extra hour of lab time each week. That’s how I studied German a few years back and it was very frustrating compared to the semi-immersion method by which I studied Russian in the Army at DLI.

    I’m so glad you posted this, Kim. I think I’m going to go audit either a German or Russian class for the rest of the term and try to jump back in for real come Spring.

  2. I often feel like a complete ass when offering lame attempts at speaking Mandarin in China. But I think locals really appreciate it, particularly from Americans.
    While I’ve never studied it, I do try to speak and understand it as much as possible. I can tell a joke. I can explode at the absurdity of a price. I can FINALLY order an egg white omelette.

    What I find interesting about the language is similar to what you wrote about those Aborigines. Asking for an egg white omelette isn’t about the egg or the white, it’s about the absence of YELLOW in the end result. I don’t think there is a work for EGG YOLK. If there is, not one Chinese person I know can tell me what it is. Or isn’t.
    Once, in a car, the air conditioning was blasting cold and I asked my agent if she could request it to be turned down. She did and I caught the words “BIG” and “WIND.” I asked for a translation. Again, it had nothing to do with the machine or altering it’s mechanics, it was was a description of the the issue that was problematic – a large, cold wind that was not pleasing.
    And the characters for Manadrin are fascinating as well. There is a word that loosely means “contrive” and the character for it is based off of a bull in a closed corral. Interesting, no? :)

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