In 2016, I was nervous. As a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant, we had the opportunity to give presentations about our experiences in Russia and, for me specifically, experiences in Smolensk where I studied Russian language. By that time, I had many experiences to pull from. I had played in a Russian men’s basketball league and thought about the differences between American and Russian play styles. I was a teacher, and the university environment I was in was much different from my alma mater, William & Mary (go Tribe!). I was also extremely fascinated by the cultural importance of a “hello” that was valued by my close Russian peers. Despite all of these interesting topics, one group of women made much more of an impression on me than anything else – the вахтеры of our dorm at Smolensk State University.
My husband and I met in a PhD program, where we spoke the same language: the international technical language of Anglo-American academic philosophy. In this language, we talked about the things that mattered to us the most, he with an accent so slight that I stopped hearing it. He told me about his Soviet childhood, with its dacha visits, mushroom-picking excursions, Pioneer camps, people who skied to work, and other exotica. As it turned out, we’d both watched Winnie-the-Pooh cartoons, but I was shocked to find that his version was better. We’d both loved the Sonic Youth album Daydream Nation, but while I’d bought it on CD from some megastore, his copy was pirated, on vinyl, and had been released by something called the United Evangelical Lutheran Church of Russia, Saint-Petersburg. He gave me one of his Auktyon cassettes on extended loan and I started studying Russian to understand what the songs were about. I learned what is still my favorite word in Russian: ptitsa, a bird. The word sounds like the rustling of wings, the precise peck of a beak. When he translated his favorite Russian anecdotes for me – some of the darkest, funniest humor I’ve heard – I had a glimpse into his mind, and I also felt a deep sympathy with what I met. At the same time, we were (and are) quite foreign to one another.
Most people, it seems, study foreign languages for all the wrong reasons. High school and college students do so to meet graduation requirements. Older adults do so to get certain jobs, or to make more money, or to feel more sophisticated when traveling abroad.
I will be the first to admit that there were times in my life when I pursued language study for all the wrong reasons…
In high school, I needed at least two years of a foreign language to graduate. I chose German simply because my ancestors five generations ago were German speakers and because my father had learned it in school. I suppose I saw it as a family duty of sorts, despite the lack of any meaningful connection with either past or present-day Germany.
The problem is that I could never get German to click for me.