Posts Tagged ‘English’

1st semester: were told our grammar was "dirty." 2nd semester, were offered the "Clean Grammar" text.

In grammar class, we are learning about how using passive voice and impersonal expressions is a good thing. In the Russian language, you are supposed to put the blame on an invisible, mystical (neuter gendered) something. The Star Wars “Force,” if you will. (And no, it’s not God, for God is male in the Russian language).

For example: don’t say, “I’m cold,” but rather, “[Mystical neuter something] is cold to me.” Likewise, not “I didn’t finish my homework,” but “[Mystical neuter something] didn’t let it get done for me to finish the homework.”

(Get more facts–there’s no pun in that–about Russian grammar from a colleague in Yaroslavl on her blog. Otherwise, my life story (of sorts) is continued below.)

This was supposed to be the week that we got settled in to our firmed-up schedules and caught up on work. (But this assumption was wrong. More proof that when you “A S S (of) U (&) M E” in Russia, you just get it handed back to you.) (more…)

Speaking English in Russia is weird. I don’t do it often, namely, talking on the phone or Skype with people back home, and writing emails/blog updates. But being in the whole “immersion” experience for so long, when asked/required to switch to English, you’re really pushed off balance. A few places to watch out for. . .

In the taxi. For one, the accent of Russians speaking English sounds just as Russian as Russian itself, since the r’s are still rolled, the th’s are zz’ed, half the consonants are still not aspirated (to make an un-aspirated “k” sound, for instance, say “ka” with your hand in front of your mouth without feeling air come out until the a sounds, while still distinguishing it from “ga”), and any instance of the often nasal American ah (eh?) is replaced with the general ahhh. So the transition from one language to the next is underhanded, even.

This happened in the taxi on the way to the club last week, when the taxi driver randomly busted out the translation of “the highest story of a building” (attic. . . didn’t figure it out til I had my dictionary back at home) in the middle of the conversation of the people I was with. As a result, the different variations on approval/praise in English and in Russian got all mixed up–“molodets”/”good boy” only works in one language, and the general “alright!” also doesn’t translate completely exactly–, and I half regurgitated up a bluhrb of rtbrefaapeiuv.

So now there’s one more taxi driver in Irkutsk who not only thinks I don’t speak Russian, but any language at all. And of course, it’s the taxi driver with an all-for-naught degree in linguistics. Taksist-lingvist (tak-SEEST-leenk-VEEST), as it were.

On the phone. My Russian friend Nelli has also taken to randomly switching to English on the phone sometimes. Sometimes in mid-sentence. She speaks well, don’t get me wrong. Although when it comes to say goodbye, which is often expressed with “davai,” also the word used to express “let’s [go],” “get going,” etc., I ended up mixing that with the general word for goodbye, poka (pahKAH), into an ever-so-eloquent “let’s poka,” which sounded like an invitation to commence Hungarian step-dance. . . or something. . . .

On tours. At mealtimes. On my trip to observe the student presentations at the IGU Lycee (the high school attached to my university), my hostess/English teacher insisted only on English, which was fine, v printsipe (another Russian expression, “in principle” that sounds too bookish in English, but is sometimes as common as the English “well. . .” or “like”). However, as she was telling me about the school, their classes, and so on, I felt linguistically naked (there’s an expression for ya. . .) without the Russian “ponyatno” and “yasno” (lit. “understood,” “clear”), and “okay” seemed too indifferent, and my slurred “arright” too not-understood, and pronouncing “all righT” in a near British accent was too awkward. So, again I went with a lot of mixed-up half expressions in each language. When she got me tea and cookies, again, the vocabulary used while accepting food in Russia doesn’t translate that nicely to English.

In Great Britamerussia. Today, I made my third trip to the Waldorf School of Irkutsk, where I observed a 40-minute English class with a young teacher who also happens to be the chairperson of the Great Baikal Trail organization, one of the meetings of which I went to a month or so ago. Their first activity was reciting the tongue-twister, immediately giving away the fact that British English was the language of instruction, “Make my milk merrily more mild.” Except I’m not coming up with a red-underline (that means spelling mistake, Grandma) when I type “milder.” But since the point of the tongue-twister was to squeeze in as many M’s as possible, and not learning superlatives, I let it slide. The rest of the class was interesting and error free–impressive, as the teacher hadn’t ever been to a English-speaking country.

In your head. In class. So although the cultural significance of language creates a lot of the complications–minor ones, at most–that I’ve encountered with speaking English in Russian, the bigger problems tend to crop up in classes trying to express more complicated ideas through Russian grammar, and oftentimes half-Slavic, half-Latin based vocabulary. During my one-on-one lesson with my Econ prof on Monday, I was again reminded, for instance, that being asked to define or give formulas for “ekonomicheskaya effektivnost'” (economic efficacy, go figure) or other terms perhaps in Russian, but abbreviated with Latin letters from the English term, all isn’t as easy as it seems. Which, I suppose, all goes to show the importance of the whole immersion idea. So snaps for Middlebury. Go brand and market that stuff.

Of course, all of this including the exceptions of trying to help out students, friends, and taxi drivers learn your own language.

Later this week: a show at the Irkutsk Drama Academy Theatre and packing for 10 days in/in-transit-to Mongolia.