New Year’s Resolutions: Not Lost in Translation

“A different language is a different vision of life.” Federico Fellini

Happy New Year, everyone!

It’s time for New Years resolutions and new beginnings. For many of my students, their New Years resolution is learning a language. It is very important for me to understand the student’s goals and to help achieve them as soon as possible so my very first question to my students is always the same: “Why are you learning Russian?”.

Surprisingly, the main audience of my courses and individual classes does not have a Russian background. Usually, my students are interested in Russian culture, literature and music. For example, students who achieved an intermediate level of Russian proficiency can already start reading Chekhov’s stories. There are also students who are simply intrigued and fascinated by the melody of Russian language or interested in its’ structure and idioms. 

Family members of Russian speakers who wish to learn the language, hold a special place in my heart: spouses, father-in-law and mother-in-law, grandparents. This distinct category of my students work hard to learn the mother tongue of their relatives and loved ones. Their stories are very fascinating and moving.

The experiences of Rihanna, Chris, and Elizabeth are truly inspiring. I would like to share with you three interviews with the following students.

Rianna MacLeod

– Why are you learning Russian?

The answer to this question is easy — my husband and son are Russian. When I married Denis, I ended up with a large extended family of Russian relatives; sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews — all of whom I wanted to connect with and learn more about.

– How did learning a language help you communicate with family, friends, hobbies or understand the culture and mindset?

As it turns out, Russian language and culture are closely intertwined. The more that I learn the language, the better I understand Russian humor, music, history, culture and customs.

When I first met my husband, I really didn’t know much about Russian culture or language — but I was curious, and decided to take Russian lessons with Galina Sanaeva at our local University. As our relationship progressed, we traveled together to Russia for my first month-long visit. But because my knowledge of Russian was quite limited, the trip was challenging for me. I often didn’t understand what people were saying or what was written – and I met most of Denis’ relatives, but most of them didn’t speak any English. I often felt confused in social situations there. 

By the end of the trip, I had spent an entire four weeks traveling through Russia and was bursting with intrigue — I had learned a handful of the basic phrases necessary to survive if I happened to wander outside on my own for a few minutes. But this trip left me with so many unanswered questions and felt that I had only reached the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. Sure, I had seen the Hermitage and Red Square, met many of my husband’s friends and family, but did I truly understand any of it?

It wasn’t until the second time I visited Russia that I really felt the value of learning the Russian language. We had just arrived from a vacation in Cyprus and were headed in February for a brief visit to his family in Magnitogorsk. What we didn’t anticipate was that the COVID pandemic was about to shut down borders and our month-long visit to Russia would turn into ten months. As you can imagine, the small amount of Russian that I had so far learned came in extremely useful. It was a full Russian immersion program. And the more I learned, the more I was able to enjoy the company of my new relatives, experience Russian culture and holidays, appreciate music, and make new friends. 

My husband and I often joke that our marriage is so successful because we only understand each other about 20% of the time. But the reality is that the more I learn about Russian language and culture, the more I admire my husband and am proud of his heritage. 

– Do you have any interesting and funny stories related to language learning?

During my last trip to Russia, I learned to exercise extreme caution when admiring other people’s things. On many different occasions, I was invited to someone’s house and I would admire their art or something in their garden, at which point they would then try to give it to me as a gift! For example, I was offered some local honey by my sister in-law. It was quite possibly the most delicious honey I had ever tasted, and I told her as such. A few days later, however, my sister in-law invited me back and as a gift her husband offered me an entire 100cm long honeycomb! 

During my last trip to Russia, I was naturally curious about my environment. My husband didn’t have much interest in going out shopping every day, so I would venture out on my own and go for walks. To the central marketplace, the mall, the park, or the grocery store. 

What was extraordinary to me was that I quickly learned how to navigate around my new environment. I could buy things at the shop, order coffees at the cafe, eat at restaurants, take the tram through the snow downtown to the mall, or even hail a taxi. I regularly found myself in situations where I didn’t entirely understand what was being said to me, however once people realized that I was a foreigner, they were often extremely helpful and kind — going out of their way to provide information, translate things, or help me find my way. 

I quickly learned the names of all grocery products at the store, becoming an expert at navigating aisles and shopping for produce at the market. At some point, the local teenagers who worked at the coffee shop that I frequented for lattes realized that I was a native English speaker. Whenever I walked into the shop or by the store, they would lean out the window, smile and wave at me and say “Hello” or practice their English. It was quite cute. 

Elisabeth Wagner

I started studying Russian five years ago, when we learned we were going to have a Russian daughter-in-law. I knew a little Russian already but from over 40 years ago. Even though I didn’t need Russian to communicate with Katja, whose English is stellar, I wanted to be able to say more than “Hello” to her and especially her parents, who do not speak English. Then I found Galina, first at UVic and, since Covid, via Zoom.

I could not have anticipated the richness of my experience. My Russian has improved, of course, and with Galina’s guidance and creativity, I have been introduced to many new writers, artists, movies and music – I had barely skimmed the surface of a rich heritage – from poet Anna Akhmatova to cabaret singer Anna German to painter Kazimir Malevich. I have some favourite movies, too, and although I certainly need the subtitles, I pick up more dialogue all the time.

There have been some unexpected results as well. I did not anticipate forming new friendships, including Galina and a Russian speaking conversation buddy she paired me up with. We explore movies and literature together, both English and Russian. I love to get an e-mail from Katja with a little joke included, and to be able to reciprocate. Soon she will be visiting and I am busily practising my day-to-day household vocabulary, as well as my Russian piano music and songs! Nor did I expect that my English handwriting would improve because of my painstaking efforts to write neatly in Cyrillic. My husband says he can now read the grocery list much better!

Chris Allen 

– Why are you learning Russian?

I have had an interest in learning other languages for many years. I discovered the Pimsleur language program around 2006 and started to learn Spanish because I was planning on going on vacation to Mexico and I thought it would be interesting to be able to speak a little bit with the locals. When I met my Russian partner, I became inspired to learn Russian because I wanted to get to know her better and I felt that learning about the Russian language and culture would give help me to understand her better plus I saw the opportunity to learn from a native speaker. In addition to listening to audio programs, my partner started teaching me from a couple different books and I audited a second year Russian course at the University. 

– How did learning a language help you communicate with family, friends, hobbies or understand the culture and mindset?

Learning the language and learning about the culture has helped me to understand my partner better. I think that we are all a product of our culture on some level including the cartoons and music videos we watch growing up to the literature we are exposed to in school. Learning to speak Russian feels like something that connects us together. It is a lot of fun to compare the differences and similarities between English and Russian. It is fun to be able to speak Russian when we are in a grocery store and want to say something funny or inappropriate, like a secret code, although one needs to be careful as there are quite a few Russian speaker around. 

– Do you have any interesting and funny stories related to language learning?

Recently I commented on my wife’s robe and told her хороший холодильник (nice fridge) instead of хороший халат (nice robe) which made her laugh. You can see that there are some similarities in the two concepts. Another time, my partner asked me if I wanted something ironed and I thought she was asking me to touch her so I touched her shoulder. In Russian, the world гладить has several meanings such as “to iron” and “to caress.”

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