Saturday, March 30, 2013

Thoughts on Language Acquisition

May 10, 2008

I was talking to someone the other day (I forget who), and this individual brought up the fact that Condoleeza Rice’s Russian is “so bad.” This person thought it was reprehensible that someone who studied Russian in university spoke the language so poorly. But the thing is, I completely understand.

In order to maintain one’s foreign language abilities, one must constantly practice and study. I received my BA in Russian in 2001. At that time, my spoken Russian, while not fluent, was pretty damn good. However, from Summer 2001 to Summer 2005, I neither practiced nor studied Russian. Additionally, during that time I made two extensive trips to South Korea, traveled all over Costa Rica, and lived in Southern California within walking distance of the Mexican border. By the time I returned to Russia in August 2005, my Russian skills had greatly diminished; I spoke something I referred to as Spanglorusskikonglish.

I was in Russia from August 2005 through June 2006, during which time my Russian language skills returned to roughly the same level they were at my time of graduation. Of course, this was mainly due to the fact that I lived with a host family and took regular Russian lessons, as most of my friends were English speakers.

After leaving Russia, I spent a year in Korea. Despite three trips to Korea, my Korean is still essentially nonexistent. I can order food, purchase things, ask for directions and direct a taxi to my destination. I can even tell people that I’m an English teacher from the United States. But that’s it; that’s the extent of my Korean. Nonetheless, after a year of hearing only Korean spoken (and occasionally struggling to study it), my Russian levels once again dropped.

I came to Bishkek – a predominantly Russian speaking city – in January of this year, and I was pleased to discover that my Russian comprehension was still quite high. Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten much language practice since I’ve been here. In general, my Russian speaking consists of practicalities: ordering food, purchasing things, asking for directions, directing taxis and telling people where I’m from and what I’m doing here. I live alone, don’t have time for Russian lessons, most of my friends are English speakers, and the school’s staff (for the most part) speaks English. Additionally, for most Kyrgyz speakers of Russian, Russian is their second language, and their spoken Russian is often filled with mistakes. (Case endings? Who needs those?)

It wasn’t until my trip to Karakol with Sara and Sasha from Vladimir that I realized just how bad my spoken Russian had become. Our trip was really the first time since leaving Vladimir that I’d had a lengthy conversation in Russian in which I couldn’t cheat by replying in English. The realization of the quality of my spoken Russian – or lack thereof – was hammered home the other night at Anton’s when one of the Russian guys told me, “Your accent is okay, but your grammar is terrible!” Sigh.

I can’t decide how I feel about this.

One of the main reasons I went to Russia in 2005 was to rebuild my Russian so that I could get a job with an NGO working with Russia. However, by now you probably know that I completely changed course while in Russia. Now I want to focus on teaching EFL/ESL, and eventually, I’ll probably get my MA in TESOL or Applied Linguistics.

I’m not sure how Russian fits into all of this. As it is, I’m currently trying (albeit not too successfully) to study Kyrgyz, and I’m even thinking about teaching in the Middle East next year. I’d hate to lose my Russian skills, but I’m not certain that there will be much benefit to knowing Russian in my future, and therefore I’m not entirely sure that it would be worth the effort I’d need to expend to keep it up.

Meanwhile, so many of my students simply don’t seem to understand that effort is required to learn a foreign language. Here’s a set of the sort of questions I am asked all the time: 

How can I learn English faster? 

I need to speak fluent English by [date in the near future]; what can I do? 

How quickly can I reach Advanced level? 

Can I move up a level? (Inevitably followed by an indignant Why not?) 

My advice to all of them is that they simply must study and practice constantly; they must stop worrying about skipping levels and focus on learning everything they need to know to pass their current level by heart. So many seem to think that there must be some way to learn English – or any foreign language – overnight and there simply isn’t.

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