Monday 23 November 2009

The language of Love

How are you at learning new languages? Personally, I'm not the best, never have been. Along the way I've had shots at learning French, German, Spanish and Dutch, none of which has particularly sunk in.

For example, the only thing of value that I remember from 5 years of French lessons is the word for 'slice' (and you would be amazed how handy that comes in when shopping for cheese in Provence, sweetie). Oh, and the first verse of the Marsellaise, which to this day I can sing perfectly due to a particularly fearsome and intimidatingly chic French woman who taught the subject in my 3rd year. (That's Year 9 in new money. I think).

German was a non-starter from Day 1. Bearing in mind that in the 70's and 80's we were never really taught how to conjugate verbs in English, the chances of teaching a group of bored convent school girls how to deal with the 4 cases in German (Nominative, Accusative, Dative and Genetive - and yes, I did have to google those) when there were other important things to be done like looking up rude words in our dictionaries were always going to be slim.

Spanish? Well, that was for a couple of terms at university when, in the first year, I was forced to choose between some 'improving' subject (like Spanish, for example) or spending each and every Wednesday afternoon running around a hockey pitch being chased by scary stocky girls with very short hair and interesting piercings, all in the cause of glorifying the college sporting record. I know how to order beer in Spanish as a result - but that's about it.

Dutch appeared on the menu the year that Husband and I got married. I managed a couple of terms, attending an evening class almost exclusively composed of women with Dutch boyfriends, with maybe 2 men dating Dutch women, but bowed out when I got pregnant with Boy #1 and the term 'morning sickness' proved to be someone's idea of a cruel joke. Morning sickness? I don't think so; my nausea arrived promptly every morning, yes, but then decided to hang around for a laugh until bedtime...

So when faced with a move to Russia, I have to say that the prospect of learning an entirely new language, with an entirely new alphabet, didn't fill me with joy. Nevertheless, I'm giving it a go, and am now often to be found of an evening keeping company with Mamselle Rosetta Stone doing my best impression of Madonna in her 'Vogue' persona (think headphones here please, rather than pointy bra), swearing at the screen when I prove unable to say 'bread' in Russian for the 50th time.

This on it's own is not so bad. However, I am married to Mr Languages himself; he absorbs them by osmosis - oh, and very hard work, obviously. This skill on it's own is also not so bad. (Have you ever seen 'A Fish Called Wanda'? Remember how Jamie Lee Curtis loves it when John Cleese speaks Russian? That's what I'm talking about... But I digress).

Anyway, Husband speaks a number of different languagues, around 5 - including Russian - fluently, and another couple that he claims he can 'get by' in. And there's the difference between us. For me, 'getting by' is making it to the correct destination by taxi in Malaga without being ripped off. For him, 'getting by' is being able to order your coffee in Spanish and specifying that you don't want the whipped cream on top. Which, to my mind, is rather more than 'getting by', so I think you'll agree that our start points are not in exactly the same spot when it comes to learning languages.

Which is why I should not have been at all surprised by the following conversation...

Him: "So, how's the Russian coming?"

Me: "Oh, OK. You know."

Him: "It would be really great if you were able to communicate a bit with the locals by the time you arrive."(at the time of this conversation, around 8 weeks away).

Me: "Yeeeees. How do you mean, exactly?"

Him: "Well, you know. Talk to people in shops. Chat to the cleaning lady. Give directions to a taxi driver."

Me: (after a very long pause). "You do realise that what you've just described is my ultimate goal for when we've been living there about two years, don't you?"

Him: "Oh."


  1. Hate people who are good at languages. Unless they are foreigners and good at English. Bosnian has all the cases too, and for some reason I think that Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian (whatever) is similarish to Russian.

    And yes, after a year and a half I can communicate with the shop keepers, nursery staff and the cleaner. I also have a bizarre vocabulary which doesn't include the word for job but does include the words for dragon, potty, poo, pirate and snake.

    Definitely worth making an effort, but so hard! Good luck with it.

  2. Also appaling at languages. I can say 'I would like a kilo of tomatoes' in French with the chaviest of English accents and 'I am twelve years old' in German.

    And Russian is a right pig. It's not just the cases, it's the consonant clusters. After seven years people there still ask me if I'm Polish. I used to think it was because my accent was much better than your average Brit, but then I realised it is because I speak something which sounds rather Slavic but which they don't actually udnerstand.

    Good luck, anyway.

    And always remember that at least it's not Finnish. They have something like sixteen cases and more vowels than we have consonants.

    Anyway, I'm looking forward to your arrival in Moscow.

  3. English speakers are notoriously bad at bothering to learn languages though. I love learning languages, but then I'm Flemish, so that's what we do.

  4. I think it's all down to motivation - if you grow up with about 20 languages bordering your country, and you love Duran Duran, you will learn languages. So I watched Flemish and French TV as a kid (still humming French Captain Future's theme tune), had my Spanish best friend teach me her lingo and absorbed any pop lyric I could get my hands on. Voila, fluent in 2 foreign languages, getting by in a good few others.

    If you grow up in Britain, your next door neighbour speaks English. The next neighbour after that? Guess what, English. Lingua Franca of the world? English. I can understand why there's not much point to getting into languages here. And that's an ex language teacher speaking.

    Oh and Russian is just so beautiful. And don't you just love the distinction between animate and non-animate things? Nothing like it. Pa ka!

  5. Lived in Finland on and off for 6 years. Since I never thought I was gonna stay here for long enough I never got round to learning Finnish properly. So, now I can read subtitles understand TV programs (although most are US imports) understand my friends except when drunk. But... I can't speak the language - pronounciation is a problem and while I can recognise vocab I can't remember it to be able to use it myself. Most depressing. Worst is when bf moans to people that I've been here 6 years and can't speak, yet he won't talk to me in Finnish (although getting him to talk in a any language is hard enough), constantly criticises my pronounciation and when he does try to help me her talks so fast and uses ridiculously hard vocab that I can't understand him. Finnish language classes only teach you basics and also teach you written language. As if Finnish wasn't hard enough they have written and spoken language which is different and the vocab in the classes is from the 70's - which makes you look even more of an idiot when trying to speak with someone!

    I admire you for trying to learn Russian - it will take a while and it won't be easy but if you can manage by yourself, which is easier than you probably think, then you'll be fine :)

  6. Brit, maybe it's a Dutch thing. They need to be better at languages than we do because so few other countries understand it...

    Hi Solnushka, thanks for commenting and for the encouraging (?) advice! And does your last comment mean that you're living in Moscow yourself?

    Mwa, I know. I also know that Flemish is not exactly the same as Dutch (as my Dutch teacher - who was also Flemish - used to like to point out, the Flemish speak better Dutch than the Dutch...).

    Cartside, thanks for commenting but I'm sorry, what? Animate and non-animate objects? I clearly haven't got that far yet, but then that does make sense when I think about some of the stuff I've been parroting at the computer screen and wondering why they say it like that. Oh, so much to learn...

    Hi Claire, thanks for the encouragement! (I need it - my willpower is waning).

  7. Oooh, I would so love to speak another language fluently. I can count and say a few sentences and know several words in French but I'm just useless at learning full stop.

    Enjoyed your post.
    CJ xx

  8. I love learning languages and am reasonably good at them, but I still don't speak anything fluently (other than English, on a good day...). I really think you have to live somewhere to become fluent - so, using that theory, your Russian will become just fine....

  9. Apparently there is a developmental window in early childhood where it is possible to become truly, accentlesslt fluent in many languages. And if you are bilingual as a child you will likely always be better at picking up new ones. The book "the scientist in the crib" by Allison gopnik and collegues explores this. Interesting reading. My husband was raised bilingual in Danish and English and speaks French and Japanese. Many California parents take advantage of our liguistic diversity here and gave their kids in bilingual school programs, which is a great opportunity that we will explore for our kids. Best of luck with the Russian!

  10. I did French for 7 years and was actually quite good when I left school. Now all I can remember is "le sanglier" which is a wild boar. Always comes in handy.

  11. Your husband is clearly a genius. I am terrible at languages. I think it gets harder as you get older, at least that is my excuse. I'd love to be able to 'crack' another. My niece is half-Chinese, she is 18 months old and speaks English and Chinese with ease. She makes me feel like ma lost cause. As for the Russian, I'm sure once you get there it will become much easier to pick up.

  12. I love languages and learn them quickly. I am fluent in French, although did learn to speak it with an atrocious Arabic accent, as I worked for an Algerian couple whose French was worse than their English! Fortunately I managed to get rid of the accent and still pass as a Parisienne when required. I admire you for learning Russian though - very challenging.

  13. My degree (from a not entirely rubbish university) is in French and Russian so you'd probably think I'm pretty good at languages. However, some (many) years after leaving university my French is fluent and my Russian.... well... I think my cv says "rusty".

    That said it is a gorgeous language and the people, once you get past the slightly reserved exterior, are some of the loveliest and most generous I've met - so if you make an effort with the language they honestly will be totally delighted. So yes, the grammar is a total b*gger (steer clear of perfective and imperfective verbs and verbs of motion if you want to save your sanity - and if that doesn't mean anything to you yet I suggest you keep it that way), but walk into any shop with a cheery "hello, I'm learning Russian please bear with me" (and I can type that out for you if you like!)and they will love it.

    Good luck. Am actually very jealous.

    ps interesting what Solnushka says - people always thought I was from the Baltic States because of my accent (but apparently that was because "English people are all blonde" so I couldn't be...)

  14. Thanks CJ!

    NVG - well, I live in hope.

    Geekymummy, thanks for commenting and yes, I know about that theory; it's why my husband has only ever spoken Dutch to our sons. Of course, they answer him in English...

    EPM - almost as handy as 'tranche' I would imagine...

    Rosie, well of course he is. Look at his choice of wife (ha haha)

    Morethan - thanks. Let's wait on that one though until I learn how to say 'bread' correctly...

    PlanB, now you're scaring me. Oh well - will just have to see how far I get without recourse to grammer (you see? It's going to be a long road...)

  15. Ah. No. Not living in Moscow now. Meant I was looking forward to reading about it on your blog. Vicarious kicks and all that.

  16. I blame all my foreign language learning problems on never being taught English properly in the first place, not the way other countries are taught their only native language properly anyway. It really shows when trying to learn a new language alongside non-native English speakers.

    Of course none of that explains my ability to keep trying to learn Portuguese only to quit once I finally start to get anywhere...

  17. What a great post! I find I'm far better at reading text in a foreign language than speaking - probably as I have more time to work it all out.
    When abroad I really try to make an effort to speak the local lingo but it usually falls flat as the other person spots me as a fake and swiftly speaks English in return.
    The only time I practised my French so that my introductory phrase was faultless, the reply was in such rapid French that I was uncovered yet again.
    (By the way, I'm thoroughly enjoying my first week with British Mummy Bloggers - such great reads!)

  18. Solnushka - just wondering! (Well, you never know - I keep expecting someone who lives there to pop up eventually!)

    Vic, thanks for commenting and spot on! I never even knew the term to 'parse' a sentence until I reached university to study English, for goodness' sake. What's that all about?

    Trish, thanks for commenting and welcome to the BMB network! I had exactly the same problem as you did with French, but in Dutch. Eventually I just found it simpler to speak English from the get-go - which was a bit of a cop-out, really...

  19. Thought of something good about Russian. The spelling is phonetic. I can actually spell in Russian.

    There's this blogger out there:

    I think she's a bit preoccupied at the moment, but she seems to be part of a small gang of expat bloggers in Moscow.


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