The Russian word “счастье” (pronounced schast’ye) means happiness, bliss or luck. That is honestly the way I would summarize both my thoughts and feelings about studying the Russian language.
Perhaps because I love Slavic languages and studied Macedonian as a Peace Corps Volunteer beginning back in 2002, I have wanted to study Russian for a long time, and when I got my assignment to Uzbekistan on August 1, I was thrilled to learn that this would become a reality.
Over the last three weeks since my last blog post, I’ve been totally immersed in what the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) calls the Russian “introductory course”. I finished it on Friday, and this coming Monday, I will begin six months of the “basic course”.
Our class started on September 2 with me, our instructor, S, and two other students, L and B, who were both also in my A-100 class and subsequent Area Studies course. The second day, an FSO preparing for his third tour, R, also joined our class. The five of us have formed a very supportive and hard-working team.
My instructor speaks Russian as his mother tongue, in addition to fluent English, German and some Spanish. R speaks Spanish and a little Georgian, and also spent a few years in the Balkans. B speaks both Farsi and Czech fluently. L speaks French fluently and knows bits and pieces of Swedish. My Macedonian is professionally proficient, and I have very dormant recollections of Spanish from high school and college, with bits and pieces of Serbian and Turkish from living in the Balkans.
So, the cumulative language capability in the room is impressive. Although our time together so far has been short, I am amazed at how much Russian I have already learned in just the past few weeks. We are already reading paragraphs of Russian, speaking in complete sentences, conjugating verbs, and beginning to figure out just how complicated Russian grammar really is.
I am happy to be working with my old friend the Cyrillic alphabet again. Most people find its appearance intimidating, but in fact, it’s just that appearance and my familiarity with it that encourages me. Every time I see a new word and guess its meaning correctly (call! read! go!), I do a little cheer. The fact that many Russian words or roots are similar, if not identical (elephant! what! wonderful! clear!) to Macedonian confers an advantage, while at the same time tricking me with their slightly different spellings or intonations.
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Every weekday from 10:40 to 12:30 I am in class at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in Arlington, and then we have a two hour break for lunch and self-directed media lab study. During this time, I often also get a head-start on homework, review the morning’s lesson, and practice penmanship (yes, Cyrillic has its regular alphabet as well as cursive).
On the fourth floor of my building, there is a green roof covered with cacti, plants and flowers. Almost every day I walk outside around the campus for about a half hour. Then I return to the fourth floor to eat my bag lunch while sitting on the low wooden indoor windowsill, watching trundling bumble bees, dragonflies, and butterflies flutter around the blooms on the other side of the window in the waning summer afternoons. I find the solitude and nature very peaceful. We then resume class from 14:40 to 17:30, and, to make an eight hour workday, are supposed to engage afterwards in a couple of hours of homework and self-directed speaking and reading practice.
My class is the “B shift”. The “A shift” students are on campus from 07:40 to 14:30, both arriving and departing three hours before I do. My understanding is that many students prefer the earlier “A” schedule. However, I feel like getting home by 18:00 is early enough for me. In fact, I can’t think of any time in my professional life over the last eight years in the Washington, DC area when I knew for sure that I was getting out of the office by 17:30, so I feel lucky and grateful.
Don’t get me wrong – my workaholic self did more than enjoy living and dying by someone else’s schedule, working on demand, running logistics all the time and being needed. But of course, the change is good for me. This is also the first time in several years that I’ve had guaranteed daily free time during business hours for things like doctors’ appointments, running to the post office, etc. so it’s pretty amazing.
I also live about 22 minutes’ drive from FSI, and don’t need to take the notoriously clogged northern VA freeways to get back and forth. When I worked in downtown DC, the ten miles could take anywhere from 25 minutes to 2 hours, and I never knew from minute to minute when I was going to actually arrive.
I’m Getting Paid to Learn Russian! So I can serve my country! And that’s pretty much all I have to do! Holy Christmas.
I heard that over the course of our language study, classes and schedules may be shuffled, so I’m not counting on anything staying the same between now and March, anyway. I’m just going to keep an open mind and try to adjust to whatever I need to do. I find that the fewer expectations I have that are outside my control, the happier I am. And because I’ve set my life up in such a way where I’m not a caretaker for anyone else (read: no kids) my schedule is all my own. #ideal
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Usually when I return home from campus in the evening, I eat dinner and catch up with my husband, and then I go either to the gym or out for a long walk around my neighborhood. I have fallen into a gentle routine, which is good for my soul. I also spend a lot of time thinking about how I can take care of myself better. Self-care facilitates not only increased language absorption, but also allows me to better manage the physical pain I experience from a chronic illness, so I can be a better wife, daughter, sister, friend and colleague.
Even though the last couple of months have been personally challenging for me, I have increased my efforts to be intentionally positive in my words and in my actions. My psoriatic arthritis has flared up in a rather dramatic way lately, and I am fighting the pain almost every moment I am awake, even though I look normal. That is one of the hardest things about having an auto-immune disease. No one sees that I hurt all the time, that it takes me sometimes two hours in the morning to move easily. Most people can’t imagine that I would do almost anything just to unzip my body, get out and walk away. But I can’t, so I just bear it, and it goes on and on.
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Language learning is not easy. I studied Spanish in high school and college for a combined five years, and that did not prepare me at all for the experience of learning Macedonian as a Peace Corps Volunteer. My experience in that small class of five PCVs was that it was really a tearing down of my ego.
I always felt like everyone else in the class was better than me, more talented, picking the language up faster. I often felt silly, defensive and defeated, and it held me back. I became inhibited about speaking. I got discouraged trying over and over and over, and always coming up shortest. Having Macedonians point out that I didn’t understand, that I was slower, impatiently interrupting me, or favoring talking to others instead of me began to crush my spirit.
I fell into a pseudo “class-clown” role without even wanting to, marked by self-deprecation and an assumption that I just “wasn’t good” with learning a language. I was constantly dismayed by my lack of ability to communicate, something I’ve always been skilled at. I was totally unprepared for how I would feel when people talked about me in my presence and I didn’t even know how what was said, or how to respond.
I felt totally invalidated, alone and embarrassed. I knew learning language wasn’t a measure of intelligence, but it’s hard to remember that when you are trying to work and everyone can see that you speak like a first grader and treats you as such!
Of course, later I realized that my attitude was more about my shaken confidence, culture shock and homesickness than it was about my aptitude or ability to learn. I changed my negative self-talk “tape” to say something different, and I started to believe it. I went to my work site and worked with a tutor, dated a couple of Macedonian guys, and made friends with people who didn’t speak English. A year later, during our first in-service training, Peace Corps’ Macedonian language instructors were gobsmacked by my “unexpected” improvement.
I have been on guard for those feelings and behaviors in my Russian class, and fortunately, the passing of twelve years and my absolute determination to succeed in learning Russian, combined with the support and stability of living in my own country during this endeavor, has all lent itself to a new and more positive language learning experience. And in truth, I am not worried about it because I am a very different person than I was back then. So what if I fail at something I try? So what if someone thinks I’m dumb? And? They probably won’t anyway, but if they do, I have every reason to believe that I will persevere in spite of it. You can’t control everyone else’s perceptions of your weaknesses, real or imagined.
I have only had only semi-bad day in Russian class so far, where I felt frustrated and a little unclear, and even on that day I maintained a patient and positive attitude and things ended up improving in short order. I think when learning a language you just have to believe in yourself and persist in your learning when you hit a wall. In fact, when I see that I am weak with something, I intentionally charge ahead and try to improve. It’s no longer about how I am doing vis-à-vis anyone else, but how well I can do against what I did the day before.
I’m not afraid to make a fool out of myself, because I realized long ago that the only foolish thing I can do is not try. #resilience
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I leave you now with something that made me grin. The other day, I was looking at the Russian alphabet poster that hangs in our classroom and noticed that — like in Macedonian — my name in Russian is an actual word: