This is week 14 of my Russian class, LRU100. This week marks the halfway point of the 28 week language program that many in my new Foreign Service Officer cohort (the “too big to fail 178th”) embarked upon in September. Fourteen weeks in, we are in the thick of it – regardless of whether we are studying Russian, or Mandarin, or Spanish, or Azeri, or Bangla, or Arabic, or whatever else.
At this point, I have the unsettling feeling that I should be precisely halfway to the level of language proficiency required for me to travel to post. However, it’s probably more true that by now I should have established the solid foundation upon which to continue building and expanding, while simultaneously consolidating and fine-tuning what I’ve already acquired.
Indeed, I appreciate the way the Russian Department at FSI has laid out, in chart format, chronologically by week, exactly what Russian students will learn each week, and exactly what topics Russian students will be responsible to demonstrate during each scheduled assessment.
There is a comfort in understanding the meter stick of what a 2 speaking / 2 reading looks like, or, at the very least, an assurance that the assessments are based on something more objective, concrete and above all orderly than “She sucks today,” or “Today she understood everything!” The ambiguity threshold is high enough as it is.
My brave class of three has tackled five of the six Russian cases, and we are reading (or usually just attempting to read chunks of) brief news articles at a level that I bet under-educated Russians would struggle with.
Learning Russian grammar in some ways reminds me of my experiences learning advanced algebra; knowledge and methodology are cumulative, and processes build one upon the prior. Skip anything along the way and suddenly you can’t complete the complex multi-step formula.
For example, don’t blow off a firm grasp on when to use hard-stemmed vs. soft-stemmed Russian adjectival endings in a case language that has almost a dozen vowels. Just don’t. Especially if you’re not so keen on grammar in your mother tongue as it is. It’s not going to get easier. The complexity will build, and build, and build.
When you were a kid, at least for a kid of my generation, you knew intuitively when building a Jenga tower to make sure you laid those first pieces carefully. Otherwise your whole stack would soon lean askew and come crashing down before soaring to the impressive heights you aspired for it.
A brief disclaimer, though, that sadly, truth be told, any pieces you lay at any point in building your Jenga tower can suddenly rotate sideways, just slightly enough to require repeated, delicate course corrections.
Case in point today occurred when I looked at something we learned weeks ago, baffled and not even understanding why it was sticking out to me. For about thirty seconds, I puzzled over it as if I had never seen it before until I shifted one log and everything straightened back up again.
Also, a nod to the 180th class, for whom A-100 invites began December 2. On May 5, 2014 I felt just how you feel tonight. A pitcher of margaritas later, I laid in bed for seven hours and slept for about two, my eyes filled with stars.