Introduction: How Russian Chose Me


All I knew is that I wanted to learn another language.  It had never occurred to me that it could be done “just because”; from an early age, it was said that such a thing should only be done for practical purposes.

My teenage self loved the look of Finnish (and hey, I still do), and my favourite bands happened to hail from Finland.  I started to spend money from my weekend job on the grammar books and language notes I could find, until..

“What are you doing?” my mother asked.
“I’m going to learn Finnish!  No, I’m leaning Suomi!” I said proudly.
“Because it sounds cool”
“They all speak English, and there are hardly any people there.  Be real.  When are you going to use this?  You’ve wasted your money.”

I sat there, dejected, all hopes of being in a North European metal band and yelling perkele! perfectly slipping away from me.

Reindeer_group_620I bet these guys don’t know what caddywhompus means.
To be fair, I didn’t either until now.

I dabbled in other languages, but always wondered how it would feel to be fluent.  I could have conversations with myself out loud!  People could talk about me while I’m there and I would be able to throw them all off guard by joining in!  I could be a super cherished person in the government because of just how fluent I am!  I could pretend I had an accent at parties!

Further attempts to learn Dutch and Spanish became half-hearted.  As soon as I managed to really learn some vocabulary, the sentence structures began to make sense, the voice in my head grew louder: “Why are you doing this?  They speak English anyway.  Are you even going to go to the countries in which this language is spoken?  You don’t know anyone that understands it either, who is going to practice with you?” Within moments, all the effort in learning to roll my r’s felt for nothing.

Then I made a friend at work.  After I witnessed her telling a joke to her mum, with whom we also worked, in their native tongue, I commented on how angry that exchange sounded.

“I know, right?” she gushed, “it’s Ukrainian.  I’ll teach you some Russian!  It’ll be fun!  You can use that more than my language.”

I nodded excitedly.

“Can you say рыба?”
“I can’t say shit”

We spent the next couple of minutes perfecting my intonation, after which she proudly sidled up to her mum to proclaim my newfound fluency.

“Very good!” she beamed, “Can you say хлеб?”
“No, but I can say рыба”
“How are you going to eat in Russia if you can’t say bread?”
“I guess I’ll just eat a lot of fish”
“No no, you need bread!  Say хлеб.  Do it.  Xлеб!”

I liked this.  It felt different.  Where some words I’d tried to learn previously were similar enough to English, making me believe in false progress (kop koffie met melk vs cup of coffee with milk), I’d really have to use my brain for this Russian business.  And I can use it!  There are millions of speakers across many vast lands!  A whole world was being unlocked before me, and all it took to get the key was to potentially get the stomach punch of a lifetime by saying my friend sounded angry.

I spent all the free time I had trying to read up on grammar, learning the alphabet, and going over the top telling people what I’m doing.

For Secret Santa a couple of months later, I was gifted a Russian phrasebook.  My friend’s mum averted eye contact, and I devoured as much as I could while flipping through the pages.  These words and phrases I’d not thought of looking up (many tourist oriented things) looked daunting, and my mouth refused to emit any of the sounds required to say such words.  It was still exciting.  When I read out the word for soft drink (безалкогольный напиток, or bye-zal-ka-gol’-ni na-pi-tak) slowly and in a deep voice, I felt like something straight out of The Mummy.

Well, if Imhotep can do it..

And that is where I’m at currently.  I think that by keeping this blog updated, I’ll be forced to make progress.  I won’t have any reason to whinge about being bored at home, because I’ll have something to update, and I can’t update it unless I learn something. 

How did you decide which language to learn?