Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Adventures In Speaking

Taking Russian classes in Moscow has been both interesting and exciting. For me, learning to speak Russian is a source of great interest, and adds a third language to my linguistic abilities.

As I've mentioned before in this blog, Russian is a difficult language to learn. Navigating the grammar is a constant source of headache yet is vital to the language. Russian is a grammar-heavy language filled with feminine/masculine/neuter nouns, pronouns that must agree with the subject and case endings for the verbs that vary depending on the context.

Living with Katya's mother has helped, as she is only just learning to read the Latin alphabet and thus can't speak any English (except for the words "good" and "happy"), so I am forced to speak to her in badly butchered Russian. Yesterday she told me to smoke in the kitchen and not the balcony, as temperatures have dropped to -18 centigrade. I declined and told her the balcony was fine, and then explained to her, in Russian, that in Canada I can't smoke anywhere BUT outside, so smoking on the balcony in Russia is a treat. I was quite relieved when I actually got the sentence out without mistakes, complete with proper case endings!

Russian is a very emotive and poetic language, and I personally find it sexy, but it wasn't always so.

When I first arrived in Russia I was completely unable to communicate with anyone. I had learned to read Cyrillic before I came, which helped, but even the stock-phrases I had practised were pronounced wrong and came in very little use. After a few harrowing run-ins with bitchy clerks at the stores, I was terrified to open my mouth in public. Thankfully I had Quagmire and Ms. Australia.

Quagmire had a commendable ability to bully his way through any situation in English. He went to the hair salon and in English demanded a haircut. When the hairdresser said "Shto?" (What?) he pointed repeatedly at his head and told them "What the hell do you think I want? A taco?" or something like that. He got his hair cut. He could aggressively cow any Russian service worker into giving him what he wanted.

Both Quagmire and I, however, always had problems at the deli counter in grocery stores. We would both point to what we wanted and say "Moizhna kilogram" (Give me a kilogram). The clerk would do as requested and then ask us something in Russian. For some reason, we both always thought they were asking if that's what we wanted, to which we would reply "Da". Then the clerk would yell at us.

This happened for many months on many occasions, but then after talking to Katya about it, we realized the clerk was asking us "Do you want anything else?" To which we were replying "Yes" and then standing there like idiots.

Ms. Australia was also entertaining to watch with the Russian language. Unlike Quagmire, she made attempts to speak in Russian, and had studied some Russian with a tutor in Perth before coming to Moscow. Her problem, however, was that somehow she managed to import her Australian accent into her Russian speech, a phenomenon even I could hear. It confused the hell out of Russians.

One time Ms. Australia and I walked to the local produkty to buy some chips and drinks. Ms. Australia asked the clerk "Moizhna Red Bull banki bolshoi" (Give me a big can of Red Bull), but the clerk looked at her in puzzlement. "Shto?" came the inevitable reply. "Red Bull...banki" Ms. Australia asked. "Ya tebya nye panamayou" (I don't understand you) the clerk said. Ms. Australia, getting frustrated now, tried the same phrase but in a louder voice. "Red Bull! Banki!" The clerk just stared at her in amazement.

I interjected and repeated the exact same phrase as Ms. Australia. "Moizhna Red Bull banki bolshoi". The woman's face lit up. "Oh! Red Bull banki bolshoi!" and she gave Ms. Australia her can of Red Bull. Ms. Australia glared long and hard at me while I laughed. It wasn't my fault that while she has a strong western Australian accent, I was born with a plain North American one.

Since I've met Katya her English has gone from a pre-intermediate level to an upper-intermediate level, with no formal lessons. She has even begun talking in her sleep in English, and her mother has remarked how we speak to each other a lot faster in English now than we did a year ago. It is my hope that my Russian classes combined with some gentle conversations in Russian with Katya and her family will eventually have the same effect on me.

Until then, however, I will continue to stumble and bully and, ultimately, laugh my way through in Enlish.

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