I somehow ended second quarter of Russian at U Chicago with a coursegrade of an A, an ability to read and decipher controlled texts, a decent command of writing random dialogues and short essays – and nearly no ability to participate in dialogue or give accurate verbal information.
This seems to be a general complaint of language classes at Chicago: a heavy emphasis on grammar and vocabulary memorization, and correct application of grammar and vocabulary in writing, but little practice with practical language use. In short: too much information, and too little practice reinforcing the material. Students in upper levels of Chinese, for example, get vocabulary lists sixty to a hundred words long each week, and are tested on the words, but rarely practice using them in context. In Russian we had a lot of reading material, but very little audio input, and almost no verbal engagement. It’s an odd mismatch of syllabus and student pace – students can not learn all new linguistic information if the pace is too fast or input overwhelming; regardless of the pace of the class, second language students will learn according to internal clock.
So when I was confronted with a Russian-Kyrgyz woman from Osh who spoke no English and had accidentally taken my seat on the Chicago-Istanbul flight, I floundered and flopped a bit before getting my footing. I had learned how to say everything I needed – the verbs, the tenses, the irregular conjugations, the package-and-airport related vocabulary. But having learned it, seen it, written it is not the same as being able to organically use it. It just leaves that haunting sense of knowing something that is just beyond your reach. So we chatted along – about her daughter who works in Minot, ND about my visit to Osh for a wedding last summer, about the weather. And, knowing neither English nor Turkish (how does she thus travel?!), she began to ask me to translate the flight menu (not so difficult), and to describe the procedures for international transfers in the Istanbul Ataturk Airport (quite a bit more difficult). I had almost all the vocabulary, and I knew I had learned all the correct verbs in the most applicable tenses – but I just couldn’t quite use it. And that’s when I decided where I want my Russian to be. I never need to be native-like fluent in the language, like I was in Chinese. But I want to keep up study for a year (or classes for 2-6 months, depending on frequency, and then practice and review), so I will be at the point where I know just a little bit more – and can use it all. At the point where I could actually give instructions on how to get through the airport clear enough that I would only have to say them once (and not three times, with quite a bit of gesture-drawing, as I did).