I’ve been forgetting Russian since I stepped back in Bishkek last March, 14 months ago.
Wait, what? I’m surrounded by Russian every day. I’m immersed in Russian. I should just be soaking it up – right?
Well, not exactly.
Living in a country where a language is spoken by no means guarantees that you’ll actually learn it. I lived in Ruijin, Jiangxi for an entire month one summer, staying with a local family, and only picked up about three words of Hakka. Likewise, living in Bishkek doesn’t necessarily ensure that I’ll find myself fluent in Russian (something that I also discovered when I first stepped into Kazakhstan in “Myths Debunked”). A couple of women from BIWC were joking at the last meeting that they’ve been here for a few years, and the only Russian they need to survive is “Mozhne” (можно, which roughly translates into ok/sure/perhaps/possibly/alright/fine). And I definitely knew foreigners who had been in China for years and barely picked up an iota of the language. You don’t just ‘soak up’ a language living in a place – you have to actually apply yourself to study and make an effort to practice.
And, even if you do study the language, whether or not you’ll come to speak it depends in great part on both your language community and the relative difficulty and accessibility of the language. Both Chinese and Russian have fairly long, painful first humps. Chinese because the writing is in no way phonetic. Russian because the grammar is so dense. With all the tenses and declensions, it’s not a ‘beginners’ language’. You can’t just jump in and get everything right. Every sentence is a carefully balanced piece of interaffecting declensions and verb forms (if you have no idea what a declension is, look at the table to the right). The vocabulary you learn in class or look up in the dictionary will very rarely appear in unaltered form in everyday conversation.
And while I learned all the basic grammar and vocabulary, I never really solidified my whole knowledge through consistent practice. I studied Russian first for a month (at 20 hours a week) at the London School of Bishkek in 2013, then took Russian through Pushkin at Chicago, and then took another month of classes at half-time back in Bishkek. But while we slammed through grammar concepts, pages of Pushkin, and long vocabulary lists, we never really took enough time to use the language we were acquiring. I saw the same thing while teaching in China through TFC – the material first year middle school students covered in English class would actually be enough to get them through 80% of all possible English-language encounters in life. And yet most teachers covered material so fast that students forgot it after the test, and 3rd year middle school students still hadn’t mastered first year material. Later I taught at a university and discovered (to my horror) that my 3rd year English major students were making mistakes on material covered in 1st year English way back in middle school. Learning a language takes time; generally, the ability to apply your knowledge in a spontaneous spoken context lags behind your understanding of material. If you don’t sufficiently practice what you are learning before you move on to the next topic or the next vocabulary list, you don’t solidify your knowledge. And if you don’t use it, you lose it (or drive your writing instructors near insane by writing “I isn’t” a thousand, thousand times). So, in short, I had a good base knowledge, but the foundation didn’t have time to solidify, like cement that hasn’t sat enough. And my declensions – they’re dripping away.
But the pace wasn’t the only problem. Most of what we learned wasn’t relevant. The London School (and E’s Russian Tutor) used textbooks from 1992 written for university-aged exchange students living in dorms and going out on excursions in St. Petersburg. Overlap with daily life in Kyrgyzstan – almost none. Our Chicago textbook was also from 1992, and coupled with Pushkin texts featuring witches and woodsmen and enchanted apples and bronze horsemen come to life… let’s just say I’ve never had chance to use most of that material here. An introductory Russian textbook covering situations in Central Asia – now that would be nice (why hasn’t anyone written one? We’re past the cold war and quaint St. Petersburg cafeteria compote).
And the last reason – my language community. For the past year I’ve been learning Turkish. Studying Turkish, listening to Turkish, writing Turkish, completing exercises in Turkish, conversing in Turkish, going through round after round of Turkish vocabulary on Memrise. My Turkish is now much stronger than my Russian. When I go out, I want to speak Turkish. It doesn’t help that all of the Kyrgyz people I know who are affiliated with the university also speak Kyrgyz-accented Turkish, or that, as Kyrgyz is in the Turkic language family, there’s actually a lot of overlap between Turkish (and my remnants of Uyghur, Uzbek and Kazakh) and Kyrgyz. When we go to the bazaar we speak Turkish mixed with Russian (unless they’re Dungan or Korean…). When we get in a taxi with a Kyrgyz driver we speak Turkish mixed with Russian. Kyrgyz people often speak to each other in a mix of Kyrgyz and Russian, borrowing words from one language or another, or sliding from one language to the other mid-sentence. So speaking to Kyrgyz people in Russian when I’m more comfortable in Turkish, and Russian often isn’t their own mother tongue, does seem a bit odd. Usually when I speak I just mix everything. Earlier today I bought an extra phone charger at Vefa. Midway through the transaction I realized that I had started out in Russian, but kept switching in Turkish numbers (which are near identical to Kyrgyz numbers) when speaking to the salesperson. And then the other salesperson came up to me to practice his broken (but admirably confident) English and…now I don’t even know what language I’m thinking in. But I can say that, despite having lived in Bishkek for a year, my Russian has not improved past basic conversation and bazaar-level banter.