Relearning Russian

In grad school I aced almost every grammar-heavy Russian text, as I had before with Chinese, French, Spanish and Latin. I think I ended the first quarter with around a 97% average (thus disproving the motto: University of Chicago: Where the only thing that goes down on you is your GPA).

But the problem was, we didn’t practice, not enough.  We had one dialogue for every twenty pages of grammar exercises.  Choose the right declension I could; put it into practice in a split second on the street – not so much.  Since returning to Bishkek, my Russian has actually been deteriorating.  All that Pushkin vocabulary and those complicated, convoluted sentences our textbook would invent to use every declension in a single sentence – I don’t use them when I’m buying fruit.  I’ve also been shifting into the Turkish-speaking sphere; proximity to a bilingual Turkish-Kyrgyz university means that most of the people I know, local and expat alike, speak Turkish and perhaps English.

I also feel like there isn’t a whole culture attached to Russian in Bishkek.  The few Russian friends I had, bar one who speaks Turkish and English, have all left the city for better opportunities abroad.  There are very few young Russians left.  And yet, while people may speak Kyrgyz at home, Russian is the public language of the city.  Sometimes.  At work, all official documents are in Russian and English; meetings are held in Russian or English; and yet I’ve noticed that the same person will flop between Russian and Kyrgyz depending on who they are talking to in the office.  Likewise, menus may be in Russian, but we can order in Kyrgyzified Turkish.

However… we did decide that, as long as we are in Bishkek, we probably should get back on the Russian study train.  Trying to talk to our new [not Turkish-speaking] cleaner last week I realized that, while I have a dormant Russian vocabulary of perhaps 1500 words, that’s what it is – dormant.  I can still understand a decent bit, but most I’ve forgotten how to use. Perhaps 200-500 words and a few hundred expressions have cemented themselves, because I use them over and over again in daily transactions.  But the rest – inaccessible.  Which makes communicating rather difficult.

So about a month back I reluctantly contacted an old teacher from the London School and asked if she could recommend a tutor who would come to our house once a week (because that way we can’t forget or skip lessons…).  The first Thursday we had guests, the second she went to a funeral, and yesterday we finally had our first lesson.

It’s like cranking a rusty chain drawing a mud-soaked bucket from the bottom of a well. It’s there – but everything is a struggle to remember.  Some things I remember learning (like a certain verb, or the declension table…), but  that’s it – I just remember learning it, and can’t actually remember what it is.  Other things I see just once and the meaning flies back.  Living in Bishkek and passively hearing Russian all around there were also a few words she explained that suddenly cracked open whole conversations.  We still have a long way to go, just to gain back the vocabulary and knowledge we lost…but now with a better teacher, I feel like we’ll actually get there, or at least get to the point where we can initiate and carry through full conversations that go beyond introducing ourselves and buying fruit.


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