07 March 2011

Learning Russian is a bear! Part 1. Six Tips for language success.

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Previous Learning Russian Posts. Learn Russian in Only Nine Years  23 March 2009. An Expatriate Learns Russian in St Petersburg 12 Nov 2009

Tip 1...  Take seriously how you pronounce your first language.

In 1949, my older sister Mary told Mom that the big boys mocked me when we walked home from Tuscan Grammar School.

“What’s your name?”  Wobbie.  “Say black.”  B-waak.

Mrs. Carrigan, our next door neighbor and my first grade teacher, suggested speech therapy, but Mom refused, thinking it would  stigmatize me.  This was a mistake. When a problem is identified it’s better to face it and solve it!

Stymied grammar learning...

Tip 2... Know and use grammar carefully in your native language.

In 1955 I landed in Mr. Hamlin’s Introductory French.  I had trouble enunciating French, but I still remember Monsieur Hamlin was the great-grandson of Lincoln’s first vice president!

That same eighth grade year Mr. Arens gave me poor grades in English grammar.  Mom undercut this teacher’s efforts, huffy that such a man as he could judge a British boy’s English.  More a dreamer than a serious student, I missed my opportunity to establish a firm  language foundation. 1

1 This parent/teacher conflict made me uncomfortable as I knew I deserved the low grades.  Years later I read that this intelligent enthusiastic teacher drowned while swimming off the coast of Israel.

“Maybe you’ll do better in Spanish.”

Tip 3...  Insist teachers provide knowledge and skills you will need for future success.

After a one year break from foreign language study, I enrolled in Mrs. Ahearn’s high school Spanish class in 1957.  I got off to a poor start, trying to learn the basic Spanish grammar I needed while at the same time learning Spanish.

Meanwhile, three years of high school English were at times interesting but didn’t emphasis grammar and written expression.

My turning point in college...

Tip 4... Jump in, and start enjoying your new language!

I enrolled in Señor Torres’ Spanish class as a Duke freshman in 1960.  After miserable grades, the second semester was a turning point!  Señor Torres announced in class... ‘All students are welcome  Tuesday nights on the Woman’s Campus at a Spanish Table, where only Spanish is spoken.’

What a surprise to realize I could yammer just in Spanish'... about my two loves... food and flirting!  Señor Torres viewed me differently from then on, and offered to drop me off on West Campus on his way home.  I valued our conversation while riding in his old Mercedes, getting to know him as a man living away from the Spain he loved , making do while Franco stayed in power.

A French Calamity and likely Murder!

Tip 5... Be wary of taking on too much.

My Aunt Isobel lived in France since the 1930s leading an unconventional life, doing translations, and other work allowed to non-French citizen. She survived capture, boxcars, and prison.  I would be the first family member to see her since before the war. 

With Paris in mind, I enrolled in a rigorous French class my last year at Duke in the fall of 1963.

I should have audited the class so as to not endanger my grade point average.

Monsier Cordier hated my New Jersey mumbles, and selected me as his class target. He said en français through a cloud of smoke from his eternal cigarette, 1 “I have a friend that speaks just like you. I wonder if he is still in jail.”

1 So long ago in 1963, it may surprise some readers that Duke University, endowed by a tobacco family, encouraged smoking in class... but didn’t allow any Black undergraduates.

When I got my postcard returned with an F (fail) for the semester, I went to his office in the Duke Chapel tower.

He said I did better on the final exam than he expected... but still below passing. He was smoking his Gauloise, standing near an opened vertical  Gothic window.

Joyful murder flashed before my eyes! I moved towards him, getting ready to lunge and push!  Suddenly the mad feeling left ... saving me from a probable 5 – 10 in a Carolina jail.

My adult life with French and Spanish...

Tip 6... Use new languages to open a more interesting world!

After graduation in August 1964, two friends and I drove across America to Mexico to spend three weeks in the classic San Angel neighborhood of Mexico City with a charming family.  We ageed to speak no English once we crossed into Mexico.  I started to think some things in Spanish within a week!

In the summers of ‘65 and ‘66 I travelled through Europe, using basic French to communicate in Sweden with a Greek roommate, and speaking French and Spanish all the way to Gibraltar.

The population of Spanish speaking immigrants grew quickly in the 90s, even in western Jersey.  By 2000, I was talking Spanish here and there around town.

Next Learning Russian Post...

How I tackled the Russia language, with more specific tips and advice.

Consider participating with a Comment, just below.

 Are these tips on target?  Do you have a few others?  How much does natural ability affect language learning? 


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  1. What a great post! I didn't know you'd studied so many languages! But I definitely agree as I've had many similar experiences. Can't wait to read the post on Russian!

  2. Thank you, Interculturist! I tried to be forthright about my experience. Russia, being Slavic, has been a real struggle!


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