Sunday, March 6, 2011

Mastering Russian The Hard Way - Crossing The Black Sea By Spoon

Learning Russian as a native English speaker is a challenge that has driven many insane and more into the arms of the nearest vodka bottle. Having spent time teaching TEFL, I do agree with the old adage that English is the easiest language to speak badly and the hardest to speak well. But while English has its idiomatic jungle, Russia is rich in noun endings, gerunds and the perfective and imperfective aspects of verbs.

With some of my fellow students at Manchester learning Russian from scratch at university, I found the challenge stimulating. I was fortunate to have had a classical training, learning Latin and Ancient Greek at school, so was well acquainted with the concept of differing noun endings, but Russian took things to a whole new level.

How, for example, was one to remember that some numbers demanded the following noun appear in the nominative, the genitive singular or the genitive plural? One of the prime goals of most foreign language learners is to be understood, I found that this was not the case with Russian - the real triumph was being able to formulate a phrase with grammatical correctness. It mattered not that our long-suffering Ukrainian professor grimaced as she tried to decipher the painful utterances being proffered by a gaggle of linguistic Neanderthals. The sense of achievement was always in her acknowledgement that the phrase was grammatically correct.

Nowhere was this truer than the use of the instrumental case, a new one for me. In Russian, the instrumental case is used to indicate how something is done, for instance going to town by train.

I had by now been in the Soviet Union for three weeks and my Russian had improved a little from my pathetic attempts to convince my host family to open the door before I had conceded defeat and put up my tent in the kid's play area. We were encouraged to practice our use of lessons learned in conversation out of the classroom and part of our homework was to come back the next day with three examples where we had used the instrumental case.

I am a firm believer in wading in with a new language and having a go, not being afraid to make a mistake. My initial attempts at Croatian returned the legendary 'I have urinated a book' rather than written one, a simple pronunciation issue brought on by ignoring one of those squiggles about the S, but I am sure a travel agency still talks about my attempts to practice the instrumental case in Moscow.

I needed to organise my onward travel to Bulgaria and the obvious route was by boat across the Black Sea, from Odessa to Varna. Some excellent instrumental case options indeed and I mentally prepared my question. The noun was feminine, so that made the ending a little trickier, but I was sure I had it covered. I strode into a busy office, waited my turn, explained I wanted go from Odessa to Varna by boat:

"Ya hachu yekhat c Odesi do Varni lozhkoi."

I probably had some issues with the verb and the prepositions and cases surrounding the nouns, but so confident was I that I had got my instrumental ending right, that I spoke louder than normal. I wanted to bask in the glory of my grammatical prowess with these native speakers.

My first reaction to the look of total incomprehension of the sales assistant was the standard British response when speaking to a foreigner who doesn't understand: speak louder. With an accompanying twist that I should make more of an effort with my accent, for that was probably at the heart of the miscommunication. The second attempt succeeded only in intensifying the confusion and was accompanied by some sniggers from parts of the room. Finally, she spoke:

"Sorry, I don't understand." I repeated myself as clearly as I could but to no effect. The only possible explanation could be that she wasn't Russian and had a poor grasp of the language. What other reason could there be for not recognising and appreciating a perfectly formed instrumental?

"Do you speak Russian?"

"Yes," she replied dryly. "Do you?"

I was clearly going to get nowhere with such incompetence at the front desk and so I decided to try elsewhere. It was only when I was opening the door to leave that the horrible realisation hit me - I had used the wrong noun! Far from asking about boat travel, I had enquired about ticket prices across the Black Sea by spoon...

I could, and should, have kept walking but I decided to return and right the linguistic wrong. The sales assistant was less than thrilled to see my 180 degree turn. I had only got one letter wrong in the noun, but I could now completely understand why she had been confused. But this time there would be no such problems - I would speak slowly and in my best accent, producing my shiny boat noun in the instrumental case. I could almost smell the sea air.

"Ya hachu yekhat c Odesi do Varni lozhkoi."

A blank expression. Very blank, followed by the raising of eyebrows and then a look I have encountered a lot in life. Pity. Now I was the confused one and went home to look up my boat word in the big dictionary to get to the bottom of this.

Lodka means rowing boat.

Hmmm. An upgrade on a spoon for sure, but still not quite the means of transport for buying tickets. All was not lost, however - at least I had two great examples of the instrumental for class the following day.

As for the onward travel to Bulgaria, I took the 52-hour train via Moldova.

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