Apr 20, 2011

Дар Божий (On the English language)

Talented people have a tendency to deny the existence of talent.  When we marvel at the creations of artists, or admire the grace of athletes, or otherwise watch in awe of some miraculous human gift, the talented party usually cites hard work and dedication, rather than innate ability.  We've all heard, "practice makes perfect," "anybody can learn to ______," and other condolences from our superiors.  I've never bought it, of course.  I could catch ten thousand speeding basketballs, and I'd never lose that fear of jamming my finger.  It's been there since the first time I played.  If I had practiced every day after school, grades 1-12, and even if by senior year I had made the varsity team, it wouldn't mean I was talented at basketball.  In college, where they pass the ball even faster, I'd still have been afraid of jamming my finger.  I'm not an athlete, and I don't need to hear Michael Jordan tell me that 'anything is possible,' if I only believe.  I've always known that was bogus, but recently, I even found proof.  That is, I realized that I too have innate talent - talent that even the greatest basketball player (in Russia) could never aspire to. 

I've been completely fluent in English for as long as I can remember.  There's no time in my life that I ever thought, "I'm not smart enough to speak English," and I never sat at home and practiced, either.  And it's not thanks to some superhuman work ethic, or fortunate circumstances, or any other excuse a talented person like me might give to make you feel better.  Here's how I see it - if one person can design a beautiful, acoustically flawless concert hall, he probably can't build a violin worth playing inside it.  A different person, with different talents, will build that violin, and a third will be on stage playing it.  The point is, we all have unique gifts, so there's no sense downplaying them.  Continuing with our example of the violinist, my gift is that I could describe the concert in English without any foreign accent, and usually without mistakes.  Mozart himself couldn't have done that. 

My last major entry was about my second-favorite language, Russian.  This one is about my first favorite, English. 


This entry will also explain what I'm actually doing here in Maikop. In my capacity as some-dude-who-speaks-English, I got a position as a visiting professor (my words, not theirs) in the foreign language department at Adyghea State University.  I teach conversational English to 1st, 2nd, and 3rd-year university students.  I may not be raking in the Yaroslavls (translation: benjamins), but the value of such work can't be measured in rubles and cents.  Aside from the loftier goal of eliminating the Russian language, it's been pretty fun to invent lesson plans, and the students generally respond well to my classes.  My groups are 80% females, 18% former-Soviet-Union-males, and 2% random Nigerian dudes who ended up in Russia for reasons they invariably can't explain.  Even stranger, they are taking a full courseload of English classes, even though English is their native language.  I would write a thousand words about the absurdity of their situation, but I actually have a picture that saves me the trouble. This is my native-English-speaker-English-student Idu, in his characteristic state of bafflement, competing at the "English olympiad" phonetics competition.

Bonus picture: This is me and other teachers on the jury that day, exhibiting that famous Russian enthusiasm:

Each week I have a new theme, with an associated list of new vocabulary.  For instance, one week the students wanted the theme of 'education,' so I took a small creative leap and taught them about Pink Floyd.  Another time, I was fed up the England-centric curriculum, and even more, with the affection my students seemed to have for that country

so I did a two-part theme called 'road trip around America.'  I drew this map:

and gave them some good old American vocabulary, like what it means to 'circle the wagons' and 'shoot from the hip,' and why the tumbleweed is our most cherished national symbol.  Click on the map (or any picture here) for full detail.  Elena Ivanovna's little niece Lena helped with the drawings - she drew the simplistic, childish Rockies, while I drew the much more nuanced, rolling Appalachians.  The saguaro cactus was mine, but I told my students it was Lena's.  Vice versa for the Canadian flag.


It was only after a few months of teaching that I had my revelation about my gift.  Turns out, for all my complaining about Russian, English is really, really difficult, especially for those without my innate ability (for example, all of my students).  As we saw in my previous post, verbs of motion torment foreign students of Russian.  But we English-speakers have our revenge.  You may have noticed that Russians will often mangle and/or neglect English articles ("a," "an," and "the").  That's because Russian has no articles.  After a particularly hard crash, you might hear a crash-taxi driver say "I need to buy windshield for taxi."  At the store, in English, he would have to say "a windshield for a taxi," because the merchant has many windshields and doesn't care which taxi.  However, at home, if his wife saw him carrying the new windshield, he might say "I bought the windshield for the taxi" - it's one, specific windshield, for the one taxi that the wife knows he drives.

And sometimes, the rules make no sense at all - you go to the hospital, no matter which hospital it is.  On the other hand, you don't go to the prison or a prison, you just go to prison.  This challenge, like many in language, manifests itself best in graffiti:

I don't know what "SRS" refers to, but I do know that that definite article doesn't belong there.

This one is on my building, and maybe even more puzzling.  For reasons I could never explain in Russian to a  Russian hooligan, 'the' cannot stand alone, and whatever message he was trying to convey is totally lost in translation.  In fact, if we translate this into Russian, the result would literally be nothing.  There is a slight chance he's making some abstract commentary about the emptiness of Western society or something. If so, he's actually demonstrating an extremely advanced and nuanced understanding of English.  But I doubt that.

Another bit of torture for Russians relates to English tenses.  For example, try finding a Russian who could say

"In college, I would still have been afraid of jamming my finger."  That's the past future conditional perfective progressive tense... or something like that.  I'm not really sure, I never learned it.  Again, innate gift.  Or here's another:

"Had I known what "konina" meant, I would not have eaten the horse-sausage."  Past future conditional negative continuous tense, I think.  The point is, Russian has three tenses - past, present, future, and then a simple conditional.  In English, there are twelve, and the conditional, and in each of these, a foreigner has to place many small, strange words in just the correct order, as seen in my italicized examples.  Not easy.

The whole point of this entry, by the way, is to showcase the following picture.  Two weeks ago, I celebrated the 24th birthday.  Elena Ivanovna's parents secretly told their neighbor, who then secretly told her daughter, who then sent me a congratulatory text message like she had remembered my birthday all along.  But unbeknownst to her,  tense problems turned her well-meaning gesture into this surprisingly backhanded birthday wish:

Hey thanks.


I am deeply sorry for the long delay - almost three weeks between posts.  It won't happen again.  I've actually got a bunch already written, I just haven't had time to post pictures, which requires a separate trip to an internet-cafe every time.  I've also been ailing on and off, so I got some blood tests done.  The only thing they found was an unusually large concentration of Polonium-210, but luckily the half-life is only 138 days.  For those of you less inclined towards math, that means I'll be 31/32 fine in only 690 days.  And I'll be home in less than half of one half-life, where an American doctor can take a look at it.  I'll see you all then, but keep reading the blog in the meantime.  And send me emails.  And leave comments.

Editor's note: Russia is the greatest place ever.  I published this twenty minutes ago at an internet cafe, and then walked to the library where I could use the free internet to write emails.  It's raining and cold outside, but in the three blocks between the cafe and the library, I stumbled upon an enormous crowd of people, holding umbrellas, gathered around a huge temporary stage.  There was a full brass band with two giant tubas, playing celebratory marches, and an endless line of cars with bike racks, including four from the Moldavian Cycling Federation.  Apparently, the crowd had gathered to watch the end of some race... all those babushki must be big cycling fans?  I feel like every time I'm tired, or ill, or not paying attention to my surroundings, something surreal and often whimsical happens in this country.  One time in Irkutsk, I struggled home on one of the Siberian-cold January days, and right outside my building somebody had dumped a huge pile of coconut shells.  And when I saw it, I froze, and I must have stared at it for five minutes, trying to pin down the subtle difference between Russian reality and my reality.  Of course I never figured it out.  All I know is, Russians rarely think this stuff is strange.


Carrie said...

OK, this post made me laugh in several places. Well done. It was good Wednesday morning reading.

As you will recall from my Polish housekeeper's business cards, "Your house was never that clean before!"

I recognize the sweater you're wearing in your jury pic. I think that, of all occasions, would have called for the Jos A. Banks shirt and tie. Just sayin.

beth said...

if i lost every ounce of humor sense, i would still be thinking this is very funny post.

Iosif Markovich said...

Yeah, in Russia, as in America, I only have that one sweater. Jos A. Bank didn't make it to Russia, nor did a tie.

Joanna said...

I. Love. Бlog.
I'm also very impressed with your map of the U.S. but mostly because Alaska says The Last Frontier.

SusannaMMMerrill said...

How do you judge Nigerians on phonetics? What kind of accent are you promoting?

Iosif Markovich said...

I judge them generously, the Russian teachers - harshly.