Conversations: the difficulty of learning a language

I have boasted about my experiences ordering food from a restaurant and speaking a little bit of Russian with my speaking buddy but the story does not end there. What I did not tell you is how  I was not able to follow the conversation after saying the first three sentences.

The problem of learning a new language, especially one that has a different alphabet, is not exactly how to read it or write but how to converse with it.

This afternoon while I was cooking, Angelo, my housemate and I were talking about how to effectively learn a new language. He has studied Russian for four months in Moscow and he continued it in Saint Petersburg and on his 6th month now. He is speaking very good Russian and sometimes I even hear him argue with somebody in Russian on the phone. I think that if you can already have a discussion/argument in another language, then you already have a good foundation.

“Well your way is very effective. I have heard that the best way to learn a new language is under the bed sheet,” . Angelo is dating a Russian girl.

“That’s true. If you have to learn the language, you have to sleep with it,” he said.

“Maybe I should get  a Russian boyfriend. Too bad I am already married,” we both laughed and left each other to prepare our dinners.

I was jesting but at the back of my mind, I really need a Russian friend whom I can practice my lessons. No matter how you much you understand in a classroom, it would not develop if you don’t speak it on the street.

On the bus

I always take the bus going to the metro station. I cannot, for the life of me, walk for 20 minutes in the -20 degree weather when the bus goes every five minutes or so. One of the task is of course to get a ticket. For several days, I have survived with адин пожалуйста (one please) until one day the driver talked back to me.


I said my usual line and paid 30 rubles. I don’t remember if I thanked him but he started saying something. My ears couldn’t make out the words, much more the sentences and my mind seemed to have frozen. I stood behind him unable to walk away but also incapable of talking back. He probably became more irritated at my inaptitude so he repeated what he said. I still could not open my mouth, not even to say я не панемаю (I don’t understand) or  я не гаворю по-русски ( I don’t speak Russian). It was the first time that somebody actually talked back at me. But I entered a state of shock and was unable to move.

Finally he just waved his hand for me to go in and find a seat. Only then I realized that he must have thought I was waiting for a change and he was saying that I gave the right amount of money.

I wanted to cry. I was so discouraged. This was one of those phases where you say, “Why the f*@! am I bothering learning this language? It’s so damn difficult!”

At the Dostoevsky Apartment-Museum

The day after that, I went to visit the Dostoevsky Apartment-Museum. Again I was confronted with my (pretend) knowledge of the language not when I bought the ticket, which went fine, but when the lady at the cloak room asked me to leave all my things, including my bag and guidebook. She was talking too fast. Of course for her it was a normal pace because she heard me buy the ticket in Russian so she assumed I speak the language.

Thankfully my hands are complete so I was able to get by in sign language. I probably heard the world нельзя (not possible) but my ears did not catch it. Hearing the Russian language spoken normally still shock my ears and I couldn’t react. My brain needed an hour to decipher one sentence. I was able to ask ” тоже сумка (also my bag)?” she nodded her head in agreement and I surrendered all my things.

It was a little victory to have recovered from the first shock and actually understood even two percent of a conversation. It’s that difficult phase and if you’re not tough enough, learning a language will break your spirit.

At the supermarket

Every other day I do my groceries  at the nearby 24-hour supermarket. Most supermarkets in Russia are open for 24 hours. The usual conversations I get are when the cashier asked me if I have a client card or if I want a bag. But on Thursday, I realized I haven’t eaten caviar and I promised to do that, with vodka of course, before I flew to Saint Petersburg. So I found the caviar but needed blini to go with that.

I approached one of the sales woman and braved to ask her, “гле илйни?”  (where are the blinis?)I don’t know if she understood me but she said something about “Russian”. She answered five sentences in my two-word question. I could not comprehend all of that in two minutes.

So I showed her my the jar of caviar and asked, ” лела икро.” (for caviar).

She started to wave her hand for me to follow her to the frozen area of the supermarket and pointed some boxes which looked like meat rolls to me. I thanked her and she left me to sort out the products in front of me. I could not see the blini anywhere!

Broken-hearted, I decided to put the caviar jar back in its shelf and walked to the counter. I wanted to cry. Maybe she did not understand me at all.

When I went back to the flat, I told Angelo about it and he said that the blinis are located on the left end of the supermarket, near the cooked food and/or in the freezer.

So the sales woman actually understood me! I just did not see the blini.

Angelo advised me to keep on trying, to find courage to speak the language even if I am unsure and makes a lot of mistake.

“Sometimes it goes so well that you will feel that you are king of the world and sometimes you will look like you are a total fool but that’s how it goes. Keep on talking.”

Angelo left for Italy today and I am quite sad that my neighbor and constant chat buddy is gone but hopefully I will see him again. Either in the Netherlands if he goes there for New Year or here when we are both back in Saint Petersburg.

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