Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Mini immersion.

My book acquisitions (plus two books I already had), my lovely матрушка and the adorable notebook Aleksey and Lilja (if I'm not mistaken) made.

So I spent two weeks in the splendid country of Russia. I will make a post later on about the things I love about it, but today it's about the language immersion I got.

I have never actually been on a mini immersion before. I was in the US for two weeks twice when I was 7 and 10 and I do believe that greatly helped my English, but it was too long ago to remember much and I was very unconscious about the whole language aspect since English was never a difficulty back then. Then I was in France for ten months in 2004/2005 and for two weeks in 2007, but that second period was of no importance since the long immersion did all the work. I had never visited a Russian speaking country before though, nor truly spoken to "real" Russians.

When I studied French and first went to France, I thought the whole having to accord adjectives to nouns and conjugate verbs thing was a hassle. In Swedish, you just need to know the words in order to use them, there are practically no things that need changing! Well, Russian is somewhat worse, it's quite a feat to try to put together a correct sentence while remembering all the cases. In writing that is not such a big problem for me, I am more of a visual "text person", I see the case endings and the grammar structures, but I do not feel them when I speak. Also, when writing you have more time to accord things, even if you write fast ;) Speaking is… well… difficult. I'm not really at the point where I can use cases comfortably in speech yet; I have to constantly correct myself as I go along and realize that whoops, no, that feminine word should have no ending in plural genitive, or just simply damn, how on earth is this word declined in plural dative?? Sometimes, I just decide to drop trying to use the correct case for a word and just employ the nominative form in order to actually say something and not just stand there thinking about declination tables while the other person confusedly waits…

However, I'm really bad at the whole speaking part of languages. Mainly, I guess, because I never really liked talking at all and I have always talked very, very fast, most likely from fear of being interrupted (something that is a bad thing in Sweden, interrupting is impolite, it doesn't work as in France where you just cut people off all the time). And as I have always been told in school and elsewhere to "SLOW DOWN!" I think I ended up feeling uncomfortable speaking and preferred to just shut up instead. When I speak French and English I also speak very fast, and when I try to speak Russian, I automatically go into a too high gear and make things harder for myself since that gives me less time for conscious grammar coordination. When I've had a couple of beers, my language self-awareness goes down a notch, like for everyone else, and I feel much more comfortable speaking. So, in that way, Russia being like Russia is is a good thing.

So, what can two weeks do? It surely makes the language feel much more familiar and "normal", not like an oddity that you only listen to at home. I'm not sure I got very, very far as far as it comes to speaking abilities, simply because I didn't speak all that much. It rather felt as if I was getting worse as time went by, because some people seemed to think I understood nothing of what they said and then that made me nervous about speaking to them. I spoke with much more ease with certain people (some are so easy to understand, others just emit Russian sounds), and with some others, I more or less felt retarded language wise. It is also quite hard to speak to people who have no conception at all of language learning. They don't understand why you mix up cases and they don't understand when you are trying to find the right case. Such people also tend to complete your sentences once they have understood what you are trying to say, and of course that makes for less speaking practice ;) Those who have ever looked at their language from the viewpoint of someone learning it will react in a whole different way.

Another aspect of Russian that made things trickier in "real life" situations, are all (and there are quite a lot of them) the small words they use that don't really mean that very much. Так, вот, там etc. Once I just stopped listening when one person was talking and started counting "там" or "так":s (I can't remember which one it was), and there were at least 2 per sentence. Some people naturally use more such words than others, and they break up the logic of the phrase, making it harder to understand.

Most people say that you need to wait a bit to get the full effect after an immersion, so I'll wait and see what happens. Russian sure does feel more comfortable than before I left. In my head, it is very clear. I can hold long conversations with myself in my head and I don't screw up a whole lot at all, but as soon as I have to open my mouth, I start to stumble on syllables that seemed absolutely clear and simple. Not because they are necessarily hard to pronounce, but my speech rhythm and everything get completely thrown off when I have to produce the actual words. I always wonder why on earth did that phrase turn out that chopped up and weird, paused and awkward, when it seemed to easy and clear in my head? I think my main pronunciation problem is caused by the soft consonants, that I can often pronounce when isolated, but that I forget aaaaall about when I'm in panic about trying to tell someone about something before they lose interest. I do not mind at all having a different intonation pattern or an accent, but I do mind when I think I should be able to say something in a certain way, and then it turns out just… weird.

Well. Go Russia!


  1. Oh my goodness I hate soft consonants. It's true that saying them isolated is a lot easier than when they're surrounded by sounds that are in completely different areas of the mouth. Haha.

    I enjoyed this post. Did you find that the Russians encouraged you?

  2. wow :)
    if you wish I can help you with your Russian via Skype sessions!
    I do believe that speaking with native speakers is helpful, even you aren't in Russia ;)
    on the other hand, you will tell me more about living in Norway and Sweden. I know almost nothing about these countries, apart from I was in Sweden about a year ago for 2 days.

    Skype me: vera-surok

  3. Amy Lynn: I couldn't agree more! Sure, Russians are encouraging, but sometimes they are a bit impatient, but that goes for all nationalities I think ;) Plus they were mostly lightly intoxicated when I spoke to them...

    surkova: I have a slight phobia for phones, but when I get over it, I will take up that offer ;)

  4. Wow, I didn´t even know you did a trip to Russia. I´m sure it was awesome, waiting for an entry about your adventure! ;)

  5. Добрый вечер! Меня зовут Анна, мне 19 лет, живу в Москве. Очень приятно встречать людей, изучающих русский язык! Буду рада помочь в практике, да и просто пообщаться=)

    P.S. Do you understand me well or i should duplicate my comments in English?

    Nice to meet you. Anne.

  6. Привет Анна! Пиши по-русски, я понимаю без проблемы :) Пожалуйста пожалуйста пойти к нам на форуме языков, нам нужно больше русских людей, которые хотят с нами сообщаться ( Я не очень часто могу писать по-русски из-за воспаления в руках, но на форуме другие люди тоже учат русский язык, и у них есть хорошое здоровье :)