Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Language Learning Is Not As Easy As It Seems!

My senior year in high school I opted to take a Russian language class instead of higher-level mathematics.  My family hosted a Russian foreign exchange student for half the year.  In university I decided to continue to pursue my interest in Russian, and I took Russian language classes as well as Russian history and culture classes, for the first 2 1/2 years.  I even took Russian while studying at the Sorbonne in France my junior year.

Then I put Russian aside and mostly forgot about it.  I liked the Russian alphabet and sometimes doodled in Cyrillic when bored, but that was it.

Then I moved to Kazakhstan.  I found some of my old Russian textbook tapes and listened to them in preparation for the move.

My first year, I worked at a school where there was very little English.  I got to practice my Russian with my co-workers as well as my students, and I became more confident in very basic conversation.  I learned how to say 'Sit down!' and 'Be quiet' and 'Because I said so!' in Russian.

I also learned how to communicate, at a very basic level, while out and about--I learned vocabulary and phrases for shopping and eating at restaurants as well as giving directions.

Sophia struggled immensely, despite being 6 years old and immersed in the language and taking 8 hours a week of intensive Russian.  By the end of the year, she had learned enough phrases to play on the playground, and she knew the Russian alphabet and could sound out words.  In sum, very little Russian for a young child immersed in the language.  I'd always heard that language learning was so easy for young children, especially if they were immersed in it.  Yet, it turned out that it's nowhere near as easy as we think!

Then we moved to an English-language school, where we hear English in the hallways, my co-workers all speak fluent English, and of course English is required in the classroom.  Sophia had just 3 hours a week of Russian.

We've been at that school for just over 3 years now.  I love this school and it's wonderful--a great environment for me to teach in and a great environment for Sophia to learn in.   But it's not great for learning Russian.  (Which is fine, since it's an English-language schools and the parents who send their kids here are more concerned with their kids' level of English than their level of Russian.)

My Russian now is not much better than it was 3 years ago, and perhaps still worse than it was in university.  Sophia's has barely improved in the past 3 years.

Yet we live in a Russian-speaking country, surrounded by Russian!  You'd think we'd be fluent by now!  And Sophia has watched countless hours of Russian cartoons.

On the one hand, it's embarrassing to admit how little I know.  On the other hand, language learning is tough!  It's not something that comes naturally when you're immersed in it!  It's something that takes a lot of TIME and EFFORT--and time is something a single working mother doesn't have much of, and effort is something a stubborn child doesn't have much of.  There is no need for either of us to speak Russian (other than the basic Russian I already know), and need is usually the driving force for language learning--the children at our school learn English because otherwise they can't communicate.

I watch the students at our school learn English and realize just how hard language learning is.  They are immersed in English for 8 hours a day; they are surrounded by teachers who care and who try to help them every step of the way.  They get special small-group intensive English instruction.  They are motivated by the strong desire to be able to communicate.

And it is so hard.  They struggle, they feel frustrated, they act out.  Some learn more quickly than others; usually this is because their parents are fluent in English and help them at home.  The children whose parents do not speak English usually learn the slowest.

Some children are naturals at language.  They embrace English and love it and work so hard, happily and constantly, and excel.  Other children just can't figure it out.  Sometimes they try hard and just don't get it, other times they don't even want to try.

In the end, they all learn English, and I am so amazed watching them.  But they have the ideal, perfect circumstance for learning a language--the immersion, the caring teachers, the small teacher-to-student environment, the time (no job, just full-time students!)--and it takes a lot of time and effort.

So how can I learn Russian when I don't have all this?  I don't have 8 hours a day to dedicate to learning Russian.

The point is, language learning is not easy.  Even for kids, even for people immersed in a foreign country.  It is easier for some people than for others.  And some people are more motivated than others.  And it is possible for all people.

Just it takes time.  And I will continue to work on my Russian, and maybe one day I will be able to have a decent conversation in Russian about something other than weather, family, shopping, directions, and a menu.

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