Sunday, August 12, 2007


Our classes ended Friday, August 3rd, culminating in a large test on all that we’d covered over the 6 weeks of lessons, and then a nice dinner at a Georgian restaurant that evening with all the students and teachers. For me, it only sets in that I’m leaving when I see advertisements for things in the future, which would be impossible to attend even if I wanted to. It’s tough to measure the amount of progress I’ve made along the way, or to say how much I’ve learned; our classes were not the usual style of following through a textbook, learning vocabulary and constructions along the way, but rather we had a different theme each week (first impressions of Russia, problems of youth, university studies, economics, healthcare, and external politics) and each of eight different sections reflected these themes. Each day we had two ninety minute classes.

Mondays were страноведение (country studies), in which the teacher would more-or-less lecture on these topics as they pertained to Russia, and чтение (reading). Tuesdays were phonetics, in which we sang songs that went over some sort of phonetic feature. These songs were great, and we all had them stuck in our heads, but at the same time I feel like it just resulted in repeating the wrong pronunciations as opposed to really nailing how to make the sounds, some of which are notoriously difficult for English speakers and really give away one’s accent, for example ы (a vowel between I and U) and ль (soft L), which were really tough until I learned tricks, each of which took all of 5 minutes and made a huge difference. R still throws me off a lot though, since it takes some time for me to start trilling the R, so доброе утро (dobroe utro) and природа (priroda) feel clumsy to me.

Also on Tuesday was grammar, which got off to a rough start but was really useful once it was fine-tuned with our feedback. There were many things we learned which I thought I already knew, which was startling because it often meant I was doing it wrong all along (for example, “why/because” is distinct from “for what purpose/in order to” although I’d been using the same for both).

On Wednesdays we had културология (culture studies) where we talked in more general terms (as opposed to strictly Russia) about the week’s theme in a more interactive way, as well as разговор (conversation) in which we learned useful conversational constructions and prepared monologues from texts for homework. This was useful, but I wish we could have had more dialog amongst ourselves with aid from the teacher on what we were doing wrong / how it would be more naturally conveyed in Russian. We were supposed to talk to each other only in Russian at all times (though that often broke down after a few days) but often it felt like it wasn’t really helping if we understood each other because of the equivalent English, whereas in real Russian it would be conveyed entirely differently.

Thursdays we had письмо (writing), which was often helpful for exactly the reason I just wrote about for conversation, which was that it was very useful for our writings to be corrected because there were many things that might sound fine in English but were either bad or ungrammatical in Russian. The second half was another instance of разговор.

Finally, Fridays we had аудирование (listening), in which we would prepare for a video segment by building up phrases that would be used, so we could practice speaking and listening to them, followed by actually watching the segment and taking a short test. I didn’t feel like this approach really helped too much, but it’s tough to say because overall my listening greatly improved, but it’s unclear what helped the most. Following this was another grammar class.

Because of the relatively few grammar classes, it felt like progress was slow (in that, the other classes were not necessarily teaching anything new per se but rather either practice or correction). It especially felt like I was making little progress each time I tried in vain to understand one of the lectures in Russian that followed the classes, or of course the incident with the police, but then a funny thing happened. At first it was that I could understand some of the lectures, which I thought was because the speaker was speaking unusually slowly or clearly (as was occasionally the case when we were spoken to in Russian by the staff). But then I noticed that I better understood others, too, such as people’s conversations on the street, or announcements, and so forth. The first week we had films, introduced by Timur (who had done so last year at the New York Institute), but the second, third, and fourth weeks were the New York Institute, and so these films resumed the fifth week of the program. It was amazing to experience the difference between that first week, in which I could barely understand what he said, and the fifth week, when I could follow almost all of what he said (although the films would have been really hard without subtitles). It was as though the entire country had flipped on the “enunciation switch” and that everyone else had changed how they spoke (which of course is silly), and as frustrating as it was until that point, so rewarding was it to finally feel progress. It wasn’t gradual, but more like a leap to the next level, and so until that point it was hopelessly frustrating to converse or transact anything because I could usually convey what I wanted, but would rarely understand what was said back to me. I definitely considered it easier to speak than to understand, because I could use what I knew, whereas what was coming back to me could be anything, and I had no control over it. Now I feel the reverse most of the time, as I feel less confident in the correctness of what I am saying but am finally able to understand much of what is said back to me. Of course, I’m not saying that now I can always understand what’s going on, or what people are saying to me, but it’s much better than it was and I can now at least get the gist most of the time, unless it’s a subject where I have a very bad vocabulary and most of the key words are lost on me. It’s also amazing as I realize all the words and phrases I’ve learned, which is not that surprising, but even so, I didn’t study any vocabulary per se, but I’ve still gained a lot by things that come up often; once I look them up, they just end up reinforcing themselves by use rather than self-repetition. It’s a shame that all this started coming about for me just towards the end of the program, but as I have three more weeks in Russia, there will certainly be plenty more opportunity for practice and hopefully progress.

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