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Sunday, December 6, 2015

Я не понимаю

Lunch this afternoon at a Greek cafe

I’ve been studying Russian for almost three months now, and my first progress evaluation will take place later in the upcoming week. To say I’m feeling anxious is an understatement. While I’ve certainly made a lot of progress in the sense that I started from point zero to where I can now make some basic statements about myself in the Russian language (and I can read Cyrillic!), being able to ask even simple questions in русский is still a struggle. Which is a cause for concern as interviewing in Russian is a major component of the final exam I will have to sit sometime in the spring.

The family took a two-hour walk after lunch in the Fraser Preserve, 220 acres (89 hectares) in Great Falls, Virginia, managed by the Nature Conservancy

Unlike Mandarin, I’m enjoying learning this language. Unfortunately, the approach to teaching still hasn’t changed much since my ordeal with Chinese at the Институт зарубежной службы over two years ago. The emphasis remains on being prepared to make presentations in Russian on topics such as weapons of mass destruction or international terrorism instead of learning the language needed for daily life, e.g. shopping for food, seeing a doctor or getting a haircut. OK, that last one doesn’t really apply to me. Then again, neither do the others, as it’s highly unlikely I’ll be using Russian on the streets of Vilnius (only 8% of Lithuanians speak Russian as a first language). At the same time, its doubtful I’ll be applying much of the specialized vocabulary that I'll be learning in the coming weeks and months once I’m on the job. In an ideal world, I would be spending my time in class learning how to conduct visa interviews in Russian, but that isn’t how the real world works in my particular corner of the federal government.

Downed trees remain as evidence from the big snowstorms of five years ago

Ideally, I would be learning Lithuanian right now, which I was originally scheduled to do until my position in Vilnius was re-designated. I'm often told that knowing both Mandarin and Russian are of great benefit in enhancing careers, but after one tour in China (and those years in Taiwan beforehand), I've had my fill of the Mandarin-speaking world. And living and working in a country with a suffix ending in "-stan" doesn't sound very appealing. I would much rather have an opportunity to bring my Japanese up to a level where it should belong, or to pick up a couple of “boutique” languages along the way, but the choice hasn’t been mine to make. So I’m left with the task of starting to learn a new case this week, while my grasp of the three cases we’ve learned up to this point remains shaky at best.

All carping about its complex grammar rules aside, Russian remains an interesting language, and I am slowly developing an interest in the culture underlying it. Still, I intend to study some Lithuanian once I eventually get to the Baltics, and to learn as much as I can about the country, and its culture and history, in the process.

The biggest obstacle to passing Russian isn’t the language, but rather my personality. For in order to do well on the exam, it's necessary to pretend to be someone that I’m not. I have to enjoy talking about myself. I must look forward to asking questions about what people in my interlocutor’s native country like to do in their free time, as if that person is qualified to speak for an entire nation. I need to be confident, frank, opinionated, outgoing and self-assured, the stereotypical Yank. My employer likes to trumpet that all Briggs-Myers personality types are welcome in the workforce, but when it comes to language training, everything is geared toward certain characteristics only. The first time around, I made the mistake of trying to battle the system. This time I’ll make the mistake of pretending to be someone else. Whatever it takes to pass…

Colvin Run Mill (circa 1811), the only surviving operational 19th-century water-powered mill in the D.C. area


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