Last week I went to St Petersburg, where my son works. As a language enthusiast, my eyes and ears are always alert when in a country with an unfamiliar language. Mastering the Russian alphabet is challenging (but achievable) and I spent a lot of time working out words on signs, letter by letter. (See my previous post and discovery of рив гош.)
Speaking was less successful as I realised I simply don’ t yet have the means to communicate as well as I’d like, bar saying that I don’t understand and am English. Fortunately many of the landmarks we visited had English speaking employees and my son was keen to show off his near-fluent skills. But I left with the overriding impression that I must practise more – and return to demonstrate this improvement!
When you’re learning a language and are in the country, the secret is to just try and not be embarrassed. As a languages teacher I spent years telling my pupils this, only to discover that I myself was too shy to speak out – yet my daughter (27) who has no interest in learning Russian – was perfectly happy to ask her brother the Russian for “another glass of wine”, memorise it and call over the waitress. I on the other hand, agonised in a ticket booth over which was the correct word for “two” when I meant two female adults and ended up talking pigeon Russian which was worse than running the risk of getting it wrong.
Another tip which I will intend to follow next time I go (with my improved skills!) is that when you are confident enough to try out the language, and your interlocutor tries to be helpful by replying in English -keep talking in their language! Persevere; insist, even if their English is better. They might be thinking they are assisting you, but actually they are hindering your progress, albeit in a well-intentioned way. So just smile and keep going!
I hope I will remember my own advice in the spring when I intend to return!