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Russian for Dummies

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Sadly, the Olympics are over, with all their decadent pageantry and amazing athletic feats. I enjoyed all of this, particularly the figure skating and ice dancing competitions. However, I think I was most fascinated by the host country, chiefly, its language.

Watching the Olympics takes me back to 1990 when I was lucky enough to attend a year of Russian language training at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. I was a specialist in the Army and had scored fairly high on the D-Lab, the exam given to military members interested in learning a foreign tongue. The test not only determines your potential for absorbing a new language quickly but also steers you toward a particular category, based on your score.  Back then, Russian was considered a Category 2 language while Spanish was a 1 and Arabic was a 3. I have no idea if those are still accurate ratings.  

My father had attended DLI for Russian in 1957 and when I was growing up, he would talk fondly about his time in Monterey. I also remember struggling through “War and Peace” as a 12-year-old (mostly to impress my dad), which made me even more intrigued with Russia.   

Although I tested well, the reality was a little different.  I quickly discovered that I was not a “natural” at languages…at least not this one.  I struggled with the Cyrillic alphabet that was so, well, foreign. The verb and noun placement, the many tenses and tricky pronunciation were challenging, to say the least. There was always plenty of homework each evening and no shortage of pressure. I didn’t want to wash out of DLI, as some ended up doing, so forced myself to study and focus…most of the time.

Living in Monterey was a mixed blessing. It was wonderful because I couldn’t imagine affording the Northern California lifestyle any other way at that point in my career. Monterey was (and is) a gorgeous and desirable locale and its proximity to other lovely cities like San Francisco and Carmel made it ideal. Of course it was also terrible because it was such a distraction. Many a time, I’d have reams of vocabulary to memorize and the siren song of the beach would call to me…or a group of soldier friends would be heading out to a local restaurant.  Didn’t I want to come along?  Despite the 20 yet-untranslated sentences sitting on my desk? Of course I did! 

The instructors ran the gamut from very strict to more relaxed but most of them seemed kind and displayed remarkable patience with our butchered pronunciations and grammatical mistakes. I often wondered how they were selected to teach there and if for them, it was considered a dream assignment, a punishment or something in between.

Watching the Olympics has brought some of this anxiety and fascination back to me. I strained to understand the Russian athletes when they spoke and felt vindicated when the odd word or sentence made sense.  Native Russians tend to speak very quickly and I realized all over again what a melodic language it can be when spoken correctly.      

The final tests before graduating from DLI required a written and oral test. I recall doing above average on the written exam but barely squeaking past the oral portion. My examiner was a burly Russian stereotype of a man with a bushy beard and no apparent sense of humor. My friends suggested that I drink some vodka prior to taking the test, as it would help “loosen me up.” Instead my head hurt and I went blank on several occasions, fumbling madly for coherent phrases that would convince this unsmiling bear of a man that I knew anything at all about his language. I don’t think he bought it but somehow, I passed. (It probably didn’t help my case that the student who tested before me was one of the best in our entire class and most likely dreamed in Russian). 

Despite the trauma of the final exams, my memories of DLI are rosy.  I was given a unique opportunity that few people receive.  Besides the language training, friendships and chance to explore Northern California, I also ran on the “Charlie Company” female track team and recall many local races and scenic runs on the beach just down the steep hill from our classrooms.  I still recall how lucky I felt striding across the sand, watching the sun sparkle on Monterey Bay, seals barking in the distance. 

I kept all of my old textbooks and tapes (yes, tapes) which I had planned to study over the years.  They’ve been moldering away in a box in our shed…but I still don’t have the heart to toss them.   

 As for Russia, I have not yet had the opportunity to visit but hope to someday.  Not only do I want to explore this intriguing country but would also welcome the chance to start fresh at learning its language.  Thanks to the Olympics for letting me re-visit this special time in my life.  “Bal’shoye  Spasiba!”  

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