Words and Worlds: My Own Story of Learning English

This post is partially a paper which I wrote at university for a course devoted to bilingualism. I edited it for the blog and added more personal details. 

Delaware River, New York State

Delaware River, New York State

Language is like a river.  When you first begin to study it, you feel like an inexperienced swimmer trying to stay afloat on the surface of unfamiliar depths.  A foreign language fascinates and attracts a new speaker, but its yet unexplored complexity also can be frightening and discouraging. At first you flounder, doing your best to regain your footing in this alien environment, then you become more and more confident, as you learn to use the language with greater ease.  At the point when you feel comfortable enough with the language to call yourself bilingual, a whole other universe opens up to you.

Being bilingual doesn’t simply mean being proficient in more than one language: it means having access to two different worlds. In a way, language shapes our worldview: it sets a framework of concepts, categories and meanings within which we organize and express our thoughts.

Besides, knowledge of a foreign language provides a unique insider’s view of another culture: not only you’re able to read famous works of literature in the original, but also have a chance to get acquainted with lesser known or newly published writings; you can read foreign media and get much more information about the world and current events from the Internet. You can hear speech the way it sounds, understanding the more subtle shades of meaning which would be lost in translation. Most importantly, perhaps, you get a much better chance of understanding the people who speak that other language.

 

English is my second language, and the years I spent studying it at home, in Russia, were often filled with tedious memorizing of texts and grammatical rules, writing papers and taking numerous exams; but there were also rewarding moments when all of a sudden I would realize that I could freely express myself  without stumbling, helpless searching for a word or losing my way in the middle of the sentence.

However, I did not consider myself bilingual until I came to America and began to use my English in everyday life rather than academic environment. So, my experience is not than of someone who was exposed to several languages since birth or childhood (the way I now try to teach English to my daughters). I went through a transformation from an essentially monolingual person with a knowledge of foreign language into a bilingual: someone who feels equally comfortable with both languages and switches between them in the course of their daily life. You don’t get to that stage immediately or automatically: rather, it is a gradual process. The good part is — yes, it can be done, and you can do it, too.

New York

New York

I found out that many Russians who move to the US, in a hurried attempt to learn English as soon as possible, begin to communicate in a peculiar mixture of the two languages, without a clear borderline between them. I always tried to avoid this, feeling that such mixing did not do justice to either language and ruined certain inner beauty of the language, its wholeness and integrity.

Using the river metaphor, though, it is easy to visualize  this form of communication: imagine the languages as two currents, flowing in your mind side by side.  As you’re used to swimming only in one river, managing two separate currents is a new and challenging task. They flow into one another, randomly change direction; words and phrases travel across, and when you purposefully try to switch between the channels, you often become confused and disoriented.  It takes time and practice before you learn to dive in and out of the flow with confidence and ease.

And without metaphors — it’s clear that, for somebody who communicates in two languages on a daily basis, it becomes convenient to pick words from both — whichever word suits better for the moment.  Still, it just sounded terrible to me, and I often felt uncomfortable talking to people who spoke like this.

Metropolitan Museum

Metropolitan Museum

In my own experience, most of the tension came when I started a retail job in the Metropolitan Museum, where I had to communicate only in English and to be always in the midst of people who constantly asked questions, made requests or started a conversation.  For a while, I avoided reading Russian books on the subway while going to work, knowing that it would take me somewhat longer to «click» into English if I immerse myself too deeply into my native language.

The worst days were those of training, before I actually started my job. People in New York all have very different accents, even those who were born in the States.  Some of them are harder to understand than others. My first day of training was a disaster: I couldn’t understand a word of whatever the trainer was saying. Luckily, when we had to stand in front of the register and practice, I was able to look around and just copy whatever the others were doing. And we were given some written instructions, which really saved  me from being kicked out of the classroom that very day. Somehow, I managed to pass the final test and start working.

 

Eventually, both languages firmly settled in my head on completely separate tracks. This is one of the reasons translating is usually hard for me. If I write an essay, article, etc. in English and then have to translate it into Russian, or vice versa, I prefer writing a whole new text from the start rather than struggle with sentence-by-sentence translation.

I also noticed that when I now study German and Spanish (which I’ve been doing off and on for years) these two new languages snake-spanishtend to get mixed up in my head, but they never get mixed up with English or Russian. It’s hilarious, actually — when I try to speak Spanish, I’m amazed how many German words I know=) — and the other way round.   When we try to speak German or Spanish with my friend Olga, who studies these languages, too, we often end up with that dubious mixture I used to hate in the States.  I’m not that sensitive to that here — I guess, that’s because German and Spanish are still truly foreign languages to me, so it doesn’t bother me that much when Olga and I are butchering them in our «conversations». And native speakers aren’t usually around anyway!=)

By the time I decided to become a teacher of English as a foreign language, to me, obviously, it didn’t feel like foreign language anymore. Besides, when I applied for the CELTA course ( a teacher training course which I had chosen for its quality and universal recognition), all of us, native and non-native speakers, were thoroughly tested on our knowledge of English.  So, language wasn’t a problem, although other things were — it was extremely difficult for me, a quiet and somewhat shy person, to get used to being in front of the audience. I was absolutely terrified at first… but that’s really another story I’ll probably write some other day.

New York

New York

Both languages played different roles in my life. English, for many years, was the primary  language for communicating at work, at university, for writing research papers and, of course, making new friends. It was fantastic, the way English helped me to meet people from Europe, the USA, the Middle East, India, Latin America… In this respect, New York is a unique city, where people from all over the world find themselves working and studying side by side, while getting to know each other better.

To my mind, getting to know people from various countries and cultures is essential — for any of us, for all of us. That’s how we start to remember one most basic, simple, crucial, life-saving truth: that we are all people, that there are lots of values that we share, that deep down, most of us love and want similar things in life. And English is a great tool that can help bring us closer.

English attracts me as a language which can provide clear, accurate, precise expressions for most matters of everyday life. Take its phrasal verbs, for instance — short, brilliant and full of meaning. English possesses well-measured directness and gives definitions that always hit the target.  It can be straightforward without getting impolite or imposing, and it can pack concepts and ideas in a few short words.

 

Russian is a language with complex grammar, abundance of suffixes, prefixes and various other elements, — which makes it complicated for learners but excellent for emotional and literary expression. When I read poetry in Russian, I always feel sorry for  foreign readers who hopelessly miss in translation all its poignant beauty, harmony of rhyme, rhythm and meaning.  As my first language, Russian brings to me depth and emotional power that no other language can bring — it is and always will be the language of my soul.

 

If you’re now learning a foreign language, I wish you great discoveries, new opportunities, broadening horizons and lots of fun! And to start the fun right now, let me  recommend a new crossword on phrasal verbs—our all-time favourites=):

PHRASAL VERBS  (please add all the verbs in their base forms — infinitives).  Let me know in your comments whether you liked it and what other topics for crosswords you’d like to see here.

Check out other crosswords in English and more stuff for learners and teachers  in our English Club. 

Also, it would be great to read your stories of learning English. Where did you study? How did it start? How do you feel about your English now? Have you ever used it abroad? If you write in English and want me to, I’ll do my best to correct the writing and give you some suggestions on how to improve it. If your story is too long to be posted in the comments, you can send to me using the contact form, and I’ll publish it as a separate post.

All the best!=)


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