Friday, 25 February 2011
I'm not really about to travel on the trans-Siberian railway - or even on the Moscow metro. But when I attend my weekly Russian class, the tutor assumes we will all go to Russia one day.
She seems rather worried about this, especially as most of us fail to make the rapid progress she would like. My studies are hampered by my failure to find sufficient time for homework and my inability to pronounce words with long strings of consonants.
I've spent some time this evening writing out numbers, days and months in my neatest Russian script in the hope that I'll start to remember them. But somehow they fail to lodge properly in my brain. I really need 20 or 30 minutes a night on Russian to make any progress - an hour or so at the weekend, when lucky, doesn't have the same effect. So when the next lesson comes round, I'll feel like a dunce again.
But when I look back, I have made some small progress. I no longer struggle with Cyrillic script and have acquired a few useful phrases: I can say извините (excuse me) я не знаю (I don't know) and employ the useful word можно (our tutor's very keen on можно) which means something like "May I ...?" and can be used in a variety of situations.
At times we enact situations. Some are guided by the text book while others are invented by the tutor. The text book has a fine sense of exotic scenarios. I particularly enjoyed the conversation between the delegates to a conference for amateur accordianists, who enthusiastically introduced themselves to one another, giving details of their nationality and job - in Russian of course.
Then there was the keen but inexpert student of Russian (always asking Russian friends to speak slowly until they pronounced the words one careful syllable at a time). His evident lack of competence didn't stop him heading for a large bookshop (дом книги) where he asked the assistant for the book of his choice - not a simple reader or a Chekhov short story but Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Later he set out to buy a balalaika as well - there's an enthusiasm for music running through the text book.
But we move away from the book to practise other scenarios. We have arrived at customs and are interrogated by an official who demands to see passport and visa, asks questions about nationality and profession and which bag belongs to which traveller. We buy tickets for the train at the main rail station (a word derived from Vauxhall, after the much-admired London station), and enquire about train times (numbers again). We learn how to navigate the metro in Moscow or Novosibirsk.
But again our tutor is anxious. "Don't go to Russia alone. You should go in a group or with a guide - unless you know Russian people." She's worried we'll be mugged or cheated - that we won't be able to cope with crowds or pickpockets. She also warns us about the high prices in Moscow and the risk of taking an unlicensed taxi. At the same time she wants us to understand that Russian people are hospitable and good friends who will, when we know them, welcome us into their homes.
I suspect she would be a little less worried were we more competent in the language. I would worry about any friend who arrived in London alone with little English and attempted to navigate the city. But the language, while fascinating, remains strange.
Of course, it's the strangeness that attracts me. I've reached the stage where I can notice the way Russian words have different boundaries to English words. For instance, there are different words for going somewhere on foot and going somewhere in a vehicle. There are other oddities. Numbers ending in 2-4 take the genitive singular while higher numbers that don't end in 2-4 take the genitive plural. And the sane word means both "world" and "peace".
That, for me, is one of the most exciting things about learning a language. As I discover the different concepts that are taken for granted in other languages, I feel my mind expanding to accommodate additional possibilities. At the same time, certainties I'd taken for granted become unstable. It's worth struggling with the numbers and the strings of consonants for that alone.
Of course, I'd rather become so expert that I could read Pushkin or Akhmatova in the original. It doesn't seem likely. Next week we learn how to book hotel rooms. I expect we'll be asking questions about bedding, showers and when breakfast is served. It's not quite the vocabulary of Eugene Onegin.
I don't suppose I'll even get to Moscow either, so I shan't use my expert knowledge on travelling by Metro or booking a hard or soft seat to Novosibirsk. I'd rather like to cross Russia alone, for all my tutor's anxieties. Perhaps, if I did, I'd find myself managing the language a little better.
But that's enough reflection. It's time to return to my Russian homework. I have to work out how to buy a samovar and some Russian chocolate. I might buy a bottle of vodka as well and a few postcards - or even a large, red piano. It doesn't really matter what I buy since I won't really be paying for it or bringing it home.