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Saturday, October 05, 2002

Russian for Beginners
I had my first Russian class Wednesday night. The gender breakdown is one I recognize from my English-teaching days in Spain—way more women than men, and the women apparently more at ease with language-learning.

If any of the women came to class hoping for an Italian for Beginners-type scenario, I think they’ll be disappointed—the class of seven broke down six women, one man. The guy was a sweet, shorts-wearing, bad-bleach-job kind of urban surfer dude, but he seemed to have the least foreign-language experience in the class. I hope he comes back next week or we’ll have a tough time practicing the male pronouns.

I think that everyone is starting from scratch, Russian-wise. Certainly, everyone seemed equally clueless about the alphabet. That’s a relief because although one “false beginner” in a class can be helpful as far as moving things along—always being the first person called on because the teacher knows they’re likely to get it right—they also get bored easily, and a nervous teacher can give up on the others to keep the false beginner engaged. All you really need is a not-too-bad student who’s willing to make a fool of herself. I usually volunteer for that role. My language strategy has always been to combine my natural willingness to look ridiculous with my ear for accents, while skimping on the grammar.

Nobody seems clueless, which is a relief. A kind person working as a teacher feels a natural reluctance to leave the tone-deafies behind—but if you give them too much slack, you can really piss off the OK students. The last language class I took was a Japanese course at the U—a frustrating experience because it was loaded with hopeless cases. By Week 10 we were still spending half the class telling the teacher whether or not it was snowing. I used to torture the teacher—a nice middle-aged guy who told us he’d come to the States because he loved Westerns so much—by inserting Japanese slang I pried from my Nihongo-speaking pals into the endless chants of “Ie, yuki ja arimasen.”

The Russian teacher seems smart but insecure. She obviously knows her stuff, and her English is amazingly good, but she uses it too much. Even the very sketchy English academy I worked for in Madrid had a strict target-language-only policy, which makes elementary classes bloody hell, but it’s a better way to learn. But with an alphabet to learn and a pretty ambitious syllabus, not to mention me wanting to have a basic level by mid-December when I go to Moscow, I’m certainly not going to complain.