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Forgetting the Language

My buddy Helena shared an interesting article by a native Russian woman, who detailed her experiences and struggles using the language, after moving to the United States in the late 80s. Helena and I pretty much grew up together (her dad was my dad’s closest friend – they went to grade school together), and our families came to the United States within a few years of one another, although she was younger than I was when she came here. We both speak Russian, but we’re both completely Americanized, and neither one of us has a detectable accent.

My parents took extra care to force me to speak Russian at home when I was a kid. Seriously. As in, they wouldn’t answer except with a curt “Po Russki” (“in Russian”) when I tried to speak English to them. I hated it. Once I learned English, there was no turning back. I didn’t want to speak Russian. I didn’t feel it was necessary. I hated the language, because as a kid who came here during the Cold War, I felt everyone despised me, so I didn’t want to speak it. I was embarrassed.

When I was in college, I did wind up taking some Russian lit courses, because even though I didn’t regularly speak the language, I could still read and understand, and frankly I needed an easy “A.” But I still refused to speak Russian, other than in class, and my history still struck me as an embarrassment to be hidden and shunned, not taken advantage of.

Fast forward *mumblegrumblemhmmmh* years later, and I realize how wrong I was. My former job required extensive use of my Russian language skills, and while I still got the maximum ratings on my Defense Language Proficiency Tests (DLPT), I only took the lower range (easier) exams, which required little effort. Not only was I using my language skills on a daily basis, but my language pay, which we call FLPP, or “FLIP” depended on my DLPT scores, and as a linguist, I was also required to attend language refresher training that lasted six weeks.

My experience speaking Russian matches this writer’s.

But I haven’t spoken Russian with any regularity since I was in my early teens, when, tired of middle-school ostracism, I decided to become as Americanized as possible. Many psychologists think that we forget languages, and other things, because of “disuse”—the memories that we don’t try to recall very frequently become more deeply buried over time. Which explains why, even though you once aced your French midterm, you can no longer remember how to declare that you would like to go parasailing with Jean-Claude this weekend.

Other studies have shown that forgetting a native language might be an adaptive strategy that helps us learn a second one. In a 2007 study, “native English speakers who had completed at least one year of college-level Spanish were asked to repeatedly name objects in Spanish. The more the students were asked to repeat the Spanish words, the more difficulty they had generating the corresponding English labels for the objects.” That is to say, the better I became at English, the more my brain suppressed the Russian inside me.

As I said previously, I literally tried to forget it – not so I could learn English, because I was already fluent by the time sixth grade rolled around – but because I wanted to forget my background. I didn’t want to be different. I wanted to fit in.

So what happens when one has the language somewhere deep inside that brain, but the linguistic muscles atrophy from misuse?

Well, for one, remembering words becomes a chore. The Russian word is right there on the tip of my tongue. I just need to retrieve it somehow. Easy word. I know this word.

Nope.

The more I focus on trying to remember the word, the less reachable it becomes. Dammit! I step back, I say the entire sentence out loud in Russian, hoping the elusive word just rolls off my tongue out of habit. That strategy is sometimes helpful, but most of the time not. The longer I strain, the worse it becomes, and by the end of the day, I can’t even remember how to say “car” in Russian (Mashina)

On my last deployment to Kosovo, I was asked to act as interpreter for the visit of Ramil Kadyrov to Camp Bondsteel (yes, I did write that article). Kadyrov was at the time First Deputy to the Minister of Defense of Tajikistan, and since he only had one terp with him, I was asked to supplement.

It was three days that went something like this.

Day 1:

Him (in Russian): blah blah blah

Me: (translating into English): blah, blah, blah.

His interlocutor (in English): blah, blah, blah.

Me (translating into Russian): blah, blah, derp (look at his terp for help – oh yeah!), blah.

Day 2:

Him (in Russian): blah blah blah

Me: (translating into English): blah, blah, (fish around for English translation), blah.

His interlocutor (in English): blah, blah, blah.

Me (translating into Russian): blah, derp, uhhhhhh, blah.

Day 3:

Him (in Russian): blah blah blah

Me: (translating into English): blah, blah, (fish around for English translation), ummmmmmm, blah.

His interlocutor (in English): blah, blah, blah.

Me (translating into Russian, brain bleeding into my mouth, eyes crossing): derp, derp, uhhhhhh, derp.

By the third day it became considerably more difficult to access the Russian words I needed to do my job. As the author points out, you just get plain exhausted. Much like after a strenuous workout, after having avoided the gym for several months, you are in language muscle failure.

I was surprised how exhausting it can be to operate in an unfamiliar tongue. By the end of the day, my word-dogs and I yearned to stop. I would run out of things to deem “beautiful” or “interesting.” My tongue felt fat, and my already half-assedly rolled “rs” started getting straight-up swapped for the American kind.

I was surprised, however, to realize that the three-day terp fiasco is merely a small hurdle to overcome.

When I did my mandatory language refresher course in 2013, the teacher demanded that only Russian be spoke in class, and the homework sometimes took three hours due to sheer volume.

My brain was tired after three days, but as the course rolled along, I realized that the access to words I thought I had forgotten was coming back strong. I was able to complete the homework quicker. My word recall skills returned strong, and eventually, I was able to speak without reaching back to slowly tug the words out of my brain.

I began to speak Russian, instead of translating from English to clumsy Russian in my head before opening my mouth. And yes, there is a difference. Those learning a language will translate in their heads first before speaking. Native speakers simply speak, and the sentences flow directly from their brains in Russian (or any other language), instead of English words that first have to hit a translation filter. The longer I spoke, the easier the speech flowed. I began to dream and to think in Russian, which is where you want to be as a linguist.

And then, one day – at the end of my training – I sort of forgot English.

The instructor had us watching a Russian sitcom called “Interny” or “Interns.” It was a blatant ripoff homage to both “Scrubs” and “House,” which one episode fully acknowledged in a scene, and it was hilarious! I spent many nights watching that show on my computer, and one night I binge watched close to an entire season. For six hours straight. When I finally finished, I decided to turn on CNN in my barracks room and see what was going on in the world, and that’s when I realized I didn’t understand a single word.

Not even kidding.

I was literally listening to CNN and not understanding a word. The English sounded familiar, as if I should have been able to understand it, but I couldn’t.

And that’s how I got my Russian groove back. I did return from the course, still dreaming in Russian and yelling Russian commands at my dog, who looked at me like had lost my mind, but as my English slowly became normal again, my Russian remained intact, confirming UCLA cognitive psychologist Robert Bjork’s theory that while disuse of the language does cause words to become less accessible, relearning the information makes it stick around stronger and better than ever before.

I took the upper range (more difficult) DLPT that year, and I scored a 4/5 in listening, a 3+/5 in reading, and a 3/5 in speaking (never could get a higher grade in speaking – that score is more subjective than any other, because you’re actually speaking with a live Russian on the phone, who is grading your ability to communicate, and they apparently all hate me).

I should have listened to my parents when they tried to get me to speak Russian as a kid all those years ago.

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20 responses

  1. “When I did my mandatory language refresher course in 2013, the teacher demanded that only Russian be spoke in class, and the homework sometimes took three hours due to sheer volume. My brain was tired after three days, but as the course rolled along, I realized that the access to words I thought I had forgotten was coming back strong. I was able to complete the homework quicker.”

    Like riding a bike? I wish I was bi-lingual; always on my bucket list but I’ve never gotten fluent in anything besides English.

    Your teacher’s approach to only speak Russian in class (baptism by fire) might actually be the best way in some instances. I remember going to my pediatrician asking for advice on potty training; I thought it would be a gradual, drawn out process but she told me to do that and nothing that for the next couple days, and it worked.

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    1. Same here with the potty training. I bribed Danny with M&Ms, so he would demand a candy every time he went potty (every five minutes, knowing he’d get rewarded). That and a couple of wet pants incidents, and we had him potty trained by 18 months or so. Still wore diapers at night, though.

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      1. That’s a good idea! I just rewarded her with clapping; I can imagine how much more quickly it would have gone with an M & M for each “accomplishment”. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved learning German when I was living there for 18 months. It came relatively naturally to me and as my vocabulary grew, I became more and more comfortable. Then I moved to Belgium and while there, spent a year in Spain in training. I had taken seven years of Spanish from 4 grade on but never spoken it. While I was in Spain, I worked hard to relearn all that and the gentleman who ran the BOQ there at Torrejon Air Base gave me a new vocabulary word whenever I passed the desk.

    When I was taking a cab to the Madrid train station to go back to Belgium, I happened to get a German driver. I figgered I could at least try. I’ll be damned if I could come up with any German vocabulary. Every time I tried, I’d come up with the Spanish word and the German just wasn’t there. It was as if I’d swapped thumb drives with second languages on them. It was a fascinating experience.

    Related to this story, on the trip down on the train from Paris, I got seated with a gentleman from another country. For some reason, we settled on German and started talking for a few minutes. When I told him I was an American, he said to me “Well, why don’t we speak in English. It would be so much easier.” Turns out, he was from London.

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    1. A MONTH in Spain — not a year. D’oh!

      Dan

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    2. I had that problem when I was visiting Russia. I’d had a year of Russian in college, three years of Spanish in high school (along with two years each of French and Latin), and I was stationed in Spain for three years. And if I couldn’t think of the Russian word, I kept trying to use Spanish. That really didn’t end well. Now, I have a possible opportunity that will probably require a significant period of Russian language training. So it’s good to know that the second time around, things may stick better. One of the things that really slowed me down the first time was having to sound out words in Russian. I haven’t had to do that in English since I was about four years old.

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  3. My grandmother came from the Netherlands and while she kept speaking Dutch, she didn’t teach my mother. And I didn’t find out until after he died that he spoke Hungarian. I wish they had taught me when I was a kid. Waiting until high school to learn even German does not work out well.

    It’s why I don’t mind immigrants speaking Spanish in stores, being bilingual is a good thing.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I took a year of Russian in college. I’ve since given most of it back.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m in the same boat, although in my case my year of Russian came courtesy of Uncle Sam and DLI-Monterey. I haven’t had much cause to use my Russian in the years since I left the Army, so I’ve lost a lot of fluency.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Two years of Spanish in college left me still confused about estar and ser. I learned more Spanish on the bus on the way to and from work, listening to las mamis giving their ninitas vocabulary. There are five different words for ‘blonde’ in Spanish. The one you use depends on what region you come from, and your accent gives you away.
    Long ago and another day, two years of Latin seem to never have left me. It is ridiculous to hunt down Marcellus Martialis’s scatty epigrams and try to translate them for their real meaning, not the prissy ‘correct’ translations, but it’s fun. I didn’t realize how much Latin there is in Russian until the Iron Curtain fell and I got to watch a meeting of the Russian government, so I was moved to find a self-teaching book in Russian.
    Six years of French in high school and college and I finally figured out that if you get the jokes in another language, you begin to truly understand it.
    I am just glad that the internet exists as it does, because I now have at least six ways to tell annoying people ‘Go f–k yourself’. Futue te ipsum. Ficken Sie, Arschloch. !Chingese usted, pendejo puto puta! Va te faire enculer or Fous le camps et morte . Téigh trasna ort féin. Vai a farti fottere.
    All that, and being able to ask where the restroom is, comes in handy. It’s fun, ain’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I feel your pain, Nicki. I can only speak English, and I often find myself searching for the word that I swear was in my head when I was younger. Oh, I guess that is not exactly the same thing. OTOH, I do know international morse code. I have been a ham radio operator since I was 12, and back then it was a requirement. I admit that I don’t use it much anymore, either, so it is sometimes a little sketchy, but I can still make sense of it. And I am actually considering attempting to learn at least conversational Spanish. I love that many Spanish speaking people have come to America, and although it is a good thing that they learn to speak English, I would still like to be able to converse with some of them in their native language. Plus, I swear that the young pretty girls say mean things about me in Spanish, knowing that I won’t understand the words for bald, crazy old man. My uncle who was a lifer in the Army used to teach us German when he would be home with his family to visit my dad. The only words he taught us are now all gone, of course, but I used to be able to speak the best swear words in German in my elementary school. As an aside, Nicki, I have recently gotten my first 1911, in a 4.25 inch frame. What holster type do you use, and why? I am going to carry this gun when I feel confident with it. It is the most accurate, smoothest firing gun I have ever shot. I currently carry a wonder nine in either a OWB or IWB strong side. Thanks for any thoughts, and also thanks for the work you do in D.C. I don’t understand everything that you are involved in, but I know that much of it helps our country. Stay safe and stay sane.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oooh! 1911! I have a specially made holster from Dragon Leatherworks. It’s beautiful! I did have an Uncle Mike’s at one point, but it sucked. Something we wrong with the grips that kept the pistol in place and I had to take the entire thing apart just so it would release.

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      1. I had forgotten about Dragon Leatherworks. When I start to carry the 1911, that is the way I am planning to go. I have never seen any other work so beautiful, and done by such a good guy. Thanks, and have a great day.

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  7. Hey I was curious, if you could go back in time for only one day, where and when would you go? For me, it would have to be, Times Square on August 14 1945.

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    1. Hmmmmmmm. That’s an interesting question. I hadn’t thought of that. Probably 11/9/89 Berlin. I would have loved to have been there for that!

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  8. July 16, 1945, at 0529.

    Somewhere close enough to feel the shockwave from the new sun.

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  9. I’m trylingual – I try to speak many languages 🙂

    And yes if you are forced to reuse them they come back. I find that getting drunk in a situation where you have to use the language to communicate with your new buddies helps a lot to get over that initial hump

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  10. RetMSgt in Pa. | Reply

    Growing up we had people speaking Yiddish at home, Hebrew in temple, and English with the rest of us, and they thought nothing of it. Of course, they used all three languages on a daily basis.

    Now, if you want to get confused and you’re fluent in German, try listening to Old Order Amish speaking Pennsylvania Dutch,

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  11. I tell people I took two years of college Russian and maybe remember two weeks of it.

    I certainly can’t remember case endings or some of the complicated rules for plurals (which depend on case endings) but I did get “znayu, znayesh, znayet, znayem, znayete, znayut” drilled in. Or maybe not. If I bollixed that up, then not, I znayu less than I thought.

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  12. When I was seven, my step-mom (I hate to use that term, but oh well) received orders to Izmir, Turkey (mom and dad were active duty Army). My dad did not want to be separated from her for a year, so he also got an assignment there, so bingo-bango we ended up being there for two years.

    My little sister was only 9 months old when we arrived in Nov 1985. I had to take Turkish classes every day at school, and within about 9 months was fluent. we lived on the economy so everyone else in the building was Turkish, except for my school principal who was also American (that’s a whole other story I will have to tell you about later). We also had Turkish maids who baby-sat my baby sister, and also kept our apartment clean. Because she was with them all day 5 days a week, within 4 months she was speaking mostly in Turkish, and by then end of that next year, we were only talking to her in Turkish. We got back to the states in Nov 1987, and it took almost a year before my sister was speaking exclusively in English again. She basically swapped languages as a baby! It was pretty amazing! My dad still talks to us in Turkish sometimes (mostly to annoy me), but my sister can still understand it even though she’s now 32!

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