An Impossible Student

Teaching himself Russian gives Bob Blaisdell perspective on his students who are new to English.

September 18, 2009

My fantasy is that I pick up a novel or story in Russian and I don’t realize I’m reading Russian. I smile, full of the story, excited and exhilarated as I turn the pages, and it’s only when I set the book down that I notice it’s not in English.

Another fantasy is that after walking over from the college where I teach in Brooklyn, I’m waiting for the train at the subway stop in Brighton Beach, and two Russians are sitting on the bench discussing Dostoyevsky, and I, ignored by them as I sit down, throw in a comment in Russian, and they, in disbelief, as if a kid has walked onto a baseball diamond and lined a fastball from Roger Clemens off the fence, throw me questions at the same time, and I respond in perfect colloquial Russian. We continue discussing Russian literature.

In real life, I have been studying Russian on my own, every day, for the past year and a half. What works for me is reading stories and scenes I already know very well in English. My literary divinity Tolstoy said the best way to learn a language was to pick up your favorite book and start reading it in that other language. (He used the Bible; I used my bible, Anna Karenina.)

In St. Petersburg last winter I bought a Russian-language CD of Chekhov’s stories and I listened to an actor read “Dama s sabatchkoi” (Lady with Little-Dog) about 20 times. Sometimes I looked at the text as he read. He elided words and sounds that I never would have guessed could be elided. His pronunciations and emphases were little like the ones I managed as I read it aloud to myself.

I read the opening chapter of Anna Karenina and I divined many words. But there they were, in Russian! How delightful! It’s the difference between seeing a painting in a book and seeing its original hanging on a wall. Well, there it is! You can’t get any closer than that!

I studied every day, wandering, doing what I felt like doing. When I didn’t want to read, I listened, and I told myself I needed to listen. I listened to vocabulary tapes, grammar tapes, spoken-word recordings of Chekhov and Pushkin. I listened to Lev Tolstoy himself on a Web site. Bozhe moi! There he is!

I did anything that seemed easy. I avoided the grammar, trusting myself to pick it up as I needed.

Then one late night, when I was visiting St. Petersburg and I couldn’t sleep, and I retreated to the hotel lobby to read a biography of Pushkin lest I wake up my roommate, a friendly woman sat down on an adjoining couch and volleyed my bad Russian with her bad English, and we worked out a classroom-like conversation about the weather, education, sports, music. After I declined her invitation to a massage to help me relax, and we said our do svidanyas, she advised me, kindly: “Nuzhno pravila.” (“Grammar is needed.”)

Yes, it is.

And that’s what my Russian-speaking friends tell me. Rules are necessary.


But then I wouldn’t flow with the rhythm of my interests and desires. I resist. I take the easiest route. I take the road that beckons me. And yet, having it all my own way, avoiding the dictionary (I sometimes go days without checking a dictionary, telling myself that, well, I’ll just look for the words I know or can figure out from context), avoiding any method, I find myself in the same boat as many of my students.

I remember last fall my student Irina, who came to the United States two years before and who’s my age, saying, “My English … shame!”

“I feel ashamed of my English.”

“Shame of my English.”

“Yes, a-shamed. Ashamed.”

How ashamed I was thinking of my Russian!

But how happy I am with my students who plunge ahead, never faint-hearted, making lots of mistakes. How well some of them write in spite of the incorrect grammar, in spite of the limited vocabulary — how fresh some of their descriptions. They have to describe what they see without any pre-mixed colors and scarcely any canned language. How I admire them, how much I admire, for example, Lingtong! She came here at 16 from the south of China, without any English, and she threw herself into learning the language from her teachers, from her books, from experience on the job. How well she speaks, how hard she continues to pick up refinements in idioms (her grammatical mistakes are those of native New Yorkers).

And yet preying on me so much of the time — I feel it and it shows up in my journal entries about my Russian — is the shame of not knowing anything. Besides it not being very becoming of me, besides it contradicting my feeling about my own ESL students (that they have nothing to be ashamed of, that they are climbing a mountain, that they are doing something extremely difficult), I continue to complain of and feel ashamed of my lack of knowledge of Russian. On the other hand, I really am proud to have learned so much on my own. I am proud of figuring things out about the grammar simply from reading from Anna Karenina and “Lady with Little-Dog” and knowing that this belongs to that, and he (the character) would not say that, so maybe it’s this, and how this must be an object and this an adjective.

Of course through my self-teaching I’m understanding better the agony of some of my students, how Irina would turn to her compatriot Sofiya with a look of panic on her face, and how she and some of my Chinese-born students watch my mouth for clues — sometimes, a moment later, repeating or mouthing my phrasing; wincing, lost, some of them eager to be asked the very question they know how to answer, but no other question! The complaints about synonyms! Why? Why are there two words for this? Well, I explain, there are three. My Chinese-born students complaining about my correction of words they looked up! “Is right! — Why not right, Professor?”

“It’s right, but there are other words that are better — that mean just what you mean, but don’t mean the other things anybody would think of before that. It’s ambiguous.”

Russian students know that word.

The hopelessness of learning a new language.

I realize that it’s good my students hear their writing out loud. I like my short assignments where they write an anecdote or a poem and I collect them and read them all aloud. Under pressure of time, yet free of the pressure that it has to be an essay or good or finished, they write with the words they have. They work with the tenses they have.

As for reading, it is so hard! And of course it’s good that they read a conversational voice. Langston Hughes’s "Simple" stories, for instance, have voice in the narration and lots of dialogue. My students get the humor. I wonder what humor I could possibly understand in Russian. I have read with feeling the passages where both Annas (in both Anna Karenina and “Lady with Little-Dog”) break down in tears. I have been refortified by remembering the significance that Irina attached to her breaking down in tears while reading in her education course Torey Hayden’s One Child. So I know that my ESL students are way ahead of me, but that they were all where I am now. That makes me hopeful that I will eventually reach their fluency.

But I will never, unless I change my personality, have Russian the way Lingtong has English.

I imagine myself visiting Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s estate, next summer, and I will be or feel humiliated. But look how far I’ve come! Look how far! That will be running through my head in my humiliation. We are not humiliated by what we’ve fallen to, but by what we are striving to attain.


Bob Blaisdell is a professor of English at City University of New York’s Kingsborough Community College.


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