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By The Liberty Zone
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Forgetting the Language

Tuesday, April 11, 2017 4:59
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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.


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 I 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.

Filed under: personal

Tagged: language, learning, Russian, school

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