Middlebury – My Experience

Привет! 8 weeks, 60 days, 33 new letters, 6 cases, and 1000+ flash cards later, I’m finally home from Middlebury College. If you somehow missed the fact that I was studying Russian this summer at Middlebury College, then I’m confused because I haven’t really shut up about it, not to mention the random posts you’ve probably been seeing in Russian. Throughout the summer I’ve been making small notes of things I wanted to address when I was home and able to resume my English speaking life. I will try to organize them as best as I can but I make no promises that this’ll actually be in a logical order. Additionally, I’ve got a ton to share so I’d definitely recommend some tea and a snack with this one.

Anyway, I’m just going to start off by saying this was absolutely the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. I had some idea going in of how difficult it is to try and communicate with people in a language you don’t know, but this surpassed any expectations of difficulty I had coming in. Having all ability to communicate suddenly stripped from you in one day is not easy to deal with (for obvious reasons). Despite this, I would recommend this program to anyone who is serious about learning a language. It will absolutely be both the best and worst experience of your life, but ultimately so worth it.

Learning a language in a classroom obviously requires some level of patience but learning a language in an immersive environment takes that to a whole new level. One of the things I struggled with most was being patient with myself and allowing myself the time I needed to be able to speak in Russian. Meeting new people and making friends for the first 2 weeks was one of the worst things. We could basically only ask “what’s your name?” and “how are you?” which is not very conducive to making friends. Beyond this, we had to learn how to get used to bluntness. We didn’t have the vocabulary to be able to explain why we didn’t want to/couldn’t do something like we could in English; for the first few weeks, it had to be a simple no and it took time to get over feeling rude. Also, patience with each other was so important. It took longer to construct sentences and then figure out what was said, if there was no patience there was no conversation. Additionally, in attempting to speak in complete sentences there were a lot of seemingly randomly placed grunts and sighs which after a couple days we got weirdly good at understanding. Something else we tried to do A LOT was if we didn’t know a word in Russian, we would often just say it in English with a Russian accent hoping it was a cognate (which it usually was not). Ultimately, in 8 weeks we had learned about each other what could have been accomplished in a 30-minute conversation in English, which is both encouraging and discouraging.

Despite the struggles of not really being able to speak well, we still managed to make jokes, talk about people without them understanding, and make fun of Russia in broken Russian. Another strange thing that happened to me quite a lot in the first 4 weeks, was in an effort to not speak English, I would randomly come up with the words I wanted to say in Russian in Italian or French instead which was frustrating when “por que” came out of my mouth instead of “почему”. I would often end up knowing how to say some random word in 3 languages what weren’t Russian, and after a week or two it got really annoying.

While I was learning the alphabet and how to write, my handwriting was significantly nicer in Russian than English (although if you’ve ever seen my handwriting in English, that isn’t necessarily hard to do). Despite the neatness of my writing, Russian is traditionally written in cursive because some of the letters are difficult to write in print, and boy let me tell you, cursive is bloody difficult in English, but even worse in Russian when working through knowing both the cursive and typeface letters (because they couldn’t possibly be similar at all) and ignoring the fact that they look like letters of the Latin alphabet. Then switching between Russian and English got gradually more difficult as I got used to the Cyrillic alphabet. Even now, I’ll type letters based on where they are on the Russian keyboard, I’ll write a Russian “d” instead of an English one, the list goes on. But I’ve begun struggling to spell English words because I try to spell them as they sound, which in English doesn’t work because our spelling system is literally nonexistent. Whereas in Russian, there are rules that do not change no matter what. Spelling rules are some of the few in Russian that have no exceptions, words are just spelt how they sound.

One of the things I discovered pretty early on is that Russian is an extremely nuanced language. English has its moments but it just doesn’t compare to Russian. Russian is a language based heavily on verbs, where as English is based on nouns. It was frustrating to memorize so many verbs but it allows the language to be much more specific in ways that English can’t be. However, the verb “to be” doesn’t exist in the present tense, which as an English speaker is very aggravating. It’s either implied in the verb that is being used or is just not necessary. In English we say, “I am a student,” the word “am” being the conjugated form of “to be” whereas in Russian they say, “Я студентка,” meaning “I am a student” in English, but literally “I student”. There are a number of other things what are different in Russian grammar, based on history, culture, and the way the Russians view the world but I’ll save that for another time. One thing I will add though, is that my 12 years of public school did not prepare me to learn another language’s grammar. I’ve never truly learned English grammar which made it incredibly difficult to understand Russian grammar.

Asking questions in Russian is something I didn’t get the hang of. In English, we intonate our questions by raising the pitch of our voice at the end of the question. In Russian, intonation is placed on the word in which the question is about. We do this a little bit by changing where we place emphasis in a sentence, but intonation is different, and as a native English speaker changing where you put intonation was surprisingly difficult.

Okay, moving on from grammar and my struggles of learning the language, one of the most special things about studying at Middlebury, was spending so much time with a small group of people. We had words we made up and phrases we normalized; we made parts of a language we had never spoken our own. In a lot of ways, it made learning the language less intimidating because we had these things to share between us.

I think this is where I’m going to leave it for now. I will be writing at least one more post about my experience at Middlebury (which will be geared more towards incoming 1st level students and the questions I wanted answered before move-in day) but maybe another. Ultimately, I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to study Russian in this environment and for the people I met while doing it. We’ve been through something together that only we can truly understand and it’s something I’ll never forget.

~Sarah Ann

My Last Post: Pride and Lack Thereof

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