Language Lessons

Former Berta Greenwald Ledecky Undergraduate Fellow Elizabeth Gudrais '01 returned from a fellowship in Latvia in December and is now rediscovering her other roots, in Minnesota.

As an American, it's pretty darned hard to learn--and I mean really learn--a foreign language, even when you're living in a foreign country.

The real barrier to Americans' foreign-language acquisition is not the abysmal state of foreign-language education in the United States (although that certainly deserves part of the blame). From the haughty waiters in France who refuse to indulge the French-speaking American tourist to the Russian gentleman at the Internet café I frequent here in Riga, who replies in English to my request for "Polchasa, pozhaluista" ("Half an hour, please"), the real problem is that English is ubiquitous. It permeates every facet of life in every country in the world. It's just too convenient.

So, four summers ago, during a study-abroad program in Russia, I spent my five weeks speaking mostly English outside class. I had had only one year of Harvard College Russian at the time: I could conduct my business in stores, ask for the time, describe basic sensations ("too hot" or "too cold")--but anything more complicated was over my head. Handily, our host students were studying to be English teachers, and therefore their skill in English far exceeded mine in Russian (and possibly even my ability in English). When I returned home, I couldn't say that I knew much more Russian than I had the day I left.

This past fall, as I embarked on a four-month fellowship in Latvia, I was determined not to let events unfold the same way. Still, no matter how I tried, I just couldn't get away from English.

I am continually amazed at the ability of people who have picked up English helter-skelter, with no formal training, to express themselves with faultless grammar, complex constructions, and the most idiomatic of idioms. Meanwhile, I made it through four years of Russian without learning such essential words as kladbishche (cemetery) and veshalka (hanger).

Because I went to Latvia to experience local culture and to acquaint myself with the native language of my father and his parents, of which I didn't speak a word before setting foot in Riga, my ears yearned for some music in Latvian or Russian (the other tongue in common use). But instead, the sounds of the Backstreet Boys and Janet Jackson dominated Riga's radio stations. (To be fair, some stations do play Latvian and Russian music, but in most public places and in my host family's living room, American sounds dominate.) I was hard pressed to find anything besides American movies (subtitled in Latvian and Russian) in Riga's theaters. At least on television, the English spoken in the American movie shown each evening was drowned out by dubbing in Latvian, leaving me no choice but to gain an understanding of the plot through deciphering the Russian subtitles.

Idiomatic English expressions are all the rage among the young people of Riga. For instance, one afternoon last September, as Baiba, my 19-year-old host sister, prepared to leave for the countryside, she playfully grabbed her friend Gita by the waist and said, "Let's go, baby!" Whenever the tea ran out while Baiba was pouring, I was amazed at the metaphoric leap she would make in saying, "Game over," a phrase that she undoubtedly picked up while playing American computer games. When it came time to leave to meet her father, and her older brother, Arturs, was dragging his feet, Baiba told him sternly, "Move your body!"--recalling the Technotronic hit of the early '90s. And Baiba's younger brother, Roberts, loved to repeat, ad nauseam, the ever-popular "Wazzup"--reminding me of so many boys I knew in high school.

Fortunately, I had more than a few triumphant moments of polyglotism in Riga. They were some of the most terrifying moments in my life, but also the most rewarding--proof that I was truly pushing myself, testing my limits, enlarging my comfort zone and my repertoire of abilities. For instance, during my second week, my history professor gave me, at my request, the phone number of a friend who teaches in one of the Russian-language secondary schools. Because my professor was leaving the country the next day, she couldn't call the woman on my behalf; I had to do it myself. It was one thing to explain to this woman that I wanted to help out in a Russian school because I wanted to improve my language skills while observing educational methods in Latvia. But it was another, and more challenging, thing altogether to explain to her in a clear and concise fashion who I was and how I got her phone number.

Simple as this encounter was, it represented a huge risk for me. Every time I stepped into a phone booth to call her (I tried several times before finally catching her at home), I began trembling. You can imagine my elation when she not only understood me, but complimented me on my Russian! Thereafter I interviewed--in Russian--the deputy director of Latvia's naturalization board about the government's new Latvian-language training program for an article in the English-language newspaper in Riga. Less officially, I also visited my host siblings' paternal grandparents--who speak only Russian. Again I felt elated when I was able to understand the conversation and to communicate with them.


My first-year Russian teacher used to tell our class that we'd know we were really learning the language when we had our first dream in Russian. Four years later, I still hadn't had one. But my experiences in Latvia brought me closer to this elusive goal: during my time there, I had a dream about being in Latvian class and making basic conversation in Latvian, and numerous dreams about situations in which I was trying to come up with a necessary phrase in Russian--and in several, I succeeded. (Incidentally, I also had multiple dreams about the sinfully delicious frosting on my grandmother's sweet rolls.) I've come to the conclusion that our dreams mimic our daytime experiences, and I won't have a real dream in Russian until thinking in Russian becomes automatic for me.

My own story has a happy ending: at long last, the gentleman at the Internet café finally took the hint and began answering me in Russian. After more frequent exchanges in Russian, I stopped breaking out in a cold sweat at the thought of uttering simple phrases. In fact, more than a few of those phrases began to bubble up in my mind automatically, skipping the step of translation from English. But it didn't come easily. When Mr. Internet Café didn't understand that I wanted to print a file from my e-mail, but couldn't get it to pop up on my computer, my first impulse was to explain myself in English.

As enticing as breaking into English seemed, it wouldn't have helped me out in the long run. But it also might not have been more efficient in the short run. Truth be told, many foreigners' English isn't as good as it seems. After a few weeks in Riga, I discovered that even though my host siblings' English sounded great to me, they often weren't sure if they were using the correct words. They had learned to speak quickly in English, with an air of ease and confidence, because that can temper the impression of foreignness even if the phrasing is wrong. But what they heard in their own heads when they spoke English wasn't so different from the halting Russian and Latvian I heard issuing from my own mouth.

It's easy for Americans to understand foreigners' English, if it's anywhere close to correct, because it's our native language. Americans suffer from a lack of perspective, from an inability to extrapolate our own insecurities and realize that it's no easier for foreigners to learn English than it is for us to learn their languages. It may happen faster for them because of more opportunities for use. They may have idioms memorized because of exposure to English-language media. But it isn't objectively easier. To all but the most experienced speakers of English as a foreign language, English is just that: a foreign language, one in which they are always unsure.

Foreigners learn English so they can study in the United States, so they can read English-language periodicals, so they can work at firms that do business with America. Americans, for the most part, don't need to learn another language. In today's productivity-based society, it doesn't make sense to many Americans to invest time in learning another language--at least, not the kind of time needed to become fluent in another culture as well as another language. But there's so much to be learned besides the language contained in textbooks and literature. I wrote a paper on the Latvian government's language policy for one of my classes, and in the end, interviews with Latvian government workers and ordinary Latvians were far more valuable than anything I could have found in libraries or language labs. I was, of course, handicapped by the fact that I couldn't understand them in Latvian, unless they simply said "I like/don't like the government's language policy." But many Latvians are native Russian speakers, and for those who aren't, Russian is generally a much stronger second language than English. Though some of those I interviewed in Russian could undoubtedly have answered in English, it wasn't their first language and it wasn't the fabric of their thoughts: anything they told me in English would have been translated, filtered. I interviewed them in Russian because I knew that it's the most complicated ideas--and often the most interesting ones--that lose the most in translation.

Among members of my host family, the older brother, Arturs, was most adamant that I learn Latvian. His favorite trick was to use my name in a sentence, letting me know loud and clear that he was talking about me, and then refuse to translate what he was saying. This wasn't the most effective pedagogy I encountered during my time in Latvia: it's difficult to remember new words when you don't know what they mean. Still, I appreciated the sentiment behind his actions--if he had simply spoken English, I would have lost out on learning a fair amount of Latvian slang and idioms--the things they leave out in language classes. (Fortunately, other family members had no qualms about translating what Arturs said, and if no one else was around, he would usually give in after a few minutes of my begging.) I seek to learn foreign languages not because they come in handy in a practical sense--although there are certainly cases where they do--but because they provide a window into another culture. And these nuances make themselves heard even in everyday, practical settings like the Internet café.

Did I become fluent in Latvian in four months? Of course not. Nor is it easy to see how the language might be useful to me later in life, unless I return to Latvia to live or study a specifically Latvia-related topic in the United States. But that was all the more motivation for me to pick up as much as I could during my mini-semester in Riga. I knew I'd have little to no motivation to learn more once I got back, beyond the satisfaction such learning would provide my 90-year-old grandmother. And for all the frustrations and limitations of my brief immersion in Latvian, there were those saving moments of clarity in which the benefits were more than obvious--the moments when I could suddenly understand a newspaper headline, a sentence in a Latvian-language church sermon, or a poster on display at a museum, grasping a lesson that can't be provided by simple translation.

Though some Americans certainly conform to the international stereotype of American ethnocentrism, neglecting to care about any language or culture other than our own, there are plenty of us who want more. So, all you foreigners out there--and I know you can read this, because I've heard how well you speak English--please don't speak English with me when you see me. Do native English-speakers a favor and make them speak your language instead. If you indulge in a little of your own ethnocentrism, you might just make it necessary for some of those conceited Americans to learn your language. At the very least, you'll make it possible.

Read more articles by Elizabeth Gudrais

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