When I first came to Saint Petersburg, I was absolutely overwhelmed. I came from a casual four hours of Russian a week, in which Russian wasn’t mandatory when speaking. I knew what I was about to begin would not be easy, and like all other language-lovers, the academic challenge was exciting for me.
We all argue with ourselves that we will put in the extra work every day, do our homework with 120% commitment, and learn ahead. The odds of that happening are much, much lower, and a bitter pill to swallow for many immersion students. I would argue that while we know what the perfect formula is to learn a language, we are not likely to follow such a strict regime, as we are human and not robotic dictionaries. Finding a balance between pushing to learn everything at once and doing the minimum work is crucial. Without balance, there are only two outcomes: wasting the time and privilege to obtain knowledge, or language fatigue from pushing too hard. Burning out sooner is just as damaging to the ability to learn. That being said, I was not a model student at first. I barely spoke, because I had no clue how to say what I needed to say, and instead stuck my head in my notebooks, hoping to memorize a weak skeleton of Russian so that I could at least stumble through the every-day necessities. I reached a point in which I had convinced myself that I was never going to understand what was happening in class, so the only way was to reteach myself everything and rewrite all of the classwork every day. I lasted a mere three weeks with this practice.
I ended up extremely upset in my grammar class, and unreceptive to the lesson. My teacher was kind, skipping lunch to speak about classes, and reminded me of a very important point to remember: being a good student is putting effort in. Not understanding fully is part of that process. Asking questions in class, even when the other students understand the concept is also part of the process. My resident director reminded me of another poignant viewpoint; as a language learner, everyone in the classroom is, has been, or will be at the same point of understanding that you are at. That was my first taste of the bitter pill of balance and recognizing how to successfully learn a language.
My second lesson came much later in the semester. As classes progressed, I recognized my mind wandering, and my will to glean as much as I could was gone. I was, to put it simply, tired. There comes a point in immersion in which all you want is to be able to go outside and understand everything around you, and the frustration at the smallest things tends to catch up within the classroom. My way to combat that was to take a step back. In my hardest class, literature, I was struggling to follow the lectures. I began to quell my frustration at every word that I did not recognize, and instead wrote every one of those words down. The first time I did this, I wrote over a hundred words in an hour, and it was extremely frustrating. However, I was able to go back and try to translate and recognize these words, and over time, it has been a good way to relax my brain without losing my train of thought. On a bad day, fatigue can prevent the reception of knowledge, and pushing through does not always work. By taking a step back and redirecting my frustration into a task, I was able to continue to be productive in class.
Learning a language, let alone Russian, is extremely hard. Few students are capable of being successful in an immersion program without having a passion for learning. Fortunately, American Councils has managed to obtain resident directors and teachers that are highly receptive and supportive to the students. I absolutely enjoy learning Russian, and the challenge to do so is both exciting and frustrating at times. Without my resident director and my teachers, I do not think I would have been capable of finding my personal balance for learning. I have definitely struggled with language fatigue. I came to the immersion with less Russian than the other students, and I struggled with confidence in the language. I am leaving in less than a month, and I know I am leaving with many new skill sets, as well as an itinerary for my next immersion, all thanks to the support American Councils gave.
By: Meighan Winner
Program: Russian Language & Area Studies, St. Petersburg
Term: Spring 2019