“Я сам” (“I am myself”). That’s what I said to my barista this morning when, after months of serving my coffee, he asked me my name. Did I mean to say this? No. Did he laugh? Yes, along with everyone who heard it. To be sure, it is a very laughable answer to a commonplace question. After all, I had addressed him by name, having read the nametag on his apron. I think he needed a good laugh this morning, and I gave him the right opportunity. I meant to say “Я Сэм” (I am Sam), having been too busy waking up to pronounce the proper phrase “меня зовут Сэм” (“my name is Sam”).
I left the coffee shop, gratefully sipping on my large Americano on a brisk morning as I walked along the backside of Kazansky Sobor. I looked up to find ominous, dark clouds, realizing that at this season, rain would be more likely than snow. And that’s when it struck me—after all the effort I’ve spent on Russian, I manage to err on introducing myself!
It’s often been said that language immersion is a humbling experience. My Resident Director imagines it like a fishbowl. We, the fish, mindfully float through life, entirely surrounded from every side by a new culture. Taking on a new culture is itself daunting and overwhelming but taking on its language certainly brings with it an entirely different set of challenges.
It is important to come to peace with the fact that no matter the accuracy of my grammar and the precision of my words or intonations, there will likely remain a better way of expressing the same idea. Feedback and correction, no matter how welcomed, may always also carry a sense of disappointment. Yet I think it is also important for any student entering a language immersion environment to learn to save themselves the frustration and sense of failure by holding tightly to such correction, by cradling every new word like a new treasure, and by creating exciting ways to practice.
Language immersion continually challenges me to rest in the successes, big and small, and in evidence of personal improvement, rather than to dwell on failures. It has caused me to reconsider my understanding of failure fundamentally—that is, to find comfort in being overwhelmed with grammar, to take challenges step by step, and enjoy each one in turn.
This principle I’ve learned applies not only to language learning, but to life. Dwelling on failure is only pursuant of failure. Finding peace in not being the best, finding joy in a process, keeping your eyes focused on the goal—these are lessons for every part of life. If I could advise future students, I’d tell them: don’t box Russian language learning into a semester, but rather stick with it. You may find with time that it teaches you lessons you never expected.
By: Samuel McKnight
Program: Russian Language & Area Studies, St. Petersburg
Term: Spring 2019