Forgetfulness and the Foreign Tongue

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, AC Study Abroad programs were held virtually during Summer 2020.

Although I have lived a substantive portion of my post-college years in various countries around the world, even now I tend to take for granted the way our mind exists in flux when adjusting to a new country, language, or context. This concept in relation to language in particular inexorably asserts itself during the summer months I spend each year in St. Petersburg and Moscow. I am always in awe of not only the amount of language my brain has latently retained but also how quickly the language supplants English, creating a kind of linguistic amnesia and alterity that seems to reveal the stranger within the self.

Quotidian words and phrases soon make the leap from English to Russian, to the extent that when I speak to friends and family back home, I invariably need to take a moment – “wait, how do you say that again?” This internal refashioning becomes all the more evident the longer I am away, particularly as my sole mode of communication is, of course, Russian. Even following my return Stateside, there is invariably a several-week transition period away from this linguistic stranger toward that which I would call my everyday self. For the first few weeks, my instantaneous response, at least internally, to any question or event that arises begins from my foreign tongue and not the native. At present, the question remains: “why is this concept relevant during the COVID era and that of online learning?”

During the previous semester, I participated in several graduate seminars that were forced onto Zoom due to the virus, which could be described as an e-baptism by fire. For anyone reading this in the age of Zoom meetings, courses, and get-togethers, it is safe to assume that the challenges associated with this type of learning and communication are now self-evident, like the lassitude brought about staring at an unmoving screen for hours on end. Accordingly, I, while excited, was quite apprehensive about beginning the online RLASP program, particularly as so much of the efficacy of a language program depends on absolute immersion in relation to the target language. Yet, to my surprise, after several weeks of navigating the Zoom wilderness, I have once again begun to notice those supernal moments of linguistic amnesia and otherness.

It seems that this internal change is truly adamantine and indomitable – once again, my internal dialogue and immediate response to the external made the transition to that of the otherness of the foreign tongue. While it necessarily operates in an altered form, due to the fact that I am unable to be in country, the effect is nonetheless as jarring (and welcomed) as it is 4,000 miles away from home. In a step toward the meta-referential, even now as I am making the finishing touches to this essay, I have sat in a stupefied state of forgetfulness for several minutes in a failed attempt to remember one single word. What that word is still alludes me, but I am sure once this internal, linguistic stranger recedes, it will reveal itself once again.

(An addendum from several hours later): I still cannot remember. Help.

By: Samuel Driver

Program: Advanced Russian Language & Area Studies Program

Term: Summer 2020

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