Easy for Tolstoy, but not for me

"Why are you studying Russian?" asks each new acquaintance I make in St. Petersburg.

"I am studying Russian," I confess, "because I love Tolstoy."

"Ah."

"I read all books by Tolstoy – books in English," I say in ungrammatical Russian, "and I want to read in books Tolstoy wrote only Russian."

In spite of the bad grammar, for once no one corrects me. My noble plan usually receives a nod of encouragement.

In my four-hour sessions with Albina, a young, earnest university lecturer, I, an English professor who has been teaching half my life, am not one of those cheerful, bright students who never misses a trick; who has revelations at each clever explanation the teacher offers; and who never slumps his shoulders in despair at the unexpected twists, back flips, and booby traps of Russian grammar.

No, in spite of Albina's talent as a teacher, in spite of how well she has assessed my deficiencies, and in spite of how well she paraphrases simple Russian into simpler Russian, I wince and shake my head, about to weep with frustration when she asks if now I understand about reflexive verbs.

Only a foundering student would resort to philosophical questions at such a moment. And so I think, "What is 'understanding' anyway? Is it knowing? Is it a blurry image? Is it being able to distinguish colors or shades? Depth? Is it having a vague idea?"

At best I have a vague idea, but I don't think I understand, and after a several-moment pause, during which my teacher patiently waits, I admit I'm still in the dark: "Izvenitiya, Albina! Ya yesho ni punimaiyu!" ("I'm sorry, Albina, I still don't get it!")

We sit in a seminar room at the school by ourselves because I have come for two weeks during the Russian holidays that extend from just before New Year's through a couple of days after Russian Christmas (Jan. 7).

Albina takes her job seriously; she keeps me at it, hour after hour, with a break for tea. She does not scold me for my bad pronunciation and poor grammar. She corrects me, but is not stern. She knows that American students expect cheerful encouragement, not annoyed shaming.

Even so, I am amazed when we spend 15 minutes one afternoon on my pronunciation of the Russian letter "x." The sound of it is touched here and there, corrected inside-outside, knocked a little to the left, further back to the right – now with even less "k" and more "h," then with smoother aspiration. I feel like the wrong substance for a sculptor. I won't or can't hold the shape I have been knocked into.

One day Albina tells me it's because I'm creative that I want to know why, for instance, the numbers 2, 3, and 4 are not plural in Russian grammar. I want to know why "to laugh" is reflexive but "to cry" is not.

I want to tell her it's not that I'm creative, it's that when I notice discrepancies in the few little things I do know, I feel frustrated because I realize, "Oh, no, there's something else I'm going to have to learn."

So when Albina says I'm a creative type and want to understand what I'm learning – when many students don't care about why, they just accept and learn the rules – I would like to protest. But I don't know how to say that I wish I was smart with languages and had that sticky substance those "accepting" people have that allows them to quickly pick up new words and grammar.

In my other lives as a professor and a father, I know – or pretend to know – what I'm talking about, but here I am unable to disguise my ignorance. Struggling with Russian, I keep thinking of my ESL students, in particular middle-aged Tatyana (I'm middle-aged, too), who, when she immigrated to the US and began studying English, suffered terrible humiliations at having to speak like a baby.

I speak like a baby in Russian. When, as a guest of my landlady, a teacher in St. Petersburg, I visit her school, the younger children are amazed at my ignorance. (An adult who can't speak Russian!) I say, answering a question about my own children back in New York City, "Schools ... my children ... good," not "My children's schools are good."

These Russian students pity me – and correct me. (Go anywhere else in the world and try to speak the language; the natives will smile and appreciate your effort. In Russia, you will be corrected from the dovetailed string of consonants right down to the feathered word endings!)

On my plane ride home via Helsinki, Finland, a mother with a baby looks back and sees me studying my Russian textbook. She sends her 5-year-old to me. He asks encouragingly and in loud, clear Russian, "You know Russian?"

"I know very little," I answer.

"[Incomprehensible.]"

I shake my head.

His mother calls out a suggestion to him.

"Do you know ..." and as if he's dealing with a 2-year-old, he points to his ear, his nose, his head.

He nods at my correct answers for "ear" and "nose," but when I offer "hair" for "head," he gently tugs a lock above my "ear" and corrects my pronunciation of hair. He leans in close and breaks the word into long, extended syllables: "Vollll-uh-SIH!" When I mispronounce that, he corrects me more loudly.

After a few more words, his mother tells him to ask me to teach him some English.

I point to his sweat shirt, on which is the image of a roaring lion. "Lyev," I say. "Li-on."

"L-yon."

"Li-on."

"Liyon."

"Lion."

"Lion."

"Good."

Learn a second language while you're young. You'll be glad you did.

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