A nation of practice partners

My language teacher’s strategy paid dividends in Russia.

Vincent Yu/AP/File
A train station in Vladivostok, far eastern Russia, the terminus for the Trans-Siberian Railway.

With a jolt, the Trans-Siberian train leaves Moscow’s Yaroslavsky Station. I stare out the window at a snowstorm and wonder if I’m the only idiot traveling to Siberia in winter. Probably. Seven days and 5,778 miles in this empty second-class cabin: What have I done?

Seconds later, a 50-something blond woman in a sable hat saunters in.

I struggle to conceal my delight.

While she shoves her luggage under the seat, my mind drifts back to the previous week in Washington and my final lesson with Boris Shekhtman, who has been called the world’s best Russian teacher.

“What do you see when you see a Russian person?” he asked. “A victim! You see a victim!” he said, his eyes growing huge.

Turning strangers into unwitting language-practice partners was key to my goal of connecting with everyone from babushkas to businessmen here.

“Svetlana” would be my first victim. 

Russia first stirred my imagination in childhood with its ballerinas, blizzards, and onion-domed cathedrals. Who were these exotic people of the “Evil Empire”?  

I studied Russian in college. But after graduation in 1989, confidence in my skills crumbled as quickly as the Berlin Wall. On travels to Moscow, my flawed attempts to chat with locals introduced me to Russian pathos better than any Chekhov play could have. I would begin hopefully, stumble, become self-conscious, then make more mistakes. Meanwhile, their polite curiosity would turn to interrogation, leaving me speechless.

“This is typical,” Boris said. “You need strategies to control conversation. Russian is the easiest language in the world.”

His method averts communication breakdowns through prepared responses and brief monologues. In short, calculated verbosity.

First, we drilled commands, pleasantries, and survival phrases. I learned how to maintain the conversational initiative and use colloquialisms, like “no problem” (nichevo strashnevo), to create a relaxed atmosphere.

But the cornerstone is the conversational monologue, or “island.” Think “elevator pitches” on topics such as family or hobbies. Islands give the appearance of higher fluency and can lure others into conversation, keep it flowing, or allow one to go on autopilot when weary. Memorized and polished to perfection, islands contain level-appropriate grammar and vocabulary. Even novices can use them.

Back on the train, Svetlana and I exchange pleasantries. Emboldened, I launch my opening salvo:

“I’m from Washington, D.C. My apartment isn’t far from the White House, where President Obama and his family live. We have wonderful parks and museums. Of course the traffic is awful, as in Moscow, but it’s a pleasant city ...” 

Svetlana does not yawn or reach for a book, but listens attentively. She asks questions. I try more islands on music, travel, and friendship.

“You speak Russian so well. Perhaps you are a shpionka [spy],” she jokes.

I learn that Svetlana’s an economist from Omsk, speaks French, loves tennis, and hates Moscow. But then I miss a word, then an entire sentence. What on earth is she talking about? Grain prices? The Tunguska event?

Prosteetye, pazhalsta [Excuse me],” I say. “The scent of pierogies distracted me. Would you repeat that?”

She does, and I still can’t get the gist.

Boris’s voice echoes in my head: Switch subjects! I attempt to hide my limitations and keep the conversation alive with a transition phrase.

Interesno [Interesting],” I say. “That reminds me of romantic relationships.”

It’s a non sequitur but Svetlana bites.

When other conversational problems arise, I’m prepared to slow her down or get a synonym. With subtle interruptions and questions, I maintain control.

We’re still chatting an hour later when tea arrives. Boris would be proud.

Shortly after I’d first arrived in Moscow, the situation in Ukraine had worsened. Foreign tourists were scarce. Friends and family worried: How would Russians treat me?

Perhaps it’s the novelty of a Russian-speaking American that disarmed them, but I found the noted warmth and dark humor of ordinary Russians.

Pensioners, Millennials, laborers, and professionals shared their snacks and their thoughts on politics, Hollywood, the economy – and Ukraine. Russians were curious about life in the United States and how Americans view them, as they so often feel misunderstood by the West. 

As I scribble a new island to address frequently asked questions, I realize that in sharing his method, Boris has helped me glimpse the elusive Russian soul.

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