Monday, April 29, 2013


It's an easy mistake to make, assuming that moving abroad means you'll quickly and painlessly become fluent in the local language. "The immersion method," they say, "it totally works." We all hear stories of people who were able to converse in Spanish like a pro after only a summer in Argentina. We all know someone who could speak impressive Norwegian after a semester studying abroad. And of course there's pop culture polyglottery and language hackers like Benny the Irish Polyglot, the man who claims that 3 months is enough to get conversational in languages like Mandarin.

I love Benny- he's an absolute inspiration in a world full of naysayers- but is it true? I doubt immersion is the absolute answer. If it were, there would be no Chinatowns. If it were, surely all expat wives would be fluent, as they are usually the ones dealing with shopping, education, doctors, and domestic engineering non-stop in the new language. Even 2 years of living with the locals as a Peace Corps Volunteer isn't always enough to get you there.

In the US I worked with the immigrant community. Many individuals would not be able to communicate in English, even after living in the country for more than 10 years. I would chalk it up to old age or lack of education in their native language or some other excuse as to why the language immersion method wasn't working for them... instead of realizing this: the method isn't a guarantee.

Now I realize that part of the issue is that you learn enough to get you to a level of survival, if anything.

If you don't need the language to survive, you probably don't need the language at all. Some people move abroad to no avail. Maybe it's because they surround themselves by their countrymen, shop in import shops, hang out with people who speak their language. When they return home they do so without any scraps of new language under their belt.

Others do learn some, but only just enough.

If "What cost apple?" is enough to make you understood, why on Earth would you ever put the effort into learning "How much does that apple cost?"

If "Я буду обратно" gets my point across, why would I suddenly start saying the infinitely more proper "Я вернусь" instead?

And friends can make it more difficult to improve. How often have you heard a foreign friend say something that's not quite right, but you congratulate them for trying in lieu of helping them improve? It's kind of like this:

Language learning is one of my favorite topics. Half the reason I've been teaching so long is to try to uncover the secret; why do some students improve in English almost effortlessly and others struggle so hard for such little returns? (And this is not even taking travel and immersion into consideration!)

When I first moved to Ukraine, after about 8 years of studying Russian off and on, people assured me that it would only be a matter of months before I was completely fluent instead of awkwardly conversational. It's been about 21 months now, and while my Russian is better, it's still not what everyone thought it would be. My friends are always trying to pinpoint the problem: "You need to have D speak to you in Russian." "You need to read books in Russian." The ideas go on and on. And I'm certainly not hiding out from the language. I have twice-weekly lessons with a strong-willed friend (her insistence eventually wore down my resistance :P), I had an Avon lady for a while to get more phone practice, and it's rare for the вахтаs downstairs to let a day go by without a big conversation about the trivialities of weather and the meaning of life. One of them even addresses me as родная (native) now. I can't tell if she's serious or if she's mocking me, haha.

All I can tell you is- learning a new language is like losing weight. Everyone wants to do it, few succeed, and even fewer succeed permanently. There are all kinds of magic formulas and devices but the true answer is just hard work and a serious lifestyle change. We should all be able to lose weight, we should all be able to learn a new language... but both things are rare enough occurrences for English speaker to inspire a tidal wave of motivational books and coaching programs, common sense be damned.
"I also ate my fitness trainer"
Okay, coming at last to the inspiration behind this post- this weekend I was glad that we don't all switch into a new language in a new country as automatically as switching the language on a keyboard, for this weekend we got to experience a bit of the Arabic-speaking world without even leaving the city.
Beirut, a middle eastern restaurant praised by many here in Kharkov.
My dear friend Omar, a native of Baghdad, invited D and I to join him at the restaurant pictured above.

We emerged from the Studentcheska metro station and found ourselves in a new world, a part of Kharkov I'd not yet experienced. Before us was a market filled with Arabic-speaking students and shop owners. Men called to us from nearly identical kebab stands, trying to entice us into trying a sharma wrap. Women stood guard over plastic slippers and dried fish. Suddenly a random friend of Omar's hailed us. Introductions and handshakes (for the men) were made before the friend rushed off to hit the gym. Omar navigated his way through the market, us trailing behind, until we came to the restaurant he'd chosen.

There was no menu. Instead, huge trays of food were in a buffet table at the entrance of the restaurant. A bowl of Turkish sweets sat out on an opposite counter, round and glazed and looking very appetizing. We deliberated over what to order. I sampled a cold veggie (later identified in Arabic as bamia, or okra) and asked for that over a plate of rice. D went for kebab and creamy soup. Omar acted as interpreter and the chef explained in guttural Arabic what each thing was, throwing in an occasional Russian word. Orders placed, we walked to the back of the small restaurant, past the large low booths, and sat ourselves at a table for four.
wall paneling 
TVs were on throughout the restaurant, showing first a Turkish soap opera and later lots of stern newscasts. Despite Ukraine's recent ban on smoking indoors, there was no shortage of cigarettes being smoked at the tables. A middle-aged man dined by himself while puffing on a hookah. In the corner, two students played backgammon.

And then the food came.

This plate of hummus and tahini was considered to be salad.
After eating Ukrainian-sized portions for so long, this was a true feast! At the end of the meal the chef, a Syrian man, came back to check on us, bringing with him these complimentary slushees.

It was an absolutely fantastic meal, accompanied by great conversation. It's rare that we travel outside of Kharkov and this felt like a vacation whose total travel time consisted of only a few metro stops!

Our departure involved more handshaking among the men. I gave the chef one of the few Arabic
phrases I know- شكرا (thank you) and he responded with a slight nod and a "Have fun!" in English. Before parting ways with Omar, he helped me find a shop to buy chickpeas. I'd had my eye out for a jar of these for ages. At the back of a narrow passageway and to the left, Omar found a teeny tiny shop, big enough for the shopkeeper + 3 customers. Floor to ceiling shelves were stocked with imported olive oils, assorted cans, and bags of dried chickpeas.
Walked away 40 uah poorer but with these!
So today, hooray for those who bring their language with them, for as language is preserved, culture is preserved (and quite possibly its tasty foods).

I think I'll go back soon. I'm still not sure about language immersion, but food immersion? Count me in!


  1. You know, I'm very interested in learning English, but do you know why? I wish I know it myself! I certainly don't need it for work, career or everyday life. I'm also not going to move abroad. My only guess is that using English I experience some different kind of consciousness and identity. For the same reason people use drugs! But in my case, I'm very glad I have this addiction!
    Speaking of immersion, I think, although living here for so long, you haven't experienced it yet. You speak English most of the time. Real immersion is when you have nobody to talk to in your native language. I think it should work this way. I would like to try it!
    I don't think I will ever get fluent in English, but I'm sure I will have life time pleasure to learn it! :)

    1. Timur, you have an incredible talent, whether through natural inclination or through development and hard work, I don't know, but you should definitely treasure it! Out of the hundreds of people I've met here who learn languages, only about 5 could possibly match your enthusiasm and skill.

  2. Katherine, this was a very interesting post. I'll very briefly follow it up in today's blog!

    1. Andrea, thanks for reading. I felt all confused by the end of the post, not even sure of what I meant anymore. Looking forward to reading your blog, as usual : ) Happy Easter!