It’s a little bit surprising to look at the calendar and think that half of my first semester in Vladivostok is already gone. Seven weeks seem to have effortlessly drifted by in strict contention with my own efforts at learning the Russian language.
I can say that my knowledge of Russian when I arrived in Vladivostok was remarkably limited. But the progress that I already look back on is fantastic, and the advantages of learning by immersion are huge: I live with a Russian roommate, all of my Russian professors are loath to utter even a word in English, and I walk past literally hundreds of Russian people each day, hearing bits and pieces of conversations on every topic imaginable. However, it takes continual effort to actually make the most use of these great resources.
This usually means trying to strike up a conversation, even when I don’t exactly know what I’m going to say. These encounters can happen anywhere. My dorm’s kitchen is a great place, but it can just as easily happen on the street or at a supermarket. After I do initiate a conversation, inevitably the moment comes when I have no idea what they are trying to convey. It’s like a miniature explosion going off in my mind. What to say next?!
“Could you repeat that?”
Change the subject and talk about the weather?
Say «так» and look pensive to buy myself more time?
Back in reality, my conversations are usually short, hesitating and most end eventually with «Я не понимаю» (I do not understand). Ending conversations this way always has the beguiling taste of failure. Instinctively, my brain tells me that I should avoid what I continually fail, and feel good about escaping from the awkward situation at hand.
But awkward conversations are part of what I signed up for–a lot of them. So why take pleasure in retreat? I try to make up my mind several times each day that failure is not how my instincts fool me; rather, failure is not trying at all.
In time, I have no doubt that I will become more comfortable starting new conversations as my proficiency increases. But for the time being, I constantly try to remind myself of the opportunity at hand rather than my apprehension.