Maybe you’ll never learn a new language

One of the biggest challenges about moving to Kyrgyzstan (other than finding a reliable supply of powdered sugar) has been the language barrier. I’ve never been to a place where so little English is known or used among the locals, definitely an after-effect of the Soviet Union. I barely glanced at a Russian lesson before arriving here, but I knew that if I didn’t achieve anything else here in Bishkek, I would at least pick up enough Russian to have easy conversations with people I meet.

And, oh boy, do I still have a long way to go.

But, I know, I just know I’m making progress. I just finished an intense semester of Russian language study, and the most significant lesson I’ve picked up on is this:

Maybe learning a new language isn’t for everyone. When do you cut your losses and give up?

It’s harsh, but I’m a total cynic anyway.

Learning a second (or third, or fourth) language is something that I always see on people’s “bucket lists”; they make a promise to themselves that before they die, they’ll be able to effortlessly converse in _____. And it always seems like the more languages a person wants to learn, the less they really understand about the work that goes in to studying languages.

So, to all the people who would just love to learn French, Spanish, Thai, Sign Language, and Klingon before you die: do you really know what it takes?

In my class of five, two people studied the language for a year before I met them. One year. I didn’t even know how to pronounce the word for hello, здравствуйте, when I came to Bishkek, and now, after four more months of absolute, rock-bottom beginner’s level Russian class, I can admit with confidence that I have a better knowledge of Russian than they do.

One of them has been consistently bogged down with a more-than-full course load during their studies, but the other person, in my cynical opinion, lacks any true understanding of the language, and their presence and constant confusion ended up significantly slowing the class’s overall progress.

Wah wah.

Don’t worry, I’ll throw myself under the bus as well. I recently wrote about spending three years (and countless dollars for credit hours and textbooks) to learn Arabic, even spending a semester abroad in Jordan, only to have forgotten a good chunk of it already, constantly pushing an Arabic word (كلمة ) out of my head for each new Russian one (слово) that I shove in. My own zero-sum game with vocabulary.

Oh, and have I mentioned French? I studied French for six years in high school and college. A couple weeks ago I shared a cab with a Frenchman and could barely spit out the phrase “I studied French in high school.”

Learning a language is a full-time job. It takes constant effort and a decent understanding of grammar and construction.

You need aptitude, too. Despite the message us millenials have been brought up to believe, it takes more than believing in something to accomplish it. If after three semesters you still can’t grasp basic principles of pronunciation, why continue? Not everybody can perform heart surgery. Not everybody can play guitar. Not everybody can learn a second language.

And even more important than having an actual aptitude for learning the language, you need a purpose to motivate you. More than just writing #58 on your bucket list about how much you’d love to dabble in Latin, more than just convincing friends, family, and readers that you’re really passionate about achieving what you set your mind to. You need a real reason.

My reason? Well, I’m going to live in a Russian-speaking city for the next few years; I need to communicate по-русски, or else I will never get a fair price for a kilo of potatoes.