Sunday, December 22, 2013

Книги в огне - Books on Fire

Hi everyone,

If you don't speak Russian, please skip the first paragraph.

Мои дорогие Pусские Друзья! Мне стоило бы извиниться перед Вами. Может быть, эта история не очень Вас порадует. Откровенно говоря, двадцать три года тому назад я не любил русский язык. И я со своими друзьями откровенно это демонстрировал. Как мы это делали? Сейчас Вы это увидите.  

I had to begin this entry with some Russian words to my Russian readers. Why? Because this story might not seem very nice for them. Maybe some might think that I don’t like the Russian language. This was true many years ago. Now, I do love the Russian language. In my opinion it’s beautiful. Why am I writing an entry about the Russian language in my blog? Using this story, I would like to explain how bad methods and exercise books can cause trouble for students. 

I grew up in communism. When I spent some months in the States, I got several questions about it. Many people in the world learned about communism only through schoolbooks. To meet someone who lived in communism was an extraordinary experience for the people I met in the States. I got several questions from these people and I loved to answer them.

During communism, students in elementary schools, high schools, colleges, and universities were forced to learn Russian. I’m convinced that the main problem wasn’t the fact that we had to learn Russian; the greatest problems were actually created by the awkward books and their topics. Who is really interested in the life of Lenin  – communist leader during the Great October Socialist Revolution of Russia in 1917  – or the Worldwide Victory of Communism? I clearly remember one sentence from these books: “The budget spent on the military of the United States of America would be enough to overcome world poverty”. Yeah, this statement might be true, but why didn't the author mention the Soviet Union's budget spent on non-military uses and the Warsaw Pact. In our books, there were only a few words written about the people of Russia or their lives.

I graduated from high school in 1986. Then I had an adventurous period in my life which is not relevant here, and so I began college two years later. It was so funny because some guys who I had helped in high school were one year behind me and then, in college, they got one year ahead of me and helped me out in return.

On the very first day of the first semester in the college in 1988, we had our first Russian class. Before forming smaller groups, the leader teacher of the language department gave all new students a short presentation about the requirements, targets and so forth. At the end of her speech, she asked if there was anyone who graduated from high school two years or more ago. There were only two guys, including me. She turned to me and said, “Having been accepted into college, you’ve refreshed yourself in your knowledge of Russian, haven’t you?” I was surprised. What? Is it serious? I began to ask myself if this was a college of finance or a college of Russian language. I answered, “Sorry, after I got accepted I still had to work and I left my office just two days ago. I had no time to refresh myself in anything.” She began to yell at me. “What were you thinking? You’d better to leave this college at once because I’m sure you can’t meet our high requirements.” I replied, “I didn't take the entrance exam for this college just so I would be kicked out on the first day because of my so called lack of knowledge in Russian.” Luckily I wasn’t put into her group. My teacher was from Russia and was married to a Hungarian guy. We had to work a lot because she was very, very, very strict, but I didn’t feel I was at any disadvantage due to my two year break in my Russian studies. I wasn’t among the best, but I knew enough to get B or B+. 

The topics in the book still remained awkward: ‘Council for Mutual Economic Assistance’  (economic organization of communist countries) or ‘Advantages of Communist Economic Policy’ (Why? Did it have any?). Our Russian teachers tried to make their lectures more interesting, but we really couldn't become interested. We gave equal importance to the Russian language and the communist regime. That’s why when I passed the final exam in Russian at the end of the second semester, it was a great relief. I got a B. Hurray! “Russian language, never more!” we shouted, putting our exercise books in a great fire in the backyard of our students’ hostel. We had permission to use a camp fire for the purpose of cooking, but probably not for the burning of our Russian books.

The story didn’t end at this point. Not much later, communism failed and a new era began in my country. Once I met Russian tourists and, at that point, I realized that I understood everything they said. My teacher was very effective. I found out that the Russian language is very nice and it is not the language of the communism, but the language of a great and proud nation. I began to learn Russian again because I wanted to, not because I was forced to do so. I had great teachers and they gave me interesting activities, such as reading a news article about the internet in Russian. It was the first time I saw the word internet in my life (in 1994). There was a period when my Russian was better than my English. I still like and understand Russian, but unfortunately I forgot a lot. Maybe one day I can refresh myself in Russian, but now I will concentrate on English.

Gardeniafly was kind to review my entry again.  She is not searching new students anymore. But I can recommend someone else, or you can visit Italki.

Gardeniafly’s comment:
Sometimes, having a bad experience when learning a language can discourage a person from continuing that language. It's important that, if you do have a bad experience, you try to separate this experience from the language itself. Just because you have one bad experience, doesn't mean that you'll continue having bad experiences in this language. If any reader of this blog has had a negative experience in learning English, please feel free to contact me on italki and I'll try to convince you that English is actually fun!

I also would like to thank Evgeniya for reviewing the Russian sentences. Большое спасибо!

Next entry will be  published on Thursday - Special Christmas passage.




  1. I would like to write my comment in English but it is too difficult for me. I can read, but to write or speak is a problem for me. Why? Because of the same reason - very bad language education in soviet schools. So, in Russian:

    Я очень хорошо вас понимаю. Правда, я учил английский язык в советской школе, и ситуация была немного другой. Английский был "вражеским" языком. С одной стороны, у нас не было и не могло быть учителей из США или Англии - все учителя в советских школах были выпускниками советских же вузов. При этом они сами никогда не были за границей и не слышали настоящего живого языка. Читать английские газеты мы тоже не могли (железный занавес, помните?), поэтому учили английский язык по газетам "Moscow news" и школьным учебникам, содержание которых было таким же, как в ваших учебниках русского. Естественно, о жизни в США, об американской или британской культуре, кино и музыке мы ничего не знали и не могли знать. Можно ли изучать язык любого народа отдельно от его культуры? Думаю, нет. Неудивительно, что почти никто в СССР по английски говорить не умел и не хотел, а читать умели лишь единицы. Сейчас ситуация меняется, но очень медленно... Причем часто студенты, которые учат английский в Интернете и общаются с иностранными друзьями через Скайп, знают язык намного лучше, чем их преподаватели в университете. Для многих профессоров до сих пор основным источником лексики являются словари и справочники 60-х годов издания. Иногда эти "преподаватели" только мешают учить язык, вбивая в головы студентов никому не нужные устаревшие правила и выражения...
    Только когда я начал учиться самостоятельно, я понял, как легко и приятно учить иностранный язык, погружаться в культуру другого народа - без принуждения, без политической пропаганды и вражды. Это совершенно другой подход, который дает фантастические результаты!

    1. Translation:
      Yes, I can understand you very well. I learned the language at Soviet school, when the situation was slightly different. The English language was referred to as a "language of the enemy". There weren't teachers whose native language was English, from the US or UK, just because there couldn't be. All teachers at Soviet schools were Soviet institutions graduates. They had never been abroad and had never heard the true, live language. English newspapers were also prohibited to read (iron curtain, you know...) so we learned the language using local newspapers (e.g. "Moscow news") and text books, which contained the same your Russian text books contained. Of course, we didn't know and we couldn't know anything about the life in the USA, about the American or British culture, their movies and music. Can you learn a foreign language separately from the culture of the country? I don't think so. No wonder, almost no one in Russia could speak English. Neither did they wanted to speak. Also very few people could read in English. Now the situation is slowly changing. Sometimes students who learn English online and talk to their partners and friends abroad via Skype, manage to know English better than their uni teachers. Many profs still use only dictionaries and reference books issued in 60s for their vocabulary. Sometimes these "teachers" only hinder the process of learning by getting obsolete phrases and rules into the heads of their students.
      Only when I started to learn the language on my own, I understood that it is easy and nice, to learn a language, to immerse into the culture of a foreign nation, without compulsion, without political propahanda and hostility. It is quite a different method, which provides fantastic result!

      Translator's notes:
      The "enemy language" was actually German, not English. Because during the WW2 years the whole Russian nation took Germans as the eternal enemy, because during the period thousands and thousands of people started learning German to become military translators, but then, when the war was over, they were all suddenly dismissed and had to look for new, civilian fields to apply their language knowlege. So they became numerous teachers of German at schools, which was also inspired by the newly-born German Democratic Republic, which had very tight relationship with the USSR in terms of trade, economy, politics, etc. We had also French and English at schools. School administration decided which language to teach to the students. As for English, yes, we didn't have many authentic stuff. Books, media, text books and other things, they all were quite rare, compared to those for the German language. But we did have the disks and then tapes of John Lennon, Louis Armstrong and other singers and bands, we did have the books and other stuff. They were hard to find but they were here. I, myself, have also been learning English by myself, after a false-start with English at a uni and 10-years studying of German at school. I had English at university, but as I graduated I forgot it immediately and I hardly could understand English writing, let alone to write myself or speak in English. I couldn't understand spoken the language, movies and songs. That's why I call it a false-start. When I came to a decision to learn English I started to learn it online, with the help of my American friends and online sources.
      And yes, I can also say that learning a language can be fun! It actually is~!

    2. Thanks for your interesting comment. I really enjoyed it to read. Sorry it was too long and (not me) cut out the end. :( I am so sorry.

  2. Thanks for the comments. I summarize briefly: In the Soviet Union the teaching of languages wasn't good. Is it possible to learn the language of any nation apart from his culture? He/she thinks not. The situation is changing because of internet (Skype). But old teachers teach outdated, old expressions. After beginning to learn by him/herself he/she realized how fun the language learning can be. This is a completely different approach , which gives fantastic results !

    Nice thoughts, and completely right. Thank you! Спасибо!

  3. :) wow, i really enjoyed reading your story !
    thank you a lot for sharing us your experience !

  4. Thank you for your comments. :)