Friday 22 October 2021

Fourth Language

When we came home from our holiday in England, I wrote down all the languages for which I have study materials and worked out which ones I use most. I have several kits, lined up like a firing squad, that stare at me accusingly from my desk. 

Deep, deep down, I know that I should get through all 100 lessons of Assimil's German, for German is a family language, spoken recreationally by my parents. 

And I also have Assimil's Spanish because some time ago Benedict Ambrose voiced a desire to go to Spain instead of Italy for once. 

I have Assimil's Ancient Greek, too, but I think we can all agree that finishing this right now would not be practical.  

For some reason, I don't have Assimil's French, even though, as a Canadian with family in Quebec, I really should recover and improve my French. Half my Christmas list comprises people who are fluent in French. French would be even more practical than German. I really should get back to French. French, French, French.

But I have had Teach Yourself's Get Started in Russian on my desk, and it has worked itself subliminally into my consciousness. Fellow language nerds tell me that Russian is a snap compared to Polish, and my buddy is marrying a Russian-American, so someone on her side of the aisle should really give a short speech in the language as a since of good will ....

And then of course my neighbourhood back home has long since been Russified, which reminds me of an amusing story about my mother.

About a thousand years ago, around 1987, my youngest brother would play with the neighbourhood kids. Many were Jewish and sometimes Russian-speaking to boot. (Nowadays there are as probably as many Christian, or post-Christian, Russians as Russian Jews around, but this was not so in the 1980s.) Anyway, boys will be boys and quarrel as well as co-operate, and one of my brother's pals got into a snit and then on the kitchen phone to complain to his (the pal's) mother about my brother. 

He did this this in Russian, secure in the belief that our family was as Anglo, white and boring as supermarket bread, parboiled rice, and mashed potatoes, all of which he could have eaten at our house, and one of which my mother was probably preparing for dinner as the boy complained about her son into the phone across the room. 

"Now is that really true?"snapped my mother, or something similar, in Russian, and my brother's pal dropped the receiver. 

I was not there, but in my mind's eye, I can see him jump. Little did he know that my mother had studied Russian in both high school and university, presumably to become a spy. (She also studied German, which made for a super cover story when she went to Germany shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, allegedly to work in a nursing home. She denies to this day that she was a spy.)

As it happens, I learned my first Russian phrases at my mother's knee. The first was "Иван идет на фабрику," Ivan goes to the factory, and the second was (roughly), "Здравствуйте, человек, купите мне пива," which I believed meant Hi, boys, buy me a beer. It's not quite as grammatical as that, I now know thanks to my new best friend DeepL Translate

Studying Russian is much easier now than then, for now after I finish work I can just go to YouTube and  entertain myself with training materials like this little video, whose soundtrack sounds suspiciously like it was produced by the American military back when Mum was sent to went to Germany. The "Okay, fellas, thanks for your time," is pretty much a giveaway. 

My mother claims she never got as far in Russian as she did in German and French. She used to knit while reading through massive nineteenth century novels in both languages, which is just as impressive as it sounds, and must have come in useful for code writing (or code knitting) while spying in Berlin.  All the same, she seems interested when I told her about my progress last night

"До свидания," she said as we signed off on Skype.

"Do svidanija," I replied.  


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