Tuesday, January 18, 2011


I really love having native speakers of Spanish in my classes. It's so rewarding to have them come up to me during the first week of class to ask where I am from and to see their astonishment when I respond that I'm from Ukraine. "But how is it possible?" they ask. "How come your Spanish is so perfect?" Learning Spanish is my greatest achievement, the one I'm proud of the most. English is not the same because learning it is not really my achievement. It's my father's.

Since I was little, my father kept telling me, "The most important thing for a woman is to have a profession, to be able to make a good living. Then, you won't have to wait for some guy to choose you. You will be choosing yourself. You will never have to put up with anything you don't like if you are independent financially." So he set out to give me and later my sister the most marketable skill he could think of in the country where we were born: the knowledge of a foreign language.

Foreign language learning in the Soviet Union was nothing short of pathetic. It still is in the countries of the former Soviet Union. My father miraculously taught himself English in an environment where there were no English-speakers for him to talk to, no television in English, and a dearth of reading material in the language. I don't know how he managed to learn to speak so perfectly but he did. Even today, I have a stronger accent in English than he does because he simply has none. (I know more slang words in English, though, so we are kind of even.) In order to teach his daughters, my father decided to speak to us only in English. Until today, he has not said a single word in Russian to my sister. This was an incredible sacrifice because the effort to speak a foreign language on a daily basis in a total lack of a language community is incredible.

This was also a venture that often bothered on being dangerous. When I was 9, my father took me to the beach on vacation. We rented a room from a nice lady who rented rooms in her house to a bunch of vacationers. Every night, my father got me to read a chapter from Winnie the Pooh in English and then discussed it with me. One day, however, our landlady complained. "I can't have people talking foreign languages at all hours of the night," she said. "What will people think?" For obvious reasons, speaking English was often seen as an indication that one was engaging in subversive activities. There was another danger to speaking English in public in a fiercely anti-semitic society. "Look, these people are speaking Jewish!" my father would hear when he talked in English to my sister on a bus.

Who could have possibly imagined how useful this knowledge of English would be to us in the future?


Clarissa said...

Aren't we a beautiful family? :-)

Lennin said...

Me gustaría escuchar ese español del que presumes tanto ;-)

Clarissa said...

Que gusto ver a un hispanohablante aqui! De verdad que te impresionaria mucho mi dominio tan perfecto del idioma. :-)

A ver si pongo un podcast aqui en el blog un dia de estos.

David said...

Cuando pienso en el proceso de aprender un idioma nuevo, creo que es muy parecido a un viaje eterno.

Aunque no tengo tiempo ahora para practicar (y no conozco amigos hispanohablantes en mi ciudad) voy a seguir aprendiendo poco a poco. Un día, quisiera regresar a España y vivir allí por unos años.

Basically, I think we're never too old or too young to pick up new languages. I thought I was a complete musical klutz, but I decided to pick up the guitar recently. I also think that learning instruments and music theory is very much like learning languages. You'd have to live a thousand years before you'd learn every little thing. I think that is why I liken it to a never-ending process. I know I'm a hopeless nerd for saying this, but: learning is cool.

Clarissa said...

Pero sera posible? Ahora resulta que todo el mundo aqui habla el castellano! :-) :-) Usted habla muy bien, David. Estoy super impresionada.

P.S. Why doesn't the stupid platform allow me to insert diacritics?

FD said...

Did you get the BBC World Service by any chance? I have heard several stories of people using it teach themselves English pronunciation, and indeed have met one gentleman from the Gambia as was who had done so, and had the most perfect RP accent.

I've always wistfully wished I had more of an innate facility for languages - every little bit of the little bit I have was a hideously hard slog.

Anonymous said...

I cannot believe your father managed to speak to you in a foreign language. What a strong will!
I try my very best to speak a foreign language I know very, very well to my baby, but it does not come natural at all.