“They were not words, they were sounds.

They were the only sounds she knew.”

I was listening to the reading of State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett, and a paragraph ended this way. Earlier in the paragraph is:

“She opened her mouth and cried out in Lakashi, the series of pitches she sincerely hoped she had remembered correctly.”

The way that Marina feels here is the way I felt on my first real immersion in Russia. I remember being in a post office and not knowing how to communicate that I wanted stamps to go to the USA, a fairly easy request to gesture, had I been creative at all. I didn’t believe that the sounds I had learned were communication yet, or even that there might be people waiting to understand whatever I might say.

Learning that Russian was a way to communicate didn’t happen until I was working as an aide in a school in Seattle during my last year of college. I had to call Russian-speaking parents to tell them that an outbreak of chicken pox had closed the school for the week. The resulting conversations (starting mostly with the question of why I spoke Russian so badly, since they assumed I was an emigre) were what finally turned whatever lever it was in my brain that told me I could really use this language to connect with other human beings.

Marina is in an unusual situation in the Amazon, but part of me wonders why she doesn’t already know the simple phrases she needs to use after several months. “I have” and “Give me” are two of the HF structures that I hope my students acquire within the first month of CI/TPRS.

I wonder how many of my Russian students think of what they’re learning in class to be sounds that they need to parrot in the right order. I hope there aren’t too many of them. I hope that they are acquiring structures on the level that my colleague Tam says are “impossible to get out of my brain.”

How could I check that? And is there a way to create a situation that would help them understand, or is it all up to chance?

Earlier this summer, a former student (with one semester of Russian a couple years ago) came up in an airport to tell me that he’d tried out his language on a new girl in the school he’d moved to. He asked her name, and she responded with not only her name, but a flood of Russian. He said, “She was so happy to hear Russian!” He started going back to the class website and reading so as to be able to talk more. If I could engineer that sort of situation for every kid, I would be delighted. But that student lives in Texas now…and it’s hard to find local Russians who know less English than my kids know Russian.


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