Leaving Saint Petersburg for Moscow recently, I needed to determine whether our train tickets were for an assigned seat in a specific car, or if it was open seating. Unfortunately, I didn’t know the word for “assigned,” or even a close approximation for “open seating.”
“Hello, can I sit where I want?” I asked the attendant standing outside the train in Russian.
“Nyet,” he answered. No.
“Ah … is there a difference, where I sit?” I continued.
“Umm … I’m going to sit here?” I said, pointing at the car directly behind him.
“Nyet,” he answered, and then directed me to a location three cars back, where I eventually found our assigned seat.
The above exchange should have been easier for someone whose first language was, in fact, Russian.
And sure, I still “speak” it. That is, I probably speak it better than you do—unless you, too, are Russian. But really, saying I "speak" it is the same sort of linguistic hubris that we Americans exhibit once we’ve managed to cobble together just a few foreign words—like putting “francophone” in your Twitter bio as soon as you can order a croissant and ask where the bathroom is.
I can maneuver my way around most Russian situations. Before long, though, I'll come across some roadblock—like, say, "roadblock"—try to translate it literally from English—road block ... daroga kvartal?— fail, and have to admit to myself and the Russians around me that I'm only semifluent at best. (Roadblock, by the way, is dorozhnoye zagrazhdeniye.)