Studying English in the Soviet Union

THE average American finds it difficult to explain why the foreigner says “ze” or “de,” rather than the perfectly natural (to him) “the" until he tries to enunciate an elegant French “rue” or gets his tongue tangled in three or four Russian consonants in a row, unrelieved by any vowel whatever. After two or three trials, he is likely to begin wondering how any foreigner manages to say anything resembling English sounds at all.

Soviet phoneticians early recognized this peculiarity in the study of a foreign language. They pointed out that, while it is natural for the student’s grammar and stock of words to become more perfect and increase as he goes on, his pronunciation must be made so perfect in the initial stage that no amount of abuse later will be able to mar it to any great extent. Consequently, the study of a foreign language in the Soviet Union begins with a grounding in pronunciation, a course that occupies anywhere from twenty hours of teaching, in non-specialized institutes, to one hundred hours, in special language institutions.

The student has a set of special lip and tongue drills—“grins,” as they are popularly known here. Excellent muscles as the tongue and lips are, the beginner in languages seldom has any conscious awareness of their work, or any conscious control over their movements; and these must be built up if he is to attain proficiency in pronouncing a series of sounds rapidly in the foreign tongue.

The student must learn a special set of phonetic symbols representing sounds, since, in such a language as English, spelling can hardly be said to represent pronunciation with any degree of faithfulness or consistency. He studies and practices special drills for each sound, combinations of sounds, and movements of his organs of speech from one sound to another. It is an edifying sight to sit in at a lesson in phonetics and to hear a young man or woman reciting a lesson in English that sounds so perfect one can scarcely believe the student knows perhaps one hundred words altogether, and would not understand you if you spoke to him.

Beyond the study of pronunciation, the Russian student is puzzled by the delicate shades an Englishman expresses when he says “ I have been living here for twenty years" instead of ”I have lived here for twenty years.”Again, explaining why the Englishman or American insists upon “The play came to an end” instead of “The play came to the end"which might seem more logical, the play having but one end — is a formidable task for the teacher.

If the object is to learn to read, the process is comparatively simple. One may memorize the words in any way that comes easiest to him, as a means of avoiding looking them up in the dictionary. A good student can even pick up words by reading books and guessing at the meanings of the new words, without looking them up. After seeing them repeated a sufficient number of times, in varying contexts, he has a very fair conception of the words, and need never actually go to the trouble of looking them up.

The difficulty becomes more serious when the student learns new words and phrases in order to reproduce them in actual speech. Here, he must have much more than is required by reading technique. He must know the word so well that it springs into his mind the instant the need arises. He must learn literally thousands of good English phrases. He must be able to choose the proper word to fit the situation, so that he will not say “The two governments signed a peace agreement” or “I have concluded a treaty with my maid.”

Foreign languages, in contrast to such subjects as mathematics or chemistry, present significant psychological problems, which must be solved if any significant success is to be hoped for. The Russian student is willing to admit, in a purely intellectual way, that the proper English phrasing is “to take revenge upon somebody for something.”However, it goes against his psychological grain not to substitute for it the Russian “to revenge to somebody,” when he is called upon to say it rapidly in the course of speaking.

He hears with surprise that in English the patient consults the doctor. In Russian, the doctor consults the patient. In Russian, the phrase “in case” is invariably followed by the word “if,”and leaving out this “if” in English leaves the Russian with the feeling that something is missing, that his phrase is not properly rounded out. Insisting upon “I had my watch fixed” seems meticulous to the Russian. In his own language he says “ I fixed my watch,” whether he did it himself or had someone else do it.

In Russian the verb “to interest ” is used to express the idea “to be interested in.” Therefore the unwary Russian student of English is likely to say “I interested him,” when he means “I was interested in him.’ “To admire,” on the contrary, is passive in Russian and it takes some explaining to make it clear that if one says “ I was admired by him" in English, it means that I am the object of the admiration,and not he. For example, a Russian phrase, translated literally, might go something like this: “Desdemona was admired by Othello’s bravery and his military exploits.”

English word order seems unnecessarily rigid to the Russian learner. In his own language, he has cases to indicate the doer and the receiver of the action, so that it makes no essential difference whether he says “The composer wrote a song" or “A song wrote the composer.” Pointing out that in court the main question at issue may be whether John killed Jack, or Jack killed John, seems evading the whole problem to him. He cannot see, psychologically, why mere position in the sentence should create all this fuss.

Finally, the English prepositions seem simply unfair to the Russian learner. If a thing is clear, we say it is clear to me; if it is difficult, we say it is difficult for me. We work at a factory but on a farm, whereas the Russian works on a factory and in a farm.

Americans who have taken up the study of the Russian language, and who have found to their dismay that to say “on the table,”to the table,”at the table,” “off the table” correctly, one must change not only the preposition but the form of the word “table” in every case, will understand why the Russian student feels resentful when he is called upon to memorize “to call on,”"to call for,”to call to, “to call up,” “to call after,” and is told that none of them has any appreciable connection with the others.

The Russian student studying English comes up against thousands of language phenomena that are different from equivalent phenomena in his own language, and their explanation lies not in grammar or in lexicology but in the customs and thoughthabits of the nation. He learns from the phrase “I raised the window,” or “I threw up the window,”that windows go up and down in America, and do not open outward as they have always done in Russia.

The Englishman or American learning Russian finds the word “Fortochka,” which has no English equivalent, since it means a small part of the window that can open and close independently of the rest of the window, a reflection of Russia’s cold winters, during which it would he courting severe illness to throw the whole window wide-open. ” “Uptown" and “downtown” in New York are puzzling to the Muscovite, whose city is built in circular fashion, and who naturally says “towards the center" or “away from the center.” The Russian says “as stubborn as an ox,” not “as a mule,” an animal he hardly knows. In place of the American phrase “we went out last night,” the Russian says “we went walking last night,” probably a reflection of traditional Russian village life, when going out ordinarily meant going for a walk.

Students introduced to the English disjunctive question cannot explain to themselves why anyone should say “Cold, isn’t it?” They invariably ask whether it is a question or a statement, and are never fully satisfied by the explanation that it is neither the one nor the other; or rather, that it is both a statement and a question. The harassed teacher gets over it somehow, however, and begins to breathe easier, until he comes to the answer to such a question. For the answer, as likely as not, may be “Yes, isn’t it?" thereby flooring the Russian completely; for, says he, there may be no end to it. Both parties may continue saying “Yes, isn’t it?” ad infinitum.

With all the difficulties that beset the student learning the English language, one might expect to find numerous cases of people beginning and then giving it up as a bad job; or of people being deterred from undertaking such an arduous task altogether. However, the opposite seems to be true. Every year finds thousands of eager language learners coming on the scene. Indeed, the demand for language teachers, particularly English teachers, is so great that the Commissariat of Education has given up hope of satisfying it for some years to come. A good English teacher is worth his weight in sugar in Moscow today.