Life At Point C

Experiencing Life along the Silk Road

Reactions to Language Learners, Part III

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“You’ve been studying for three years and can still only speak this poorly?”

Generally, when learning Russian or Kyrgyz in Kyrgyzstan, people are either pretty nice to you because you’re learning, or won’t give you the time of day because it is too much work to communicate with you. As a newer language speaker, you only get to have real interaction with the kind, patient ones, and it is an encouraging time. You’re learning new words. You understand more and more of what is being said around you. And people tell you what a great job you are doing.

In the first couple years of studying Russian, people would express (feign?) surprise at how little time we had spent studying their language. Once you get into year three, I’m convinced that no matter how well you speak, the season of people being kind to you about your language is beginning to pass. The quote with which I opened this post was directed to me recently by a local who had never studied or spoken a foreign language. We were having a normal conversation (though he didn’t listen very carefully), and then he blurted that out. A new challenge in the language department is that – having studied for a few years – people tend to treat me as if I am fluent. I’m still not great, but I can speak fluidly enough that if people don’t listen to me like they listen to a typical foreigner, they are apt to miss things because I don’t say them right.

Please don’t allow this short story to negatively color your view of people in Kyrgyzstan. One of the neat things about being at this point is that people tend to not be so selective in the terminology they use with me, which means I’m learning all kinds of new terms and phrases (and I still have to ask for clarification and help, even after three years). Many people are more than patient, being willing to listen and listen as I talk and think and search for words that I know I know…

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