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My свекровь came to visit us this month.

It was kind of exciting, because she speaks Russian.

It was also kind of depressing, because her favorite topic is how incredibly much she wants to speak English but… [insert one of several excuses here.] Basically, we end up in a cycle of talking about how much we both suck at our target languages and saying “If only I spoke your language like you spoke my language! {sad sigh}”


The past week really got me thinking about these topics:

a) why older Russian-speaking immigrants struggle to speak English.

b) why my own language skills never seem to improve.

c) are a and b connected at all?


a) Why is English so hard for older Russian speakers?


To be really honest, I feel like I’ve failed these students. I’ve worked with this group several times, and they always came to me frustrated and left frustrated. It’s not that they didn’t enjoy my classes- thankfully, they loved them!- but even with all my tricks, I couldn’t help them become who they wanted to be.

The past 12 months I volunteered at a local non-profit that offered ESL to the community. People from all over the world came in for classes. There were Russian speakers of all ages and backgrounds, but it was the older group (65+) who struggled the most with speaking. A few years ago, I taught two months of intensive citizenship classes to a group of older Russian speakers from different countries. They worked really hard to learn, since most of them had citizenship test dates coming up, but also found speaking difficult. The good news is that they did pass the test, but it didn’t instantly transform them into the fluent everyday speakers they wanted to be. In fact, life went on as usual, just with a new color of passport. In between, I taught English in Ukraine for 3 years to people in their twenties. They too went through the usual language learning challenges but also were rewarded with consistent improvement.

Of course, it’s logical to think something along the lines of “it’s always harder for an older person to learn something new.” That’s true in some ways, right? But there is one specific thing that I think really influences the learning habits of Russian speakers who are over 65 and trying to learn English, and I think it comes from an experience that all of them shared.

A popular complaint, one that I heard several times this past year, is но я с детства немецкий изучал, but I studied German as a child. It would be accompanied with a heavy sigh, like it precluded them from ever learning any other language, like the brain’s foreign language compartment was now forever filled by German. This is just a red herring, though….

I could be totally off on this, but here’s what I think-


“But what will they think of me?”


I saw this sign for a lost cat in Kyiv.


It’s just a little typo- a missing ‘e’- but it led someone to scrawl one of the most terrible insults in the Russian language-


Sometimes I feel like my soul is almost Ukrainian or Russian… until someone brings that word up and it makes me хохотать, laugh out loud. I really don’t care if someone thinks I’m безграмотная. (The translation for this is literally illiterate but it’s often used to mean uneducated, dumb, or redneck.) In America, our worst insults revolve more around sexual experiences or level of attractiveness. Implying that someone hasn’t obtained a certain level of education and civility… not that offensive. To call someone безграмотный in Russian, though… ouch. That’s not to be taken lightly.


Fear is the #1 stumbling block I’ve seen with my older students who were educated in the USSR.

They are TERRIFIED of making a mistake BECAUSE they fear what other people will think of them (specifically that other people will consider them безграмотный).

All of us ESL teachers can do the old song and dance as much as we like- “It’s okay! You have to make mistakes to learn! No one is laughing at you!”- but this particular subset of learners don’t believe us. Older students from other countries have a much easier time laughing off mistakes than older Russians do. And the Russians are usually some of the most educated people in the classroom (compared to Burma, Somalia, etc) so I wonder if higher education can actually be a hindrance to learning.


This is actually my свекровь‘s approach to living in the US. In fact, her life philosophy is basically better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt. In Russian, she’s adorably sweet and well-spoken. In English, she’s mean and closed-off and won’t answer the cashier at the grocery store. Then we get home from the store and have a conversation like this:

Her: Katya, teach me English. I neeeeeed it!

Me: Okay, but you have to speak it every day with people.

Her: Well, I can’t do that until I can speak it perfectly, then I’ll talk to everyone. If I start now, people will think I’m a stupid old lady.


As a teacher, I do believe that it can take some students a ton of exposure before they feel comfortable enough / able enough to start replicating what’s around them. It’s fine. But… it’s also a dangerous path- some students go to classes for years and never push themselves into that dangerous, new land called “speaking for the first time and yeah, sounding kind of silly.” But the students who do- they make progress. Those who don’t- they just sit there quietly and grow more and more disheartened. This is why I failed these students. I couldn’t help them switch into that dangerous, new land. And worse, I still don’t know how to do it even now.

My older students who speak Russian would want to understand Every. Single. Possible. Tangent. Ever. before trying to say something. It’s a great safety measure when it comes to skydiving, but maybe not so useful for language learning. (And also, how we end up with things like Aleksandr Dragunkin’s A Big Leap in English in 95+ Minutes… a dream market for all the learn-to-speak-a-foreign-language-without-ever-having-to-actually-speak products.) I’ve tried sneaky speaking activities, games, pair work, serious topics, classic literature, you name it, but it’s like they truly believe they need an absurdly perfect grasp on English before they can say a word of it. If they can’t be as eloquent as Pushkin, they don’t even want to start.

Do you think there’s something unique about people aged 65+ who were educated in the USSR? Do they have a more fearful attitude toward making mistakes? Are they more everything-must-be-perfect than other learners? Is there really such a thing as безграмотность shaming?


But it’s easy to (perhaps, glibly) diagnose some else’s problems and offer a solution. The bigger challenge is to fix your own problems and see your own blind spots. I don’t know why I’ve been feeling so stale and down on Russian lately, but I want to change that. It’s like, I already live with a native speaker and a second native speaker came to visit and I still couldn’t get my act together. I guess I also have this vision in my head of how things should be- I should be taking advantage of this situation every single minute… right?


b) Why is my Russian stuck?

c) Are the situations related?


It seems our situations are two sides of the same coin.

My свекровь is all study and no talk, I’m all talk and no study…. and neither of us feel like it’s working.

My свекровь fears the label of безграмотность, I scoff at declensions … and we both have pretty atrocious grammar.

My свекровь uses only old-school textbook, I use only internet… and we complain equally about how we fail at language.

Perhaps the key to progress lies somewhere in the middle?


There are some good habits I’d like to adopt from my mother-in-law and her fellow students. One big problem I have is laziness (hence the all talk and no study bit). All the older Russian-speaking students I’ve worked with have been crazy amazing at taking their studies seriously. They are consistent. They read books in English. They approach their textbook studies with the gravity of a galactic peace treaty meeting. They draw out complicated grammar diagrams like a plumber on the International Space Station. I don’t even have a place in our apartment to study. I buy books and never read them. I ignore ANKI sometimes for weeks at a time. I’ll print out a worksheet and then lose it. I say five sentences in Russian to D before switching to English. I have no plan.




So, here goes.

The three things I will focus on first are grammar, tracking, and daily effort. Right now my lazy brain is already saying, This is a terrible time to start something new! You’ll be gone half of November and then the holidays are here. 




But ugh, I’ve got to do something to get out of this rut. There are people out there doing incredible things with Russian- listen to this woman and tell me you’re not shocked that she’s a native English speaker who started learning Russian in 2005! I want to be as dedicated as she has been.


Tracking: Starting next week, every monthly Russian Roundup that I write will include a goals / tracking section.

Grammar: Now- rescue a few grammar videos / websites that have been lingering in bookmark purgatory. Eventually- take a page from my mother-in-law’s book (haha, pun!) and go offline, but don’t see that happening this month with travel. Also, start taking grammar more seriously. Stop being content with speaking like a third grader. Be more motivated to decline things, even if they’re numbers or names.

Daily effort: Have you succeeded in making Russian a part of your daily routine? If so, please spill the details. I used to draw a little box in my planner and call it “Daily Russian”. Using any Russian that day meant I could check it off- even saying or reading one single word would count. It feels like a stale idea now, but I’ll do it again for lack of something better.

I wonder if a mind shift in this area could help both me and my older Russian-speaking students. We both see a magical result state lying somewhere out there in the distance- “I’ll speak fluent English!” and “I’ll know exactly when to use the accusative case!”- if only we knew how to get there.

But, maybe there’s no such thing as a result. Maybe there is only the process. Like, the only way to become a runner is to run. The moment you start running, it doesn’t matter how crappy a runner you are… You are a runner at that moment. To be a speaker, my mother-in-law has to stop looking at a book and start speaking every single day. She becomes a speaker only by being a speaker- the chicken and the egg are the same thing. To get better grammar, I need to be the person who works on grammar every single day, not the person who avoids it.

This is the end of the post and I have nothing wise or tremendous to say, sorry. I feel like maybe if I can solve one of these things, it can also solve the other. I’m going to work on my own goals & tracking / grammar / daily effort for November and December, and keep thinking about how to help this group of students gain the confidence they need.

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