My Life in Translation: “How Hard Can It Be To Learn English? Children Speak It!” (PART II)
By Alina Adams
Alina Adams turned her experience as a researcher for ABC Sports, ESPN, TNT and NBC into a series of figure skating mystery novels, including “Murder on Ice,” “On Thin Ice,” “Axel of Evil,” “Death Drop” and “Skate Crime.” She is currently in the process of turning them all into enhanced e-books with professional skating videos embedded as part of the text. Read all about her innovative multimedia efforts at http://www.AlinaAdams.com.
You can also read Alina’s first post on this language and culture here.
I lived in America for twenty years, and though I spoke Russian with my parents and grandparents, English was my natural language, if not my first or native one.
Than, in 1996, I went to work for ABC Sports as a researcher for their figure skating coverage. While knowledge of the sport (my brother was a competitive ice dancer and I his lowly chauffeur/chaperone), and fine writing skills (remember that AP score!) were a big component of my getting hired, the clincher was my fluent Russian, as a great many of the champions and top coaches we were covering were former Soviets (now Russians, Ukrainians, Latvians, Georgians, what have you…).
I did not lie in my interview. I was – and still am – a fluent Russian speaker. (As long as we’re not discussing politics or some specialized scientific field… or using modern slang). I can make perfectly banal, proper conversation on most subjects, including figure skating (did you know that the move we call a “spread eagle” they call a “sailboat?”) and receive compliments on my lack of accent, to boot.
What I cannot do is read or write in Russian above the level of the seven year old child I once was. That means I can read printing. As long as the word doesn’t have too many syllables in it. And I can write. In printing. As long as the word doesn’t have too many syllables in it.
In the winter of 1996, I was sent, along with a feature producer, cameraman and audio technician to Moscow and St. Petersburg to shoot interviews with the top Russian skaters for broadcast during the 1997 World Championships.
I was fine reading the street signs, and the menus at the restaurants where we ate (though I once translated a particular item as “Fat, fried with grease, and drowned in butter.”). But, if someone handed me a handwritten note, or if I was asked to write one… things got dicey.
I suppose I could have just confessed my incapacity. But, I was afraid of losing the job. So, like most functional illiterates, I developed tricks to hide behind.
If my boss asked me to write a note to one of the skaters we wanted to interview, I would either call them on the phone, stalk them in the hotel lobby, or call the hotel desk and get them to write and leave the message.
Asked to decipher a missive, I would use a clever distraction technique (“Look! Over there!”) or excuse myself and track down a native to help me.
Devoid of either of those options, I would break down and block print to the best of my ability, explaining, “Handwriting is sometimes difficult to decipher, I want to make sure they’ll be able to read it.”
These days, the only ones forced to put up with my childish Russian proficiency are my own children. In an attempt to pass on the language to them, I will read Russian storybooks and poems. As long as they’re in big, block letters, and intended for kids under the age of three. (Mine, for the record, are 4, 8 and 12.)
Also, once in a while, my mother will ask me to read out loud to her from a Russian-language newspaper or book.
When she needs a good laugh.
How many of us have found ourselves visiting or even living in a country where we can barely speak the language? Sure, while It’s an adventure to navigate new cultural terrain without being able to communicate the way you would ordinarily in your homeland, it is certainly not without its challenges.
Babylon wants to know how you cope when you are floundering around in a foreign language. Please share your experience with us at firstname.lastname@example.org so we can post your story here as part of our newMy Life in Translation series.