The Gentle Art Of Sucking At Languages

Languages are hard to learn. Sure, I’m a professional writer, which means me am totes real good at English. But outside of my mother tongue, these abilities sort of drop off the table. I studied French for 15 years in school, from Kindergarten to my final year of college. Fast-forward to present day, I’m barely capable of ordering a Caramel Frappucino at the Starbucks inside the Louvre. (I say this as someone who not long ago ordered a Caramel Frappucino at the Starbucks inside the Louvre.)

My lifelong desire to study foreign languages stems from an inherent desire to visit other countries and not come off like a dumb tourist. I’ve dreamed about scaling Mayan pyramids in Mexico. Taking a lava cave tour in Iceland. Marveling at the architecture of St. Petersburg, Russia. All while engaging in charming conversation with the locals.

To date, none of this has happened. Although I suppose I came closest on the whole Russia thing. Here’s the deal with that particular country: it’s home to a complex and confusing language, with a “lot of ins, a lot of outs, a lot of what-have yous,” as Jeff Lebowski would say.

I suggest this with a modicum of genetic authority. My dad was born in Siberia during WWII, which technically means there’s a fair amount of Bolshevik coursing through my veins. Yet despite this advantage, I was still incapable of cracking the Motherland’s linguistic code.
In fifth grade, I studied Russian in school, with the hope of eventually travelling to the enigmatic land that gave communism a good ol’ college try. (One of the first words I learned was ‘factory’ — a little on the nose, right?) The end result? An unmitigated failure. A couple of reasons for this. First off, the Russian modern alphabet contains a whopping 33 letters. Compare this to our 26 and you’ve come across a Cold War ‘arms race’ the West actually lost.

I simply couldn’t wrap my brain around these Marx-infused hieroglyphics. In fact, I sucked so bad that one day, my teacher offered me some gentle words of Soviet encouragement. “Steven, you are a disaster!” she bellowed. “You are fired! I fire you from my class!”

Since I was only ten years, I’d never actually been fired from a job before, much less fired from, you know, education. But the pattern of failure was set in motion. Since then, I’ve studied and sucked at more languages than your armchair John Q. Rosetta Stoner. In addition to French, there was German, Hebrew, Spanish, heck, even C++. And don’t even get me started on my conversational Farsi. But nothing slapped me into submission quite like Russian.

Yep, my stern, burly teacher — may she rest in peace — had a point: I was terrible at learning new languages. And if there’s one thing I truly respect about Russia, the thing that made it a glorious worldwide superpower, is the fact it has no word for ‘terrible.’ (As far as I know — I lasted like, eight classes.)

Maybe it was for the best that I ended up getting the Celebrity Apprentice “You’re fired!” treatment back in fifth grade. I later found out that a visit to Russia could have placed me at serious risk, given A) this was the height of the Cold War, and B) my dad was born there. As such, there was a reasonable chance the country’s government wouldn’t allow me to leave. So yeah. That.

Nonetheless, I haven’t given up hope of someday mastering a second language. Maybe all I need is a good tutor, some elbow grease, and a whole lotta studying. Any thoughts on what to try next? I’m up for suggestions. Let’s steer clear of Klingon or Dothraki, though. They’re a little harsh on the ol’ vocal cords.

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