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Look who's talking

Mariya was a pedagogical institute graduate who was fluent in several languages, but not English. She was teaching me Russian conversation. I wanted to like her, but after a few lessons I was speaking less than when I had arrived in Moscow 10 days earlier.

"Nyet, Bob."

"Roll."

"Nyet."

"Rol."

"Da."

"I can't really hear it or say it," I said, in Russian.

"You just said it!" Leaning across my desk, she jabbed her pencil at the three-letter word for "role".

"Rol!"

Then she jabbed the word "roll," by which she said Russians mean "sushi roll".

"Roll!"

As I bowed my head in frustration, Mariya explained that I was disregarding a distinction between very important sounds.

"Understood," I muttered.

Mariya never tired of making me understand how bad my pronunciation was. She also wondered how I didn't immediately recognise the difference between "I opened the window" (the window's open) and "I opened the window" (it's closed now, but I did open it).

She showed me that although I could muddle my way through reading my beloved Tolstoy and Chekhov, I couldn't speak my way out of a Russian cobweb.

"You should know this," Mariya kept reminding me.

"Understood," I would say, grousing to myself and then, as I've seen my peeved students do, sinking into my shoulders and trying to ride out the rest of the hour.

I realised that I didn't really know how heavy my own hammer of correction was back in Brooklyn, or how soft my kid gloves were. What happens to Peishen when I untwist every little bit of her twisted grammar? Or when I cross out the error-laden sentence Ernesto has so kindly written for me and his classmates on the whiteboard? What about when I asked Charles, a proud father and cab driver, a native of Haiti, to repeat himself for the third time when all he had said was "I completely agree"? Oh, the humiliation of a grown man expressing himself and not being understood. Charles, forgive me!

One afternoon, a few days after the end of my conversation classes, I got lost in the woods near Tolstoy's Yasnaya Polyana estate. Disoriented, I was relieved when I spotted a middle-aged man sitting beside a pond with a fishing pole and a two-litre bottle of beer. "Tolstoy's house?" I asked, pointing to the right.

"Nyet, to the left," he said. He explained in slurred but plain Russian that I had to go through the pines on the hill, not over the marsh I had just tramped through.

I pointed at my muddy pants and told him I had got lost: "I walked a long time past meadows, past a stream, and now I poteryal."

I was proud of having been able to describe my situation, but his red face crinkled: "Poteryal-sa."

Ah, a reflexive verb! I repeated it.

He nodded in approval and I felt myself beam like a clever student.

Bob Blaisdell teaches English at Kingsborough Community College in New York City

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