All the televised activity now coming out of Sochi puts me in a renewed state of regret that my parents were so intent on making me a genu-wine American. I would have become one anyway, without their purposeful but misguided efforts. But if they had just let well enough alone, I would have also been bi-lingual.
Evidence that young children can easily learn two or more languages at the same time without compromise of later linguistic ability in either language was not known to my newly naturalized parents. Although they were speaking only Russian with each other at home, when they realized it was the language I was learning when I began to talk, they dropped it like a hot potato! Russian became the language of secrets. I entered kindergarten speaking fluent English with a Russian accent.
After we have all stopped wringing our hands and crying out, “What a pity!”— I should note that while it was certainly a pity for me, that hot-potato business improved my parents’ English immeasurably, since they now had to use it almost all the time. And that was a good thing, both for my father’s job prospects and much later my mother’s.
However, little pitchers have big ears and little girls ask many questions. So I still do know how to say certain things in Russian without looking them up. I’ve even been told my pronunciation is good. I’m not sure how far this knowledge would get me though, if I decided to go to Sochi to see the excitements for myself, and then got lost in all the flashing lights and brouhaha.
I could certainly tell someone my name: (“Ya Nina Mikhailovna Mishkina.”) [No present tense of the verb “to be” in Russian.]
Or even my maiden name, if that were asked for: (“Ya Nina Mikhailovna Raginskaya”)
I can also say the following in Russian:
- I don’t speak Russian.
- Do you speak English?
- Thank you.
- You’re welcome. (Same word as “please.”)
- I love you.
- I want to eat.
- I want to drink.
- Glass water. (No articles in Russian. No “of” either, in view of the genitive ending of the noun for “water.” Don’t I sound knowledgeable? Ha.)
- Little girl.
- Little boy.
- Comrade. (Not useful anymore.)
- Peasant. (Probably now an insult.)
- Son of a bitch.
- Cholera! (Big swear word with my mother.)
- Be careful!
- Very good.
- Not good.
- Not cultured.
- Come here.
- Cutlets. (My father’s word for hamburgers.)
- Why? (Although I wouldn’t understand the answer.)
- Your beautiful eyes
- “Sing little bird sing; keep my heart safe.” (Part of a song, which I can sing, but only this much of it.)
- “Lenski, why aren’t you dancing?” (Should also be sung – preferably by a baritone taking the part of Eugen Onegin in Tchaikovsky’s opera of the same name – but I can do the first five words, if necessary.)
I can also count to ten in Russian; make out most Cyrillic letters, but slowly; and recognize many words as being Russian without knowing exactly what they mean.
But if none of the above were sufficiently helpful in Sochi, which I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be, I’d then have to decide whether to: (1) seek assistance in English, since almost everyone at the Games seems to understand it; or (2) burst into a rousing performance of the Internationale, which would probably get me arrested, after which the American Embassy would need to intercede to have me sent home, in order to avoid a serious international incident over an eighty-two year old woman.
To conclude: Given the state of my Russian, it’s just as well I haven’t gone. Besides, Putin’s not my cup of tea at all. And winter sports really do leave me cold — except maybe the ice-skating, which is best viewed at home, where the announcers speak English.