Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Learning Russian

Over the summer between my freshman and sophomore year at college, I continued reading books from the space history section of the local library.  One of the books that I found, was Deke!, the autobiography of D.K. Slayton, one of the Mercury 7 astronauts, who flew on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission.  As part of the project, he had to learn to speak Russian, at 40-something years old.

Russian is a Slavic language, very different from English. Also, our brains are wired to learn languages when we're young.  It's still possible to learn new languages into adulthood, but adults tend to struggle more.  So, Deke wrote about his struggles to learn Russian.

I had always intended to study more languages than just Spanish.  Spanish was simply the first language I had access to.  Had I stayed at Mercy High School for four years, I was thinking of taking beginner French.  I wanted to learn German, Russian, Arabic...

This was about the time the Shuttle-Mir program was happening.  I read articles on it in the campus newspaper regularly.

Remember, I had been trying all spring to get a cooperative education position in the aerospace industry, and it hadn't happened yet.  I felt frustrated, it felt as though my interviewers didn't believe that I wanted to work in Aerospace as an Electrical Engineering major.  (I have to admit, most of the other Astronaut wanna-be's that I met on campus, were Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering majors.)

It occurred to me that learning Russian would be useful, now that they were partners on the International Space Station project.  That this might be one way I could stand out, and demonstrate my sincerity in a resume-documentable way.

So, two weeks into the semester, when I saw a poster up in Stewart Center for Russian 101 classes, in a timeslot that I could make, I added it.

That bumped me up to 19 credit hours.  I had to get permission to go over 18, it was a FULL load of classes.

I started two weeks into the semester.  The rest of the class had already learned the alphabet, and was practicing introductions.  I followed along as best as I could.

Homework the first few weeks was a chore.  I had to look up practically letter of every word, at first.  But then it started to come together, a bit.  I remember learning the word понеделник by setting it to the line "Monday, Monday."

A couple of weeks later, I needed to run a message ahead of the band parade.  It didn't feel right.  The 19-credit hour course load was making me sick.  I took a look at my classes and the requirements again, and learned that I already had all the humanities credits I needed.  I had thought History would count under Social Sciences, but I was wrong, it was another Humanities course.  So I dropped the history class.  For now.

The other problem I ran into, was that I was taking another Spanish class that semester.  This was the beginning of my seventh year, studying Spanish.  I had managed to give my brain two modes, "English" and "Spanish."  With a few German words in the mix.  Now, suddenly, I was trying to add a third.  About half the time I needed to speak in Russian class, what came up in my mind was Spanish.

I stuck with it, learned from it.  The next semester I studied Russian, I did not take Spanish.