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The Downside of Learning a Foreign Language, Part I

I’m excited to share that we have another guest post by the multi-talented Gry Tina Tinde. Many of you remember Tina’s first guest post, the wild and wacky adventures of A Ski Instructor to Die For or more recently her piece On Marriage I Go With Brad Pitt.

For anyone just joining us, Tina has spent a lifetime working around the globe for the betterment of the human condition. With many years’ experience working with the UN on international development, refugee affairs, repatriation, human rights, electoral reform, women’s livelihood, gender issues and the like, she’s also been a think tank researcher and an advisor to both the Norwegian Ministry of Defense and the Council of Baltic Sea States. Currently she serves as Diversity Advisor at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, DC.

She’s working on a novel set in a Cambodian peacekeeping mission, but in the meantime she occasionally writes shorter pieces. Since Tina doesn’t have time to run her own blog, she has an open invitation to write for us. This time she’s back with her offbeat humor in a two-part true story that underscores the point that not everything you do to learn a foreign language always turns out as intended!

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THE DOWNSIDE OF LEARNING A FOREIGN LANGUAGE, Part I

by Gry Tina Tinde

How do you polish your foreign language skills? Did your taste for translation ever get you in trouble?

For many years I have been on a quest to find someone to practice Russian conversation with. It is about time I warn others about the potential perilous traps of foreign language pursuits. Nobody wants their language learning experience to be the center of a Halloween story, right?

Since relishing ‘Anna Karenina’ by Leo Tolstoy and ‘Crime and Punishment’ by Fyodor Dostoyevsky as a teenager, I have been in love with everything Russian. Oh the drama! What about the exotic names and places on the vast continent! Displays of courage and talent have endowed Russians with Nobel literary and peace prizes. Russians coped with a revolution that brought death and suffering for millions, yet continued to churn out talented poets, authors, artists and scientists.

How could anyone not be mesmerized by the ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev’s graceful moves or dismiss the courage of author Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered while defending the human rights of the Chechens? Whether I hear the Nutcracker Suite by composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky or Russian being spoken at my usual coffee shop in Bethesda, Maryland, I listen dreamily and long to go and live in St. Petersburg, Arkhangelsk or Vladivostok.

Russians quickly pick up on my fascination with their culture and language. They seem to realize that nobody would attend Russian language courses nearly continuously over two decades and in several countries unless they were hopelessly hooked. My progress in conjugating verbs and spelling endlessly long words in the Cyrillic alphabet is another story.

Lacking the opportunity to live or work in Russia, one must be inventive in order to practice the language. Or lucky, audacious or a bit crazy, perhaps. The end of the Cold War around 1990 came at a very opportune time for me and my foreign language ambitions, not to mention being beneficial to a few other people who were liberated by glasnost, perestroika, culmination of proxy wars and the lifting of the Iron Curtain that had divided Europe.

With the happy advent of unanimous decisions in the UN Security Council, former adversaries suddenly found themselves shoulder by shoulder in a slew of peacekeeping operations around the world. I was a junior information officer with the UN in New York, with an urge to go places. Since very few UN staff members signed on for the peacekeeping operation in Cambodia, I managed to be selected as one of the daredevils. We worked for peace and democracy in the middle of a civil war, among Khmer Rouge guerrillas and with the constant threat of landmines and malaria.

On flights across the bombed-out country I would sneak into the MI 26 helicopter cockpit to chat with the Russian Air Force pilots. A sense of urgency was added to our interaction, as all UN helicopters were riddled with bullet holes from attacks by angry Khmer Rouge guerrillas on the ground. Hunched over the pilots’ shoulders, I followed their index fingers as they pointed down to clusters of sugar palm trees that might hide desperadoes. I needed to shout for my comments to be heard above the roaring engine noise. In return I got friendly remarks in my favorite language and the odd, lukewarm orange soda. We always made it to our destination, but not all UN helicopters did.

In the late 1990s I joined the Norwegian Ministry of Defense (MoD) Information Section as an advisor. References to those magnificent Russian men in their flying machines in Cambodia gave me the ideal ice breaker in any setting involving their compatriots. I was ecstatic to run into the Defense Attaché of the Russian Embassy at receptions and conferences. Underneath his medal-covered uniform, the tall, mustachioed Colonel Sergey was a cheerful man who made me feel comfortable about my uneven Russian skills. Occasionally when I walked my daughter to school he saluted us and flashed his white smile from under his huge military hat. After we had exchanged a few words he hurried toward the nearby Russian Embassy.

I remember a particularly gloomy November morning that gave the perfect scenario for our encounter: The heavy clouds, freezing sleet and drab buildings of downtown Oslo embodied something oppressive and eerily Stalinist. In my theatrical mind Colonel Sergey and I may as well have been KGB agents sharing secret messages in Moscow’s back alleys during the 1950s.

A few days before the MoD was to close down for Christmas celebrations, a large bottle of white Cinzano vermouth with my name on it appeared on the reception counter. My boss and I happened to pick up our gifts at the same time. Except she did not expect me, a lowly employee, to receive presents from any embassy. Gone was her typical upbeat mood and her face turned a deep red when she asked me what the Russian Embassy was thanking me for. ‘I’ve just given them some information,’ I cockily replied, sensing that I might succeed in convincing her that I was a courier for the Russians.

To many people in the MoD the Cold War was still ongoing, if only in their minds. This was such a priceless example I wanted it to linger for a moment. But my boss looked so flabbergasted that I worried she might have a stroke. I did not want to be responsible for ruining the holidays for her and her family, so I explained that I had only faxed a press release to Colonel Sergey. Which was true, I swear. In the coming weeks I heard strange clicks in my landline phone whenever I lifted the receiver. The MoD was just double-checking, I guess.

Aside from constantly seeking Russian conversation partners, I was leading a perennially single life in Norway. One of my au-pairs had gone off to marry someone she met via the personal ads in an Oslo evening paper, so I was an avid reader of that section. An unusual headline made my heart jump one day: ‘Russian Man Seeks Norwegian Woman.’ The text got me even more excited: ‘Interested in literature and conversation, movies and socializing.’ I quickly sent off a letter to this marvel who heralded to be both a boyfriend and a conversation partner, and included my phone number.

As I waited for his reply, I fantasized about how we would snuggle while watching classical movies such as the slapstick comedy Russians always screened on New Year’s Eve. He would whisper in my ear the dialogue I did not understand, and call me ‘Tinuchka’ or something cute like that.

A few weeks later the answer to my dreams called and thanked me for my letter. He introduced himself as Mikhail, one of my favorite male names. His husky voice indicated masculinity and a few other things I cherish in a man. Maybe he looked a little like the gorgeous ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov? I did my best to carry a telephone conversation in Mikhail’s mother tongue and felt proud to be on verge of making a Russian friend. We agreed to meet in front of the Oslo train station at five the next afternoon.

A couple of hours before our rendezvous Mikhail called and said unfortunately something had come up. He would get back in touch. All I could do was wait, as I did not have his number. Months passed, but there was no word from Mikhail. When the police called and asked to speak to me I did not connect the dots…

(End of Part I)

Don’t worry, we’ll be back with Part II shortly.

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