Thursday, February 3, 2011

Oh, English! How Do I Love Thee!

My parents always said that they would leave the Soviet Union at the first opportunity, so I’ve studied English since my early childhood. I took it in school and later in college, and I spent hours crafting letters to my Los Angeles pen pal Maya, a daughter of my father’s university friend, who, unlike my family, had been lucky enough to escape the authority’s clutches. 

Before we embarked on our American journey, I also took an immersive English intensive class so by the time I got off the Boeing, I thought of myself as a pro. On my fifth day in New York and my first subway experience, I approached a bystander with a well-rehearsed question, “Sir, would you be so kind as to tell me what train I should take to Broadway?” His answer was, “Ain’t no train taking you to B’way from here. You gotta take the E to the Eighth Avenue and schlep crosstown.” His statement left me confused about much more than traveling to my destination. I never heard of a contraction form ain’t, a verb gotta, or the word schlep. But this was only the beginning of my long English journey, from British to American to New Yorkese.

Three months later, when the street slang baffled me no more, I started college. After my first day in school, I laid out my heavy textbook next to an even heavier English-Russian dictionary and proceeded to translate every word on the page I didn’t know, writing its meaning in Cyrillic above the Roman letters. When I was done with the chapter, I read it to myself in Russian and realized in sheer horror, that it still didn’t make any sense whatsoever! I lowered my head on my textbook and cried, utterly convinced that I will never understand this indecipherable language that had more tenses than I had fingers to count, imposed auxiliary verbs on some sentences but not all, and used the same words to describe two or three completely different concepts!

Two and a half years later, I completed my bachelor’s degree that I’d earned cum laude. To this day, I don’t know how I managed that achievement, but it still didn’t take me any closer to my goal: being able to write a story in English. I no longer had to translate words in a textbook, but I still needed a dictionary to get through a novel. Accustomed to reading classic literature for the beauty of the language, I kept putting down every book I started, bogged down by the sheer amount of vocabulary I still didn’t understand. To trick myself, I switched to crime fiction, figuring I would have to finish the book to find the villain. I wrote down fifty new words from every paperback and hardcover I read and memorized them before moving onto the next target. After six months, I decided it was time to pick up my own pen.

God, even I couldn’t read my first passages without tears! My sentences were awkward and long – like Leo Tolstoy’s, my characters spoke with a Russian accent and my metaphors and jokes didn’t translate. I bought myself a dictionary of Russian-English idioms. It became my bible of the year, eventually replaced by an era of prepositions. “Why do you say in the backyard, but on the plaza?” I desperately questioned my husband, trying to find logic in the idiosyncrasies of the Roman language. “Why do you say on the table, but in the chair?” The mysterious usage of articles was next. Why was it The New York Times, but Times Square, and at what point did a bowl of soup become the bowl of soup?

And just when I fancied myself having conquered the spelling rules, I discovered there was more to it than I’d thought. Russian is extremely phonetic so instead of spelling bees, we had dictations, writing down passages a teacher slowly read from a book. Yet because my first language didn’t differentiate between the æ, ɒ, and ʌ sounds, I was deaf to the intricate differences of flush and flash, crush and crash, bonnie and bunny, or bog and bug. The more words I learned, the more spelling confusion they created in my head. The words heel, hill, and heal sounded exactly the same. Cease and seize or knight and night were phonetic twins. Even couch and coach had such a similar ring to them, I always had to think which one was which. Once I sent my writing class into a laughing fit when I misspelled John Doe as Jon Dough.

Strangely enough, I practically never make the classic mistakes so many Americans do. I never confuse two, to, and too; it’s and its; than and then; or their and there. More so, I have recently heard from two editors I work with that my articles are cleaner and require less rewriting than the average freelancer they work with. I attributed it to the genius of spell-checking programs, my general paranoia, and my obsessive-compulsive tweaking sentences to perfection. Having a husband who can fix my messed up a’s and the’s is a gift from god. Every writer needs an editor and having one in house certainly helps. But the most important thing for me was perseverance. 
Speaking of which, I ain’t giving up on my schlep to being published – gotta go send out a few queries!


  1. Oh, Lina, you make me smile. As a teacher of English as a second language, I find myself trying to explain those vowel sounds every day. Italians (most of my students) have very defined sounds for each of the five vowels and are so puzzled by the fact the English has twenty vowel sounds. I'm amazed that you write in English. That is such an accomplishment.

  2. Lina, I'm always amazed at how beautifully you write in your second language, and now I know what effort went into it. My husband has the same problems with English prepositions and vowels, and takes a great deal of satisfaction in seeing me struggle with his native language.

  3. Lina, as someone who enjoys reading your fiction in English I am very glad that you had the persistance to succeed.


  4. You have a great command of the language and it shows in your writing. i sympathize with what you went through. When i decided to learn Italian as an adult, i couldn't believe all the tenses--15! And, as my Italian teacher's wife said: "First you have to decide whether the cup is masculine or feminine...." Aargh!
    It's fun to speak it now and again, but I'd never be able to write in it.

  5. Patricia, I’m glad I made you smile! I was also glad to learn that the damn vowels are not just my own problem. Cathy, I’m now happy English has less tenses than Italian! Heidi, did your husband get to read it – and perhaps commiserate? LOL! Thank you for your kind words, everyone, it’s good to know I’ve made it. I can now make fun of myself, my mistakes and my misspellings rather than be afraid of them.

  6. That is a terrific photo, Lina. That picture is definitely worth 1,000 words, if not many more (that is one BIG dictionary). FYI, my wife has been teaching ESL for decades, and she still has trouble with illogical English prepositions (why do you say "I'm on the subway" when you're IN the subway?, etc.)

    Hang in there, Comrade. Only a putz wouldn't let you shep nakhes for your accomplishments in our mishigineh language, bubeleh.

  7. What wonderful perseverance, Lina! In in awe of people like you who can become so fluent in a second language, especially in writing it. My dad didn't learn English until he was a teenager, but now he thinks in English. It must have skipped a generation, though -- sadly, foreign languages are my worst subject.

  8. I had tears streaming down my face as I read that Lina - but don't worry, I cry from happy things, not sad things!

    I could feel your frustration and am just so impressed when someone is so determined to get things completely right. I daresay your grammar is much better than those of us who have been speaking English since birth and were never given any lessons in it!

    Thank you for sharing that story!

  9. Lina, I admire your perserverance. It is amazing if someone wants something badly enough, how we will move mountains to make it happen--and I think you moved the Andes on your herculean effort. I am so impressed.

  10. Lina, I think anyone who has ever learned a second language totally sympathizes with your experience! I remember wrestling with German cases and prepositions (which ones take dative, which ones accusative, and all the rest can go either way depending!) and wondering how on earth I would EVER understand a German word by context, as my instructor had evidently expected. Also, having married a German, it's interesting to see how in his dialect the names "Peggy" and "Becky" would be pronounced exactly the same.
    Oh, and one last note: I'm fluent in German and I studied French and Spanish for a number of years as well... and I have to say, I've always been grateful that English is my native language. I've often imagined how incredibly difficult it must be to learn it as a second language—so huge kudos to you on doing it so well!