Relearning Russian as an Adult

In college, I spoke Russian all the time. I took a winter immersion course at Wellesley my sophomore year and found the language delightful. It was the first time I’d ever dug into the linguistic quirks of another language with such depth, and I discovered all these subtle and seemingly profound differences from English. I was fascinated by the way all verbs in Russian have two forms—one more focused on the process of doing something, the other more focused on the completed action, and that the latter could not be in the present tense, only the future or past. I also felt that adding a gender to every noun fundamentally impacted its character in ways lost to the English language, and my mind would fiddle over the exact meanings of colloquial Russian phrases.

Now, remembering how I learned Russian, I also think it was my first experience of meditation. Today, I consider thoughts to be something that can be cultivated over time through awareness and conscious choice. But in college my thoughts flew around like so many bats in a dark cave. It never occurred to me that there could be benefit from trying to bring order to them. The obsessiveness with which I picked up the language—and I could spend hours a day in rote memorization drills—was a way to force my brain to one single, carefully chosen idea at a time. Here, the word to go shopping. Here, the word for button. Here, the word for tail. All my dizzying, depressed thoughts would get locked away for however long it was necessary for me to complete my daily Russian practice.

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