On Using Russian

“I haven’t spoken Russian in the course of ten year,” I bumbled to my instructor at a private language school near Belorussky Station in Moscow. “So what,” replied my instructor, “seems like you speak Russian to me.” That interchange started a six-week language-recovery and business-vocabulary-building program funded entirely through a Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship (FLAS) by the United States Department of Education (Ed) and administered by the University of Illinois’ Russian, East-European, and Eurasian Center (REEEC).

The first weeks of our daily six-hour, one-on-one meetings were tough. I botched palatalized consonants; after a few days of toil, we let our battles with the glide vowel slide into the background. And then, by the third week, I was speaking in a way that was not a total affront to my own ears. Yes, I had trouble getting my lips and tongue to contort just the right way to make Russian sounds; yes, my vocabulary felt like Swiss cheese. But, I made progress and began to acquire more confidence in speaking Russian poorly. 

By the end of six weeks, I was watching the slightly obnoxious “Time will Tell” on Channel One,” enjoying the best of Russia’s new “intellectuals” using foreigners with Russian skills worse than mine as their punching bags. What’s more, I was beginning to express my emotions, my desires, and my humor in Russian. I developed a solid foundation in the anglicisms of modern Russian business and, perhaps most importantly, I improved my ability to improvise when confronted with unfamiliar or extremely technical topics.

Since the fellowship ended in July, I have been working as the library systems engineer for Russia and CIS countries at EBSCO Information Services, a major global library software and content company. I am based in Berlin, and I travel to the region about twice a month. My language is not perfect. Still, I write a dozen emails a day in Russian to business partners, I give presentations on systems librarianship to large groups of experts, and I participate in negotiations with senior university administrators.

I want to thank Ed and REEEC for this wonderful opportunity to re-activate my Russian and use it. The fellowship allowed me to start my new career in the region with the confidence and humility I need to be successful. While my language aptitude might still be outside of Turgenev’s “Great, Powerful, Language,” it is fully operationally proficient. I’m using Russian — and that is the most important thing.

Douglas Heintz is a Summer 2017 FLAS Fellow.He graduated from the Illinois School of Information Sciences in August 2017 with a master’s degree in library and information science. He received his bachelor’s degree in Russian Language and Literature from Illinois in 2007. After a brief stint in grad school supported by FLAS, he worked as a university administrator at Illinois before returning to graduate school. He has studied Russian at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, Saint Petersburg State University, the University of New South Wales, Novosibirsk State University, Indiana University’s Summer Language Workshop, and the Liden and Denz Institute in MoscowAlways happy to discuss things Russian, Douglas can be contacted at daheintz@gmail.com.

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