I have always loved foreign languages , ever since I was a small student. I took care of my young Englishman, I looked after him and I immersed myself, trying to grasp all its enchanting facets, to respect the sounds, not to make mistakes … In practice, to be perfect. Growing up, this personal conviction of mine was confirmed in the high school years, when space was rarely made for mistakes (this, unfortunately, in all subjects). “Think before you speak” was not only the beginning of the refrain of a famous song in that period, but also the mantra that we all followed before expressing ourselves in English. We didn’t want to fool in front of the other classmates and, above all, in front of our teacher, the oracle of knowledge.
Then I enrolled in university. Languages, in fact. At that moment I had to choose another language to match my “perfect” English and I decided to follow my love for Dostoevsky, choosing Russian. Since that day everything has changed.
To begin with, the first bitter discovery: Russian has declinations, like Latin. Nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental, prepositive. This means that learning the translation of a name is not enough, it is not strictly unique.
To complicate things, the verbs of movement: for example, if in Italian I can ask a friend “where are you going?” regardless of where it is or what path it takes, in Russian it is not so. In fact, “Going” translates into four different ways: идти (idti), ходить (chodit ‘), ехать (echat’), ездить (ezdit ‘) and each type of translation has a specific use. Are you on foot or on a form of transportation? Is the movement unidirectional or not?
A third element of confusion is then the distinction between the two aspects of the verb, imperfective and perfective, the correct use of which is of fundamental importance for the meaning of the sentence. Saying ” ичиталакнигу “ (Jačitalaknigu) is not the same as saying ” Япрочиталакнигу “ (Japročitalaknigu): in both cases the Italian translation is “I read the book”, but in Russian there is a difference, since in the first case the verb indicates a progression (I spent the whole day reading the book, but I haven’t finished it), while in the second it indicates an action done and finished (I read the book and I finished reading it).
Not to mention the reading of the Cyrillic, the declension of personal names (“But will Chiara decline or not?”) And the fact that to give “Lei” in Russian you have to say Вы (Vy), that is “You
The result? When I started speaking Russian my idea of perfection slowly crumbled and the mantra “think before I speak” became a habit, an obstacle. I was stuck, sweating cold, I had too many things to connect before I could open my mouth. I thought I could never do it and with this idea I spent the first two years of university. Then, suddenly, at the beginning of the third year, they informed us of the arrival of some Russian-speaking students and teachers, who would spend the entire academic year with us. In addition, one of the teachers, Vasily, would have given us extra Russian lessons in the afternoon.
Once the course started, I went to the first lesson and then to the next one and those after that. Those precious hours changed my approach not only towards Russian, but towards all languages in general . In that small and bare classroom, without technological tools, Vasili taught me what nobody else had ever taught me: to make mistakes. Learning wrong, this was his formula. It didn’t matter if we were learning a tongue twister or animal names or describing our city. We had to talk, say everything that went through our heads, without stopping and without being afraid of making mistakes. And if we were wrong, well, a laugh in the middle of the lesson could not do us any good.
With Vasilij I learned that perfection does not exist, in any language , except in our mind. It works a bit like life: you can’t learn anything if you’re not wrong first.
From then on I started speaking Russian in the truest sense of the word. Indeed, the terms that I still remember best are those that I have confused for others, sometimes provoking general hilarity.
I transferred what I had learned with Russian to English, contaminating it. I threw myself, I cut the cord of thought. Now I just speak, and I feel much better. I am more confident and learn more. When I make a mistake and a native speaker points it out to me, I’m happy, because I know I will treasure that correction all my life.
Vasilij went away, but in the meantime we became friends. He does not live in Italy or in Russia. He lives in another state, where I went to find him. He speaks seven languages, I three. We use the common ones to speak, sometimes all together in the same sentence. We make mistakes. And we laugh about it.