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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Words That Fit When 'Spaghetti' Just Won't

The only way to really learn a foreign language, most say, is to fully immerse yourself in it. However, this notion may bring little comfort to those of us who have spent a reasonable period in Russia and are still struggling with simple case endings.

But after traveling abroad recently with some not-so-native speakers of Russian (and I include myself in this category), I can say with some authority that a trip away from Russia to a place where the local language is even more incomprehensible than Russian can make you realize just how far your language skills have progressed. A simple visit to a bulochnaya, or bakery, in Madrid, Tokyo, or Naples, for example, can be a challenging experience for those who don't speak Spanish, Japanese, or Italian.

My theory was first put to the test a few years back when I was visiting Paris with a Moscow-based friend of mine whose Russian was, well, not very good. Armed with our Berlitz phrase books and the firm belief that our rusty high school French would come back in no time, we hit the streets of Paris where, miraculously, my friend suddenly starting speaking beautiful Russian.

Skol'ko stoit, or how much, she would ask every vendor she happened upon, her soft signs ringing out perfectly. Her udarenoe, or stress, magically lit upon the correct syllable every time, and when asking directions, she never mixed up gde and kuda.

Gde nakhoditsya Eifeleva bashnya, or where is the Eiffel Tower?, she would ask a puzzled Parisian, following up her first question with kuda nam idti, or how do we get there?

During a recent holiday in Italy, where my knowledge of the native language is limited to about ten words that are mostly the names of types of pasta, I took particular notice of the Russian words that kept popping up unexpectedly. Every time I made myself understood, for example, the exclamation vot would slip out of my mouth in enthusiastic confirmation. Every cat was a koshka, and I kept longing for tapochki, or slippers, whenever my feet hit the cold floors.

There seemed to be no particular pattern guiding my muddled language patterns. Why, for example, should I respond with a pozhaluista to every word of thanks I heard, when the local prego (or, you are welcome), comes much easier to my native English-speaking tongue?

Or, for that matter, why should I be so quick to substitute Russian words rather than English ones in those instances when my ten words of Italian simply did not suffice? Poyekhali, for example, seems to come much easier than "let's go." And I found myself muttering nado zhe, loosely translated as "is that so?", in response to many of the wonders I saw.

There may be no scientific evidence to support my theory that one must visit another foreign destination to start speaking Russian, but how else do you explain my sudden inability to conjugate verbs upon touching down at Sheremetyevo?