The summer before I started college found me holed up in the upstairs sitting room, hunched over my Mac, reading strange letters and listening to recordings of said letters. I was teaching myself the Russian alphabet. I knew that the alphabet, like our own Latin alphabet, has different forms for printed and cursive writing. I didn’t understand cursive, so I focused on learning to how read the print.
It was hard. It reminded me of the time in third grade when my friend and I made up a secret code. A symbol stood for each letter of the alphabet and we planned to pass notes to each other in our super-secret language. When we actually tried this, we found that it wasn’t so easy to read the code, so we had to painstakingly decipher each symbol and write down what letter it represented. Learning Cyrillic was like this. I had almost the entire alphabet memorized in a couple of days, with the exception of the hard sign, the soft sign, and a sound we don’t have in English that’s usually represented as “y”. (A Russian politician disparaged this sound and I wrote about it here.)
I learned to read a few simple words, like привет [privyet; means hi], пока [poka; means goodbye] and the like. I even managed to decipher a whole sentence, though I didn’t understand the grammar behind it: Вместе победим [vmeste pobedim], which was Dmitry Medvedev’s campaign slogan for the 2008 elections. It means “Together we will win.” But reading whole words, much less sentences, was so difficult. It wasn’t automatic in my brain, the way reading the letters of the Latin alphabet is.
In July, something happened that almost made me stop studying Russian: the arrest of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić. I learned all I could about the Balkans and wanted to study Serbian. The only thing that prevented me from doing so was the nonexistence of a Serbian program at my university.
(To be continued…)