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I'm not sure what language this is, but I think I understand

FRANCE | Saturday, 19 September 2015 | Views [189]

You'd think that, after one week of classes, I'd have enough familiarity with my schedule to be able to match names to numbers. Certainly, when I'm looking up the classrooms for the TDs, I'd pay accurate attention to which class I'm going to be going to. You'd be wrong.

So there I was, sitting down, glancing over my analysis notes, when I'm walks the TD instructor, and, welcoming us to the Topologie et calcul différentiel TD. It wasn't quite as bad as the pop-midterm in French class a few years ago, but the mixture of disappointment and "I'm not ready for this!" was similar.

The first thing the instructor did was hand out packets of exercises. The packet covered the first six chapters, and each chapter had three levels: absorption of course, exercises at the expected level, and challenges. So far so good.

I turned the page, and the TD started us on the exercises. Nevermind.

First of all, French was not her native language. While this wouldn't normally be a problem for me, French isn't my native language either. And I missed where she said she was from, but it wasn't somewhere that made her accent easier for me to understand. So basically, not American, and probably not Spanish either.

And the packet itself was not nearly as friendly as it looked. The first exercise was, very simply, to give definitions of seven different terms. Great. Except that in class, we'd only gone over two of the terms. Which made most of the first question much harder than it should have been.

The instructor was disappointed in us for not having taken careful notes or read the online notes, (because textbooks are only for Americans with ridiculous college tuition, or something like that) and told us we'd need to prepare better in the future. Because it was taking a lot more time than it should have to go over definitions.

Besides the generally not fun feeling of being scolded for something you don't think you did wrong, (I mean, I'd thought this was Integration and had definitely planned on reading and annotating the 70-page document just so I could be well prepared for the TD.) this meant that she thought the explanations she was giving us were sufficient. They weren't. We were working with sets, so it was a lot more accessible than it could have been, but the definitions were still not the most intuitive. And seeing them for the first time by someone who is frustratedly reviewing them is not conducive to them making sense.

After exercise 1, things got better. For the exercises. Then we were on to proofs involving the definitions we'd just reviewed for the first time. And I was lost. Not only did I have no idea how to do the exercises by myself, I didn't understood what she was doing when she went over them. Even setting aside the issues of terms I didn't understand, I couldn't even follow the logic she was using. It was an if and only if proof and, although I followed her for the first half, I got stuck on the first line of the second half. I knew she wasn’t proving it directly, but I couldn’t tell whether she was using a proof by contradiction, or she was proving the contrapositive, or possibly both. I tried to figure it out for a while, went back to silently banging my head against the problem for a while, tried to figure out what she was doing again, and eventually gave up and skipped to the next exercise.

When we were working silently on the exercises, she would walk around the classroom, looking at our papers and giving us help. While I would normally count this as a positive thing, especially compared to the distance of the lecture hall, it felt almost pushy when she did it. There's just not a good way to say "I don't understand anything you've said. I can not pay attention to math and your accent at the same time, and I chose math." So instead, I nodded when she asked me if I understood, and bluffed my way through a rough sketch of one of the exercises.

Quite frankly, within half an hour, all I cared about was making it through the class so I could work through the exercises on my own time with access to real definitions. If I was still trying the topology exercises, it was more because of a lack of anything better to do than genuine interest or hope of understanding. (I think it bears mentioning that during the entire class we stayed firmly within the "absorption of class" section. Turns out it's really hard to absorb things you've never seen before.)

I'm thinking of trying to get switched to a different TD. And also maybe following through on my plan from the summer of picking up a good topology book and using that to understand what the hell is going on. And deciding between actually reading through the polycopie and working through the exercises and just ignoring the class and hoping it goes away. And considering running screaming from all topology after this semester is over. (That might lose me some friends, though.)

When the TD was finally over, I had a one hour break. I used this to buy a sandwich and good a nearby park to eat it in. (Actually, to find the same park I'd eaten my quiche the first week here. It wasn't that near the university.) And then it was time to go to Russian.

I got to the building and stood next to a number of people near where I expected the classroom to be. I couldn't quite read the number on that door, but I could read the "2" on the door nearest to me and the "4" on the door on the far side. Now for two crucial questions: did I trust the layout of the building to make any sense, and did the people near me look like Russophiles?

I must have trusted something, because I followed everyone into the classroom with only a quick glance at the door I was entering. It was room 3, I was pretty sure I was in the right classroom. Still waiting for confirmation, though. Which took about five minutes. Not because no one talked, but because the instructor talked in French and in such vague terms it was impossible to tell which country's cultural activities she was encouraging us to attend. It wasn't until she mentioned a conference in Moscow that I was able to breathe a sigh of relief for not having gotten lost.

After that, we had a pretest, I think more for the instructor's benefit than for ours. (Good news: I remember the Cyrillic alphabet. Bad news: what is Russian grammar? I really don't remember.) And then we did introductions, explained why we were taking Russian and what our previous Russian experience had been, and talked about reading and film habits, and also music.

Even by my standards, Russian is a small class: about 12 people. It was also the least immersive language class I started high school. If people were talking and realized they had no idea what they were saying, they would switch into French. If the instructor was teaching us a phrase, she would do it by translating it directly. Instructions were in French. But of course, whenever possible, we were speaking in Russian.

Within 20 minutes, I stopped paying attention to what language people were speaking. Especially since it had been so long since I’d taken a Russian course. (A bit over two years.) If I paid a lot of attention to their specific words, I could remember learning the vocabulary and grammar, and could give a fairly direct translation of every other sentence I heard and understood. If I didn’t think about what I was doing, I could understand most of what people were saying.

What worked for comprehension did not work nearly as well for production. When it was my turn to speak, I would need to stick to simple sentences in response to the questions. I didn’t dare try anything fancy, since I knew that if I confused myself when speaking in Russian and fell back to another language to explain what I meant, there was only about a 30% chance that language would be French. And, honestly, I was kind of surprised that I was still able to make complete sentences in Russian. (Remember that my original plan had been to take a complete-beginner class. I’d also only had one day’s warning that I had successfully registered in Russian. So I’d not prepared myself as well as I should have.) Hopefully things start going slightly better, and I’ll be able to talk by the end of the semester.

For the last part of the class, we got a handout that was a chapter from a textbook. (Specifically, chapter 20.) It began with pronunciation exercises, so we went around the classroom reading words and syllables with ps and bs in them. Then we looked at the conjugations of four verbs, (sing, drink, eat, and wash) were told to do the rest of the packet for homework, and the class was over.

I’m increasingly convinced that my first instinct of starting Russian from scratch had been the right one. And if the instructor were to tell me “I think you’d be better of in the lower level,” I would not be entirely upset. But, unless she tells me something like that, I’m not dropping down. Some people in the class are definitely at a much higher level than I am, but the grammar that she was reviewing with us was definitely a review. I know how to read and write Cyrillic, I know basic greetings, I know how to conjugate verbs and have at least seen all the declinations, even if I’m not comfortable with them all. If that’s enough background, then I have a lot more that I could learn by staying in a more challenging level. And, especially since I haven’t had a chance to formally study Russian since high school, I want to make the most of it.

That Russian course was, without question, the hardest first day of a language class I’ve ever taken. It’s competing only with final exams, final presentations, and the French proficiency test for hardest single day of a language class. And I couldn’t have expected anything else. I’ve not had a conversation of more than five lines since I graduated high school. I was never going to enter that classroom and start rattling off fluid paragraphs about whatever the instructor wanted to ask me. I felt self-conscious about my short replies because I know I can do better… just not necessarily in Russian. Today, I was able to follow and even participate in a class taught in my second and fourth languages. It was challenging, and I know that the class will only get harder, but I’m looking forward to it. It's a sign of how much I still have to learn.

I suppose that same logic should apply to topology as well. Doesn't stop me from wishing that course could be a little clearer.

 

Tags: math, russian, topology

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