Posted by: jmarleneh | October 22, 2008

Teaching American Culture (i.e. English) & Misunderstanding Russia’s

A student in one of the English conversation classes I help lead cried in class the other day. It surprised me and made me laugh harder. The class was trying to explain a political joke to me that I still don’t understand. I think they found how I tried to reinterpret what they said even more amusing than the original joke. I was so delighted to see Russians laughing. Perhaps, it was technically at me. But I like to think it was more at how much meaning gets lost when you try to directly translate word by word. This day in particular we were learning that the actual words weren’t as important as understanding the cultural context. We were having another “lost in translation” moment. But instead of the awkward fidgeting, whispering and sighing I sometimes hear everyone was laughing. Irina, who is usually so quiet laughed so hard she cried. And I still don’t understand the joke. Yuliya gave me some homework so I could understand by next class. We’ll see if that could help.

This class in particular had been full of laughs. Earlier Yuliya had tried to translate a Russian probverb that doesn’t seem to have an English equivalent- or at least certainly not the way she tried to explain it! Sergei liked the word “Bungalow” and kept repeating it over and over again. “Do you want to live in a Bungalow?” (The conversation topic was suppose to be: where people live). I also had to explain what the verb “to share” meant and how to use it to everyone’s amusement. “A husband and wife can share a car. It isn’t just his. They both own it and use it. They share the car.” Evgeni cracked a wide grin from the back of the class. “Eh, common use . . . Communism” he added before chuckling. “Yes, we understand” By now the whole class had started laughing. The class had already taught me a lot about what it meant to live under communism and now I– the young American- was trying to teach them the concept. I love how amusing this class in particular has been! Much is lost even in this attempt to retell it! In Russia especially words fail me- and not just because my dictionary doesn’t have them or I can’t prounounce them- context is everything. I invite all who read to join me here and share a good laugh.

Perhaps I should explain (in case you didn’t already know) that Rebecca and I have been given the opportunity to help out at a private English school that teaches students and adults. We were so elated when we were asked if we’d be interested in helping!

I owe a great deal of my excitement here to this. Living in the dorm on a floor with other foriegners (and in a room with another American) makes me wish I could immerse myself more in Russian culture. Although living in the dorm, especially in such a nice room as ours, has its own advantages I’ve often longed to spend more time with Russians! So I am really grateful for the interaction with other Russians this teaching opportunity has given us. I learn so much about Russian culture and how Russians think from the classes I help lead. We have even become friends with some of our students and meet them outside of class.

This is how we met our friend Elena who has invited us over to her house to meet her friends and family. Elena teaches English to elemetnary age children and also has some older pupils. She’s invited us over to her house again this weekend to meet some of her pupils and get them more excited about studying English. We have visited her church more than once and have just hung out with her and some of her friends. The city is small so I’ve seen some of Elena’s friends down at teh center and it’s such a great feeling to see someone you know and have an excuse to smile and talk to them (yes, in Russian)! Most of her friends speak little to no English. Last time we were invited to a birthday party of one her friends and one of the guys we met told us that we were the first Americans he had ever met! He was so excited! (We had some delicious Russian food and sang songs and even danced a little!). We speak a combination of English and Russian around her outside of class- trying to get by on our Russian to practice but also helping Elena practice her English! Her friends tend to speak little English so it’s really helpful hanging out with him and practising our Russian. I am especially excited to meet some of her younger pupils this Sunday! I love the enthusiasm, curiousity and shameless inhibition of younger children- their sincerity and enthrallment with life can be so refreshing!

On Mondays and Tuesdays Rebecca and I take a 45 minute bus ride to the school and help lead some English conversation classes. On Monday we always teach one together and two seperately! I like leading the conversation class by myself better- I am less nervous and self-concious somehow adn my pupils in the next class are also older and seem more comfortable asking me questions. I am the youngest one there! I still remember their reaction: “Only 20! And leading their conversation class?!” They had thought I was a graduate school student studying to become a teacher- I wish! They couldn’t think I was already an experienced teacher because I often need help from the students to explain things more clearly. I tend to explain things in a very convoluted way. Ask anyone who has watched me try to explain something simple! But I am learning that experience and attitude are what can make good teachers! The school gives us worksheets to go through but in the class I described above we only got through 2 excercises they had too many questions about where and how Americans actually live. I love how comfortable this class has grown with me! We’re free to ask questions that make us sound ridiculous! And I love that we can laugh freely at ourselves and others in a friendly way.  I really enjoy teaching English to foriegners, I’ve been delighted by how amusing the adults are to teach! I hope to find a similar opportunity to volunteer back in Portland. I just had to write a lot about this because I am sure it will become one of my fondest memories here.



  1. That’s awesome, Jess. I’m glad you’re having so much fun teaching! It sounds like it’s a blast.

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