Johnson, Jesse

Name: Jesse Johnson
Location of Study: Novosibirsk, Russia
Program of Study: Center for international education programs
Sponsor(s): Bob Berner


A brief personal bio:

I am a fourth-year graduate student in mathematics at the University of Notre Dame.  I come originally from Washington State near Mount Rainier.  I did my undergraduate work at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky.    Being a mathematician, I enjoy exploring the strong connections between mathematics and linguistics.  I have always had a penchant for language and grammar.  While I do not yet speak another language with a high degree of fluency, I am very familiar with several languages including Spanish, Latin, Greek, and Russian.

Why this summer language abroad opportunity is important to me:

Russian has always been a mysterious language to me.  Being an American child raised in the 80’s and 90’s, my only exposure to Russian culture was through television as James Bond villains and Boris and Natasha from “Rocky and Bullwinkle.”  The SLA grant will let me further explore the intricacies behind Russia and its prominent language.  I speak a few foreign languages somewhat poorly, and I would love for Russian to become the first foreign language that I can speak fluently.  The grant will also directly benefit my academic and career goals as well.  I will be studying at the Novosibirsk State University, which has both a great Russian-for-international-students program as well as a wonderful mathematical logic department.  My hope is that I will be able to immerse myself in Russian culture, deeply explore the workings behind the Russian language, and collaborate with the logicians, in Russian, and work on some beautiful mathematics.

What I hope to achieve as a result of this summer study abroad experience:

Obviously, I intend to become much more proficient at reading, writing, understanding, and speaking Russian.  I would like to obtain a level of proficiency and confidence in speaking Russian that would allow me explore certain options that could be available.  There are many mathematicians in Russian, and because of the Cold War, they and American mathematicians have not had sufficient opportunity to collaborate in their work.  I would like to be proficient enough in Russian to be able to work with the many Russian mathematicians and hopefully create some new and exciting mathematics.  After graduation, I plan to teach college undergraduates.  I think it would be a wonderful experience for them and myself if I could lead groups of students to Russia every so often with the purpose of both exploring a vastly different culture and to meet and work with some Russian mathematicians willing to work with young Americans interested in mathematics.  Such an experience would never be possible without the opportunity to study the Russian language so extensively this summer.

My specific learning goals for language and intercultural learning this summer:

  1. By the end of the summer, I will be able to communicate with native speakers in Russian about academic and cultural topics, such as mathematics, art, and foreign policy.
  2.  By the end of the summer, I will be able to efficiently read articles written in Russian pertaining to my own research interests.
  3.  By the end of the summer, I will have an increased level of confidence to initiate contact and interact in Russian with native Russian speakers.
  4.  By the end of the summer, I will be able to clearly explain in Russian my line of work and my research in a coherent manner.

My plan for maximizing my international language learning experience:

I will be studying in the middle of Russia, not a big tourist destination.  Novosibirsk has relatively few English-speakers, and I will have to communicate in Russian with the locals everyday.  Of course, I will be taking Russian classes on various topics of grammar and such.  However, I will have the unique opportunity to practice my Russian with colleagues at the Sobolev institute at Novosibirsk State University, most of whom do not speak much English.    For a daily plan, I will attend and participate in all of my classes.  If time allows, I will speak with the professors in the mathematics department about collaboration.  I will venture into the city to explore the culture and to buy any necessary supplies.  When I have the time, I will go to as many cultural events as possible – museums, theaters, sporting events, etc.

Reflective Journal Entry 1: First week

I arrived in Novosibirsk a few days ago. I knew what I was getting into before I left, but I guess I didn’t quite prepare myself mentally. Hardly anyone speaks English. Even most of the other students in the language program don’t speak much English. I knew that this would be the case, but I suppose that in the back of my mind I felt that, if I really needed help, English would be sufficient. That isn’t the case. It’s just a sea of Russian (with some Korean mixed in for some reason). This city really is a great place for complete immersion. I just hope my current level of proficiency is enough for basic communication.
Interacting with the locals has been interesting. So far, I’ve really on spoken to the clerks at the local supermarkets. I can tell they don’t get many foreigners here. When they hear my accent, they get this puzzled look on their faces as if they’re trying to decide if I’m a foreigner, or just mentally-retarded. Usually, when I’ve attempted to speak a foreign language in a different country (for example, Spanish in Spain), the locals would hear my accent, and then speak a bit more slowly and clearly. The locals here do not do that. In fact, I’m fairly certain they speak even faster and more mumbled. At least everyone is wonderfully nice.

What do I hope to attain from my time here? I’d like to be able to carry on a basic conversation with a local without much difficulty. Right now, I can express basic ideas in a very slow and forced manner, but it creates and awkward situation between the speaker and the listener. By the end of these six weeks, I would like to remove most of this awkwardness in formulating speech. I would also like to be able to understand most everything that is said at native-level speed. As I’m getting a constant input of Russian, I’m more certain that this will happen by the end. In fact, I think I’m already improving in my listening skills. I wish I could say the same for my speaking skills.

Before I started the program, I was under the impression that their optional excursions around the city cost extra money, but that is not the case. So I will have even more opportunities to interact with the locals. These excursions will include museums, a ballet, a day at the beach, and a few more. I’m excited. These will be a great chance to get out of this academic center I’m living in and to interact with the people in the heart of the city.

Reflective Journal Entry 2: Russian slang

I’ve found that the Russian one learns in the classroom is largely different than common-use Russian. Even the classes in Novosibirsk teach a Russian that is different than in common practice. The main difference is the use of full words and complete sentences, or lack thereof. For example, numbers are commonly abbreviated. “Thousand” or тысяча (ti-si-cha) often is said as тыща (ti-shcha). “Sixty” or шестьдесят (shest’-di-syat) is often said as шестьсят (shest’-syat). Such words are not found in any dictionary or book, but they are heard all over the place. I first noticed this at a local flea market. After asking the price, I was answered with a string of words that vaguely resembled numbers, but missing a few syllables. After a few more such responses, I cracked the code and began practicing using them in my own colloquial speech. Later, I confirmed with one of my instructors that there is indeed a large usage of such abbreviations, and it is good to be able to recognize them.
It is also very common to have entire conversations with forming a complete sentence. I assume this is to combat the average long length of words in Russian. For example, a common dialog at the supermarket checkout is the following:
–With you? (Handing your gum to you)
–Five hundred four rubles.
–(Hand money)
–Exact change, no?
Even among friends, speech is abbreviated:
–Go to the beach?
–Yes, when?
–In an hour or so. The girls will meet us.
–Good. Beer is necessary?
–(And so on.)

Reflective Journal Entry 3: Russian culture

Before I left a Russian math professor told me that standing in line in Russia is an art form. I can see what he means. Standing in line is an active participation. You enter the end of the line, and if someone attempts to cut in front of you, you are required, for the sake of those behind you, to move him to the back. If you fulfill your duties in line, the other members of the line will get your back.

However, sometimes there are some interesting line-standing maneuvers I’ve seen. My favorite is when a local will place a shopping basket with one item in it in the line. Then she will dash around the store grabbing items for a few minutes. When she returns with her load of groceries, her basket is now close to the front of the line. I may have to try that in the U.S. and see how people react. Another, which is usually only done by women, is to move to the front of the line, and then explain hastily why she needs to be in front of you. Usually the excuses are pretty wild, like a dying child or having left the oven on.

I actually got in a small fight over standing in line. In this particular grocery store, there are two checkout lanes. I approached the lines just behind another man. The two lines had roughly equal numbers of people. The man in front of me had a very full cart. In my head, I thought, “I’ll let him pick his line and then stand in the other one.” The man stood there, eyeing the lines for a good ten seconds. I figured I’d make the decision for him, so I went to stand in the right lane, but I was cut off by the man. “Ok, I’ll stand in the left lane.” But when I went for the left lane, the man moved, obviously blocking my advancement. People were starting to crowd behind us, wanting to get in their respective lines. Realizing that he would not be able to dance back and forth blocking that many people, the man does what any sane jackass would do. He stands sideways with his cart in the right lane and his body stretched awkwardly across the two lanes. Getting to the point of ridiculous, I predicted that he would eventually choose the right lane, so I chose my position in the left. People lined up behind me and to the side of me in the right side. The man refused to pick a lane, so I decided to choose for him. I inserted myself in front of him on the left side. He was clearly not pleased by this, and said that he was in line. Frustrated, I asked in Russian, “Then which line are you in? The right or the left? Not both.” Hearing my accent, he didn’t acknowledge my question, but rather said something clearly mocking my speech and said he couldn’t understand me (obviously lying). I asked again, and he again said he couldn’t understand. This is when being an active participant in a line paid off. The people behind us then got my back and said he needed to cut the crap and do what I asked. So he finally chose a lane, which happened to be in front of me, so I got to stand behind him while the clerk checked out his very large pile of groceries. It was a good experience for me, even though it didn’t get me anything.

Reflective Journal Entry 4: Local minorities

During my entire stay in Novosibirsk, I saw only one person of African descent. I did not know her at all, so I was too embarrassed to stop her to ask, “Hey, you’re black, how’s that going for you?” Talking to the locals, they say that they’re a little surprised when they see a black person around town. Novosibirsk doesn’t get many visitors, and the local population is mostly of European or Eastern-Asian descent. Thus, they usually assume that a black person must be a visitor. As visitors are rare, they’re often treated as dignitaries, hoping to hear tales of far off places.

I found it interesting that around this part of Russia, there is some similar racial tension that is present in America. Novosibirsk has an immigration problem with the Chinese jumping the Russian border near Novosibirsk. Similar to areas in Southwestern America, Novosibirsk has been seeing various influences of Chinese culture. There are many Chinese in Novosibirsk that do not speak Russian and do not associate with the local Russians all that much. The evidence of influence isn’t nearly as apparent as with Mexico and the U.S., but it is certainly still there.

Some of the older residents of Novosibirsk do not look favorably on this mass immigration. In fact, one of my instructors often brought this issue up, saying that Novosibirsk is “becoming China,” and that the face of the population is changing. The locals are fascinated by foreigners, unless they’re from China. China isn’t so mysterious to them anymore.

I talked with a few of the local Chinese immigrants. According to them, they were all legal residents of Russia. I’m not sure about their parents though. They agreed with my observation that the young people do not seem to mind or notice the increase in Chinese influence. One interviewee was a 3rd generation Russian. He said it was frustrating that most people assume he is a Chinese immigrant because of his looks. (His grandparents were actually from Kazakhstan.) I suppose there is a similar tendency in America with Latinos. They reported that they sometimes get grief from the older locals, but nothing ever gets violent. As long as someone doesn’t walk into a store and start talking to the clerk in Chinese, everyone gets along just fine. However, as with Mexican immigrants in the U.S., many of the most undesirable jobs are often done by Chinese immigrants. For example, gardening in commercial areas is either done by the wives of the owners or by cheap Chinese labor. On the whole, the interviewees didn’t feel too alienated from society, as long as they spoke the language, but there definitely was a tendency for ethnic groups to form their own secluded neighborhoods and social groups. I imagine that the lack of extreme racial tension is due largely to the fact that Novosibirsk is a very educated city. One in six of the residents is a current student at the various institutes, and most of the population has a college degree.

Another minority population is the homosexual community. I wasn’t able to talk to a homosexual local, mostly because there is no way of knowing someone’s orientation other than asking directly. Plus, Russia isn’t exactly a place where homosexuals publicly announce their sexual orientation. One of my instructors once referred to gay people with a word I’m pretty sure means something like “the destructive ones.” Again, as Novosibirsk is a very educated town, there isn’t much of a mass hatred of homosexuals, although the city is still quite a few decades from having a pride parade. There are no well-known gay bars, no rainbow flags. In fact, I’m not sure if some of the locals would even understand the idea of homosexuality. It just isn’t largely discussed anywhere. Heterosexuality is very common in conversation though. Many times, I’ve been asked about my recent sexual escapades in great detail. It often felt very uncomfortable. I’m curious if women get asked similar questions.

Reflective Journal Entry 5: Russians in general

I had a unique experience today. One of the mathematicians I have been working with set up a chance for me to talk with his son’s English class. (A funny side note – I did not know about this at all until on the way to the school, so it was a surprise for me.) The class had about 15 kids in it, all about age 8. I was invited to talk with them because, apparently, Americans are a rare sight in Novosibirsk, and being able to speak with one is a unique experience for the kids. For the most part, the kids just asked me questions (in English, usually) about life in the United States. They also asked about my favorite foods and pets, and so forth. We had some fun trying to figure out the translation for “ferret.” The idea of a family owning a clothes dryer, a car, and a computer (even two!), was very foreign to them. One kid was very interested in my taste in music. It turns out that quite a few Siberian children enjoy American 70’s rock.

To make this relevant for the purposes of this journal, I should detail our conversation about English and Russian languages. Admittedly, I was relieved to learn that most Russians believe and acknowledge that the Russian language is difficult to learn. We discussed the Russian noun system, and the Russians tend to learn them. Of course, the answer is just years of practice. But few Russians ever fully perfect this difficult aspect of Russian grammar. They find it a very forgivable offense for a foreigner to use occasionally the wrong case ending in speech. It is sometimes even a stereotype about foreigners, just as speech without articles is a stereotype we have for Russians. We also talked about the use of articles in English. I was asked to give my interpretation of how they work, which is not an easy thing to do if you haven’t been teaching first-grade grammar recently. During this part of the conversation, we would switch between Russian and English. The kids got to laugh at my thick accent and my struggle to produce correct case endings. The kids picked up objects with Russian writing on them and asked me to read them, mostly so they could giggle at my accent some more. It was a fun time, but only something I could tolerate with kids. (I don’t want to be an object of humor for a group of adults for an hour.)

We also discussed stereotypes in general. I told them which Russian stereotypes existed in America. They had two American stereotypes that I found interesting. First, some believe that the Americans want to take over Russia. This is a similar idea to the stereotypes seen in our movies involving Russian terrorists (Red Dawn, etc.). It was a strange experience to learn that the stereotype works both ways. The second is that they believe the Americans often believe the stereotype that there are bears everywhere. I was cognizant of this before this meeting. I’ve seen many shirts available in the shops that say, “I have been to Russia. There are no bears.” I was confused by these shirts and had to look there meaning up online. I’m not sure where this idea came from. I know I never associated a plethora of bears with Russia, maybe a bear on a tricycle, but not a bear on every street corner. Somehow, the Russians got it in their head that Americans think bears roam the streets of Russia.

It was a fun and unique experience. I’m glad I had the opportunity.

Reflective Journal Entry 6: Leaving Russia

I leave Russia in two days. I’ve been done with the language program for about 10 days. This last week and a half has just been full of math with the Russian mathematicians. The language program lasted 6 six, 120 credit hours. Were the language classes worth it? No, not really. I learned a few pronunciation tips as well as some new grammar, but mostly it was a large review of grammar from first-year Russian. Was living in Siberia for six weeks beneficial? Absolutely. Being forced to speak Russian in order to interact with anyone has been a great way to practice Russian. I only wish I had been bolder in starting conversations. Many of the locals were interested in talking with me – a rare foreigner. I definitely didn’t use my resources to their full potential. Of course, I did work quite hard to interact with the locals. I made a few new friends and a few times a week would go on some sort of excursion with them – a movie, the beach, out to eat, drinking, etc. Progress started very slowly. The language didn’t seem be flowing from me with any more fluency. It was about three or four weeks before I found myself conjugating nouns without too much thought. Of course, this was for relatively simple sentences, but at least I could see some improvement. Now that I can definitely notice improvement, it’s a shame that I have to leave already.

I think I’ve had enough experience learning and speaking Russian to come to an observation somewhat unique to Slavic languages (as opposed to Latin or Greek-based languages). Russian is much more difficult to speak than it is to comprehend speech. While learning Latin, Spanish, and Greek, I always found that it was always just as difficult to understand the speed of native speech as it is to formulate grammatically-correct sentences. With Russian, it is relatively simple to decipher meaning from native speech since there are relatively few words in an average clause, and no matter what case of a noun is used, the listener knows what noun is being used. With speech, the speaker needs to conjugate nouns in real time, which is horribly difficult for non-native speakers (and often native speakers as well. Of course, noun cases exist in Latin as well (eight of them!), but the stricter notion of sentence structure makes conjugating nouns easier.

The point is, the time I’ve spent here, practicing conjugating nouns in real time has been a vital part of my quest to master the language. I only wish I had more time here to practice even more.

Postcard(s) from Abroad:

Reflection on my language learning and intercultural gains:

What I really learned about the Russian language is how difficult it is to learn how to speak. Russian is the first language I’ve studied in which listening to the language is far easier than speaking it. This difficulty mostly comes down to the noun-case system. Being able to conjugate nouns in real-time conversation takes far more practice than it does to recognize a conjugated noun. Because of this difficulty, I did not meet all my goals for learning Russian. However, I did improve markedly in both my listening skills and speaking skills, although I am still far from fluent.

I engaged cultural differences quite often. I would do so by going to movies/performances, getting directions, talking with the locals, asking for recommendations, and visiting museums. Some of my understandings of these differences can be found in my journal entries.

Reflection on my summer language abroad experience overall:

Living abroad always puts life in America in perspective. Living in Siberia was especially enlightening. I lived in a place where the thought of a family owning more than one car seemed impossible, where living without warm water for a few weeks is a common part of life, where there is almost no crime because no one really has anything of extreme monetary value. It really makes you appreciate the luxuries we have in the States.

Some of the things I’ve learned about Russia and Russians :
– In general, Russians are remarkably neutral toward America — no strong feelings either way.
– Russians do, in fact, smile, just not very often. Friendliness appears in generous actions rather than superficial appearances and speech.
– Although it has been 20 years since the fall of the USSR, it’s influences are still seen all over in the more remote Siberian parts of Russia. Further, Soviet era is not always viewed as a negative time in their history, and a traveler should be careful when talking about the topic.
– While chivalry is largely dead, respect for one’s elders is universally acknowledged.
– Many Russians are not proud of their country, they tend to be very proud of their cities, homes, and families.

Many more can be found in my journal entries.

The biggest advice I can give to a student wanting to learn Russian in Russia is to use nothing but Russian your entire time there. A Siberian town far from the European side, like Novosibirsk, is a good option. In these towns, very few people speak English. Unless you just live a complete Russian lifestyle for an extended period of time, you’ll never develop even a rudimentary level of speaking Russian. You can listen to TV and take all the courses you want, but unless you go out and have a few hundred hours of conversation, your speech will never evolve past the incredibly-choppy-and-forced stage.

How I plan to use my language and intercultural competences in the future:

As of now, I am continuing the Russian program at Notre Dame. I hope that the second year courses will keep me refreshed in the language enough until I have the chance to return to Russia. Unfortunately, this is my last year at Notre Dame and will not be able to go onto a third year. Hopefully, wherever I end up as a professor will have some sort of way for me to keep up with the language.

I would like to be able to lead groups of future students in trips in Russia to expose them to Russian mathematics. Having lived in Siberia, I feel that I am much more qualified to do so. Now, I really need to get my fluency to an acceptable level.