The Effects of Brute Memorization: Navigating Around a Mental Block

How to Train Your Dragon : Making sleepy NSLI-Y students confident in how to say “But I don’t want to kill dragons!”

18, 23, 28, 53 –  these are the amounts of Russian vocabulary words I’ve been told to memorize each night over the last few days.  Granted, some words were repeats, some days our dictation quizzes were cancelled, but that doesn’t change the fact that in the last three weeks, I’ve added 308 flashcards to my “New Russian Words” Anki deck and every term was added with the intention of being memorized within 24 hours. I’ve often criticized language courses for their slow pace when it comes to introducing new vocabulary, but having now experienced a class with an opposite  approach, I miss the lazy days of writing out pages worth of sentences and Quizlet Live. 

I’ve never had too many problems with memorization, however, in the last few days, I’ve been struggling to cram even one more word into my brain. I spent an hour on the bus glaring at my phone as my mind completely erased everything I had learned the night before. I could repeat a word six times, turn my gaze to the window, then completely forget what I was saying. Carrot, Cucumber, Beetroot… all of these words are must-know, basic Russian words, but for some reason, they refuse to stick. Being the lazy, easily-frustrated, slacker I am, I gave up that day on the bus and grudgingly accepted that the day’s vocab quiz was going to be more red X’s than smily faces. When we were assigned a poem to memorize that afternoon, I began to panic.

I assumed that if my brain couldn’t even remember the word for tomato, there was no way that she would agree to letting a nine stanza poem into her memory.

That night, however, as I sat down at my desk, tea and cookies in hand, I found myself reciting lines by heart after only a few minutes. Confused but pleased, I considered myself cured– maybe my brain just works better between midnight and 2:00 AM. Naturally, I took another look at my vocab list from the day before, but once again, not a single word could get past the double-locked doors to wherever Russian food vocabulary gets stored. That magical memorization of the poem I’d done moments earlier seemed to be nothing but a fluke.

This time though, instead of giving up, I thought about why it was that I could learn poetry but not name the ingredients in borsht. I reminded myself that:

A. Nobody is meant to learn 30 foreign vocab words a night,

B. I’d been using the same method of memorization for the last three weeks, and

C. Flipping through a virtual flashcard death is one of the most un-interesting and mindless things that a person can do.

And so, with these three things in mind, I grabbed my computer and headed off to Youtube Land where I searched “Learn Russian!” (Yes, exclamation mark included). I started watching videos that tested my listening skills and listened to various explanations of the prepositional case. When I logged onto Fluent-U, I considered myself advanced enough for the “Elementary” category, and watched a Russian Nespresso commercial staring George Clooney, where I finally figured out the meaning of “правда” and for the first time that week, felt myself improve.

There’s nothing wrong with learning new words, it’s necessary to speak in another language,  but the way you learn new words is important. My teacher here in Russia says “quantity grows into quality’, but I think I may need a new motto for my personal learning style.

I need a stimulus more active than a virtual flashcard to improve my Russian.

I need to generate my own language and focus on identifying familiar words in a dialogue or video before I sit down and flip through Anki. For me, I’ve found that recapping my day in Russian– what I wore, what I did, how I’m feeling– and watching videos online with Fluent-U to be the most useful learning methods.

Every few days or so, I switch it up. If I’m feeling like a blob, I’ll watch a movie I’m familiar with in Russian with English subtitles, or listen to a language learning podcast (Actual Fluency is my favorite) to gather inspiration. 

Sure, my grades on Dictation have taken a bit of a blow, but I’m able to stumble my way through a paragraph or two describing my daily routine in front of my teacher, so I think she knows that I’m doing okay.

Sleep Deprived on a Russian High

32 hours later…

It was a typical Tuesday morning. I crawled out of bed at 8:00, stumbled my way toward coffee, ate a banana and walked toward my car. This morning, however, I picked up more than just my backpack on my way out the door. With more than a few yelps and groans, I managed to get a 50 pound suitcase and 30 pound carry-on down the stairs and into the trunk of my car without falling flat on my face or breaking any toes. For the third time in a single year, I packed up my life and headed to the airport, not for a month of Spanish camp or a semester in France, but a six week stint in Kirov, Russia.

Fortunately, it only took a 45 minute puddle-jumper flight to get me to my orientation in New York, but this was only the first leg of what would prove to be an exhausting travel journey. When I arrived at the orientation, I knew what to expect. I met my  first group of friends at the airport, where I was instantly labeled “the one not from the Southwest”.

Our orientation was as all orientations are– a friendship factory meant to ally us before we were shipped off to our final destination, safety packets and pre-departure language guides in hand.

After two days of various seminars and history lessons, we headed to the airport to board a 10 hour red-eye to Moscow. As per usual, I didn’t sleep a wink, but I was smart enough to pack a toothbrush, cleanser, and concealer in my backpack, so I looked more, “Post-airplane Tousled” as opposed to “Exhausted, Caffeine-deprived Zombie”. From the airport we dived straight into the city, plopping down right in the center of Red Square. Seeing something that amazing surely shakes the sleep from your eyes, let me tell you that. From Red Square we headed to a small restaurant/buffet where we ate our first dose of Russian cuisine and experienced our first involuntary photo-op from a pack of confused strangers.

I supposed that Moscow would be similar to Paris, underwhelming at first and filled to the brim with tourists, but surprisingly, a group of rowdy Americans stuck out like a sore thumb. Anywhere I walk with my friends in Russia, native’s stares cling to our cameras and loud voices. It definitely didn’t help that we decided to do “morning energizers” at the park in front of the Kremlin. On the bright side, some of the guards started laughing at us and waved, so… win? Somehow, the constant walking tours and 3rd grade activities kept all of us at least partially awake, so we were able to appreciate our first day in Russia in its most recognizable city.

Flash forward 14 hours and voilá! Our train arrives in Kirov– home for the next six weeks. Sleep-deprived and somewhat wilted, I once again dragged my boulder of a suitcase up the hostel’s two flights of stairs to the suite I’ll share with three other girls, some of the best friends I’ve made so far. These suites consist of two bedrooms connected to a small, dimly lit common area with a bathroom, toilet, and a fridge– the best part of any room for every study abroad student. The rooms are adorable with window seats, armchairs, a table for tea, and two comfortable beds for those rare occasions on program when you actually get to sleep.

So, sleep.

If there is one thing that NSLI-Y lacks, it’s time to rest. Classes fill the morning hours until 1:15, excursions run until about 5, followed by culture classes, meetings with our local coordinator (also known as tea-time therapy hour), and activities with Russian peers until 10:00. As you may be able to imagine, the homework load for a language program this intense is enormous and takes about 3-4 hours to complete (with tea and rice cake breaks as needed). That puts bedtime at around 2:00 in the morning allowing for five hours of sleep on a good day. Whether it’s memorizing vocab lists for the following day’s spelling test, grammar exercises, memorizing presentations and dialogues, or reviewing the day’s lessons and looking up words you want to know, there’s always plenty of work to be done.

Because of all of this work, it’s hard to appreciate all of the excursions and activities that fill up our schedules.

I find myself dreading anything that inhibits my study time, but fortunately for my sanity, I wind up enjoying myself 90% of the time.

So far, we’ve taken walking tours around the city, visited a museum dedicated to a famous Russian heart surgeon from Kirov region, and spent a day line dancing to entertain kids at a Summer camp. With each step I take in this city, I appreciate this program ten times more. Kirov is beautiful, full of stunning landmarks, open squares, ice cream carts, and, most importantly, and Adidas store. Where else would people buy their matching track suits?

All in all, my first week in Russia has been quite an experience; I feel like I’ve been here for a month, though I know that I’ve only dipped my toes into this country’s  language and culture. I’ll keep plowing through the verb conjugations and continue adding cards to my Anki deck and continue taking as many pictures as humanly possible.

Rice cakes with peanut butter and Nutella await…

 

A Random Ramble About a City I Love

Boston, Boston, Boston

In my mind, I have possessed the city of Boston since I was young. In reality, I have never possessed something so magnificent or grand.

Only a few days of my childhood were spent shopping for overpriced Christmas gifts for my mother and playing in the fountains near the Mother Church after Sunday school. Of course the airport and field trips to the Science and Children’s Museum were sprinkled in there as well. Yet these fleeting moments accumulated and allowed me to believe that I’ve known the city better than my peers. I don’t know street names, nor do I know what color T line connects South Station to Back Bay. How far away is TD Garden from Fenway? I couldn’t tell you. I have never known what the streets smell like in summer or how it differs from what they smell like in the winter. I’ve been misinformed about the history of the city and the injustices that have occurred on the same streets that smell of molasses on a warm summer’s day.  

The Red Soxs were the last MLB team to desegregate. When I first heard this fact I thought I had hear them wrong. “You mean Austin, as in Austin, Texas?” No, Boston. I would continue to repeat “Boston, Boston, Boston” until the word sounded foreign on my tongue. The word sounded nearly as foreign as the possibility of Boston being a racist city. How could my cherished city be one that harbors a racist history?

My sister wrote her capstone about the desegregation of busses that occurred in Boston from 1974-1988. In history we read about the bussing problem and saw a picture of a white man trying to stab a black man with an American flag. An unexpected, and unwanted, surprise. How much do I really know about the city I claim to have grown up in? I can recognize the skyline, but I can’t recognize the continued displays of racism. The tradition of singing “Sweet Caroline’ at the bottom of the 8th inning must have made me deaf to the racial slurs chanted at the players on the other team. It makes me wonder to what other injustices I have been ignorant to.

Boston is a beautiful city with an ugly past. I loved walking on the streets with my cousins and siblings during hot summers, but I loved marching with my mother, sister, and little brother to stand for women’s’ rights even more.

Why I Strive to Become Mr. American Flag Guy

That Dumb American Tourist

He struts off the plane with his head held high. His jacket swings open as he swaggers over to customs so you can see the T-shirt he has beneath with that obnoxious eagle wearing a red white and blue hat. If you were to open his backpack, you would see a travel sized American flag rolled up in the side pocket because, as he often reminds us, “A good American never leaves home without one.” The backgrounds on his laptop range from George Washington to Reagan, and if you ask his why, his answer is always “because I’m an American”.  

He wears his sunglasses indoors and refuses to use any voice level below eight. He pronounces Je voudrais as Jenny Craig- and unlike me, he’s having the time of his life.

When I went on a school trip to Europe with 42 other members of my class, I knew that no matter where I went, I would instantly be labeled as a dumb tourist- one of those annoying ones whose group takes up all the tables in a restaurant and refuses to speak anything but English. I hate being perceived like this when abroad, so, I did what any reasonable person would do and tried to blend in.

I brought all my European-esque clothes, hid under my scarf, and tried to stay towards the back of the pack where it wouldn’t be obvious that I was with the group. When in France and Belgium, I tried to only speak French. In Amsterdam, I downloaded an app to learn some Dutch so could at least say Hello, and ask for coffee. On the metro in Paris, when my group hogged an entire car and kept yelling about whales, I drifted to the back, put in my headphones, and kept my head down. I’m not going to lie, I was not only embarrassed, but miserable.

For six months while I studied abroad in France, I made it my primary objective every day to fit in. I wanted people to forget that I was just another exchange kid- I wanted to be seen as French. Obviously I still wasn’t able to completely shake that mindset, as I was very, very uncomfortable on that metro months later. But that night, I made it a point to observe and emulate Mr. American Flag Guy.

Mr. American Flag Guy is shamelessly American; patriotic, confident, aggressive, and has no problem relating everything back to big business. He was having a great time making a fool of himself on the metro, yelling on the streets, and taking tacky tourist photos at every turn. Meanwhile, I was trying my hardest to become a speck of dust on the bottom of some Parisian woman’s shoe. At that moment, I realized just how pathetic I was and reminded myself that I have years upon years to blend in and feel like a true Parisian. I would never be back in Paris with my high school friends; this opportunity to whip out the selfie stick and laugh at the top of my lungs would be gone forever in a matter of days. So, I got my ass out of the corner and joined in the ruckus.

Sometimes, it’s good to be “that” American tourist.

Sure, I was still that kind-of-obnoxious friend/mom that told all my friends to hush if they were causing too much of a ruckus on the train and I still winced when Mr. American Flag Guy expressed the cultural sensitivity of a toddler, but I was definitely enjoying myself far more than the Mandy from a few hours ago. She still uses her headphones to block out the noise.

Little does she know, however, that it’s not the sound of dumb Americans that she’s tuning out- it’s comforting melody of friends from home.

 

The Danger of Political Parties: We Were Warned

Why don’t we just stop yelling at each other?

A few days ago, during a socratic seminar in my Time to Think class, my teacher interrupted our discussion to congratulate the class on our ability to debate like rational human beings. In a time when the country seems split down the middle and with politics as polarized as ever, it seems that we have forgotten the key to having an effective argument: acknowledging validity of the other person’s ideas.

Humans have this really cool ability to communicate with each other through the advanced language system that we’ve been building and editing since the first person ever pointed at something and gave it a name. These days, however, we have all mastered our mother language, but for some reason, we’ve lost the ability to really communicate. Sure, we can tell each other our ideas and argue till the cows come home, but are we really gaining anything from our conversations? Think about the last time you turned on your TV to watch CNN. You most likely read a caption on the bottom that said “BREAKING NEWS: New Allegations Against President” then watched a reporter try to interview a few experts before eventually bringing the issue to a panel discussion. If you’re anything like me, this process has probably brought you more anxiety and frustration than a working sense of the day’s news, which, by the way, is not the way cable news is supposed to work.

An interviewer asks a question and gets no response or is interrupted, a panel of experts talk over each other for ten minutes straight, there’s a split screen between a daily White House Press Briefing and a running commentary by a senator from the opposite side of the aisle; all of these scenarios are more confusing than educational and convince me that the only source of news I need is Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. But here’s the problem:

I identify as a liberal, someone who typically favors candidates from the Democratic Party and believes in a welfare state, so I tend to find get my daily news through more liberal-leaning sources of media; The New York Times, CNN, PBS, and the occasional satirical late night television host. I hear the words Republican or conservative and I’m immediately prepared to disagree with the source and brace myself for an argument. But here’s the thing, that’s really bad.

Labels cause a lot of trouble and the moment someone or something identifies as either liberal or conservative, most audience members have already decided whether or not they’re going to agree or disagree with the source. I’ll admit it, I’m guilty of this. Political parties are so polarized in today’s day and age that nobody even dares to be a moderate. Unfortunately, parties are typically simplified down to a few controversial policy points and whoever happens to be the party’s most popular, recognizable member becomes that group’s symbol. This is not the way things should be done. Once we generalize politics down to two angry groups arguing all day long and refusing to compromise with each other, we enter a dangerous political climate that can only hurt our country in the long run.

We have this notion that if a Democrat wants to introduce some form of policy or nominate someone to the Supreme Court, all the Republicans will vote against their decision and vice versa. These days, a Republican President has very little sway over legislation if he/she doesn’t come with a matching House and Senate. Politicians are so stuck in their party’s lines that they forget to collaborate and consider issues from all points of view. Just because a social reform comes from a Republican doesn’t mean it’s going to cut some program’s budget or discriminate against a group of people, that’s not what the party stands for, but most Democrats will dismiss the Republican suggestion immediately. If they’re looking through the proposed plan, they often search for that which confirms their pre-existing expectations. I would argue that it’s this confirmation bias that makes our government seem so useless.

George Washington, our country’s arguably most widely accepted and appreciated president, warned us all about the danger of political parties all the way back in 1796. To this day, his words drip with premonition and leave me wondering if he was truly capable of seeing where our politics would wind up a two centuries later. In the words of our first president:

It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions… the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it (Washington, 1796).

A Love Letter to Getting Mail

What Time Does the Mail Truck Come?

There’s something quite romantic about receiving a handwritten letter. I always love to see a letter waiting on the counter with my name written on it, although recently it’s almost certainly an advertisement for a certain college. But sometimes it’s not. It could be a ‘thank you’ or a birthday card, or hopefully it’s a love letter from Harry Styles. No matter who wrote it or how much they wrote, opening a letter is always lovely. I don’t know why it’s the best feeling, but I have some assumptions…

  1. Someone spent time actually sitting down to handwrite a note just for you
  2. Typically the reason people write instead of text nowadays is because the contents of the letter aren’t urgent, so getting mail means something good or exciting has happened
  3. You can keep the letter forever and never accidentally delete it (unless you throw them out)
  4. The person who wrote it probably loves you a lot
  5. It’s a pleasant surprise
  6. Letters are a simple, but thoughtful gift
  7. They feel more professional and more heartfelt
  8. Opening envelopes is extremely stress relieving and gratifying

I assume my letter loving addiction was founded soon after I first attended camp in Maine. Homesick and friendless, I waited for mail time each day hoping that my mom replied to my tear stained letter. It was the only way we could communicate so letters were often lengthy and took my mind off missing home. One year when my best friend wasn’t returning to camp with me, my sister packed 21 letters (one for each day of camp) into my trunk so I could open one each day. A thoughtful gesture that helped me feel a little less lonely and inspired me to not waste my time at camp.

Writing and receiving letters has got to be something that I most love.

Top 5 Travel Bag Items

Clean, Organized, Satisfied, Fragrant, and Energized

Tomorrow, I leave for a week-long trip to Europe with my school. I packed last night, hugged my dad goodbye about 15 minutes ago, (he’s golfing in the morning and I plan on waking up at 11:00) and looked up the Dutch translations for, “Hi, do you speak English?” and “Yes, I’m American”. So basically, I’m prepped and ready to go.

At this point, I consider myself more or less accustomed to the whole packing process, having managed to fit enough stuff into a suitcase to last me anywhere from a three-day weekend in New York to a six month stint in Northern France. I thought that my last blog post before leaving on yet another trip should be a walkthrough of the bag that I take with me wherever I go.

The Top Five Things You Need in Your Travel Bag

  1. Hand Sanitizer

Let’s face it, travel is dirty. Your hands touch all sorts of screens, doors, and railings that are covered with germs and you can never be sure when you’ll be able to find a sink. I recommend Bath and Body Works “PocketBac Sanitizers” (warm vanilla sugar being a must).

  1. A Notebook

If you’re anything like me, then the key to keeping track of your thoughts is a good, old-fashioned notebook. Whenever an idea pops into my head, I see something a little funky, or learn a new vocabulary word, I always write it down. Not only is this super useful when looking back on your trips, but also is a great way to keep organized throughout your journeys around the globe.

HINT: If you’re traveling to a country where they speak a different language, have a page dedicated to “Need-to-Know” phrases: greetings, ways to ask for directions, how convey personal information like your country of origin, allergies, etc.

  1. A Snack

It seems obvious, but a lot of people forget to keep a protein bar or bag on nuts on hand. Between busses, trains, and cabs, transportation can take up a lot of your time, making it easy to miss out on meals. A snack a day keeps the headaches away. Candy DOES NOT count!

  1. Antiperspirant

We all sweat; we all smell. The sooner we accept it and fix it, the happier all our noses will be.

  1. Starbucks VIA Instant Coffee

Sure, we’d all love to think that we’ll be popping in for a café au lait et croissant every time we need a pick-me-up around mid-day. Whether you sleep in late and miss your early morning morning Cup o’ Joe or find yourself getting droopy eyed at three, on the go caffeine can go a long way.

HINT: Want to avoid not so tasty airplane coffee? Take your favorite instant brand and ask for hot water on the plane. They always have it, and you save yourself from choking down mud. You’re welcome.

An Essay on Human Trafficking

How Capitalism Perpetuates Modern Slavery

Note: This is my most recent Lang essay and I wanted to post it because it’s a subject that I’m extremely passionate about and want to inform others as much as possible.

It is ironic that the exploitation and enslavement of humans in the modern era has prospered due to the expansion of capitalism. Human trafficking, hidden in the backrooms of nail salons located in the suburbs of Boston and on Bangladeshi shrimp boats, is a more delicate way of saying modern slavery. It’s easy to ignore and even easier to unintentionally fund. Every day thousands of dollars move through the intricately connected global economy into the hands of human traffickers and slave owners. It is fast and easy and so very discreet because regulations of business are effortlessly stepped over. The entitlement that developed, capitalist nations take for granted comes at the very free price of a human life. We must recognize the liberties granted to business and then examine the effects they have on humans across the globe.

The privacy and intimacy of business has compromised the privacy and intimacy of the bedroom. Worldwide, the total profit for the illegal sex industry was $35.7 billion in 2007 (Kara 19), and that was amidst a global recession. It’s an illegal business, but a business nonetheless. A common misconception is that sex trafficking happens solely in the red light districts of impoverished countries, but the 2016 U.S. National Trafficking Hotline reports that there were 5,819 reported sex trafficking incidents this past year (“More Assistance, More Action.”). This number fails to account for the thousands of undocumented and past cases. There is a huge demand for commercialized sex and as a result there are people willing to find a supply. We naively call it prostitution; it’s not. A thirteen year old cannot legally be a prostitute. Those who are impoverished and neglected often fall into the hands of pimps, men who offer love and a life of disguised imprisonment. They are then advertised to the world through secret websites where the buying of humans for sex is rationalized because “the industry is inevitable” (Lloyd 219). The ideal of free enterprise has people continuously justifying and funding slavery. This universal understanding that business is business and that because there is a free market it’s okay, is completely misinformed. We’ve come to the point where freedom is our mantra and free business is a right, but oftentimes we are ignorant to the fact that our freedom comes at the cost of other humans.

Labor trafficking is the most abundant of the types of slavery and as a result, the most normalized. We’ve established that slavery is a business, but we have not quite examined the scope of it. These trafficked victims are everywhere numbering at about 28 million, although the total number is impossible to determine and is estimated to be much larger. America’s Fortune 500 companies are often under fire for having factories overseas that violate human rights in some way. Apple has been scrutinized for using Foxconn, a Chinese factory in which workers are submitted to harsh and dangerous working conditions just so manufacturing costs are lower. Companies participating in free market economies usually abide by local laws that prohibit child labor or uncompensated work, but the lack of labor laws in third world countries make it so incredibly easy for large foreign companies to invest. Capitalism thrives on competition, but many are unable to compete with lucrative businesses who can afford to subjugate others. The shrimping industry in Bangladesh is beating out shrimp farmers in Louisiana because laborers are slaves. The cost of production is significantly reduced when wages are nonexistent and labor is replaceable. In the U.S. 85% of seafood is imported and of this 50% is shrimp (76 Bales). In Bangladesh, the capitalists are profiting on the backs of their slaves. Ghana is plagued by a similar problem; gold pours out of illegal mines like blood seeping out of a wound. The most common form of enslavement in the gold mines of Ghana is debt. Miners are in perpetual debt to their bosses, which essentially makes them slaves. Phone companies obtain the gold through an intentionally long chain of salesmen; the more distance placed between the consumer and the producer the more feasibly the company can claim ignorance. But the government is unable to claim the same ignorance as foreign businessmen. Slavery isn’t invisible in Ghana like it is in America. How could it be? Ghana’s economy is dependent on gold, government officials are entangled in the industry, and villages are built around mines. Sometimes foreign companies deal directly with the Ghanaian government (Bales 160). It’s acceptable for American companies to buy and sell with whomever they please under the Dodd-Frank bill with the condition that companies are transparent with what products contain slavery tainted materials. The products we so thoughtlessly buy have a careless impact on people far away from us.

Slavery happens in our suburban town and on the streets of Cambodian cities. The products we buy and the services we use tie us all to the dangerous industry of slavery; when we import chocolate we are also importing slaves across borders. Capitalism itself isn’t capable of supporting human trafficking, but it’s adaptable rules allow us to slip the buying and selling of people into the picture. Johns fly into the Miami airport at 5pm, stay for an hour of sex with an underage virgin they bought on a website, and then leave at 6pm to fly back to their families. How could the airline know? Did the hotel know that the room they rented out is the murder site of a young girl’s innocence? All of this unregulated industry are accessories in a huge crime network. Wealthy families have a Cambodian house slave and churches have a choir of Zambian slaves (Batstone 212 & 225). These labor practices and industries play a big part in our economy and lives. We are unable to imagine the damage done and unwilling to admit that we have played a role in this destruction. The shrimp is in our stomachs, the gold is in our phones, and the blood is on our hands.

Sources

Bales, Kevin. Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide, and the Secret to Saving the World. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2016. Print.

Batstone, David B. Not for Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade – and How We Can Fight It. New York: HarperCollins, 2010. Print.

Kara, Siddharth. Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery. New York: Columbia UP, 2010. Print.

Lloyd, Rachel. Girls like Us: Fighting for a World Where Girls Are Not for Sale: A Memoir. New York: HarperPerennial, 2012. Print.

“More Assistance, More Action.” Polaris. 31 Jan. 2017. Web. 05 Mar. 2017.

Oh, To Write Again With Whimsy

Writing Playlist Prepped and Ready!

There’s something unnatural yet addicting about creative writing. I’m not talking about blog posts, or essays on Capitalism, or even philosophical discussions, but the flood of euphoria that I know comes only with storytelling.

To someone who’s never created their own story before, it’s hard to describe the way that writing makes you feel when you’re crafting your own character, devising your own plot, latching onto a theme, and playing judge, jury, and executioner. Few things measure up to the sense of urgency you feel at midnight when an idea pops into your head and pulls you to your laptop, or the sense of mindlessness as dialogue runs through your fingertips.

Recently, I’ve been feeling the creative itch, and all I want to do is immerse myself in a world of my own creation, but although I have notebooks full of ideas, I can’t seem to make myself begin a project. I wouldn’t call this writer’s block, but writer’s doubt, as I worry that I will waste my time on an idea that may soon run stale. A little over a year ago, I wrote a 60,000 word manuscript that now sits in my computer’s trash can, months of incessant work staining a page without substance.

I’ve been trying to figure out if I mind that I abandoned my first work. Needless to say, I think I’ve improved as a writer, so I know that I shouldn’t dwell over something that no longer represents me, but I can’t help but have moments when I read over a certain paragraph from a particularly emotional chapter mid-way through my manuscript and am shocked by that which I was able to express through words. Passages such as these inspire me to dive back into my characters, even if I know the novel is a lost cause.

I began my last manuscript as a means of catharsis, and found that writing was the key to developing and understanding my own thoughts. I want nothing more that to experience that contraction in my chest and clarity in my head again, but I want to make sure that I write something that will last. I want to take my time with a story and try not to throw everything that I wish to explore into a single plot. There are ideas in my notebook that I don’t think I’m ready to write, and those that I feel I’ve grown out of. I don’t know if now is the time to tackle an entire novel, but I do have a few thousand words of a Nanowrimo manuscript that I may take another look at.

I guess the point of this article is to express my burning desire to write and the frustration that I feel not being able to do it. A few days ago, I received a flurry of terrible grades in a class dedicated to writing, and found for the first time in years that I was doubting my writing abilities. My flowery, rhetorical, often broad and generalized writing did nothing to impress my teacher, and I just couldn’t seem to find a way to incorporate the type of writing my class required with my personal method and style. I have to remind myself that my ability to write an adequate English class essay may need work, but that by no means diminishes my ability to think creatively and critically about topics. If I’m writing for my teacher, I’ll have to be more careful, but if I’m writing for me, I am free to write as I wish. I have molded my writing to my own model of what I believe to be an effective use of language, but perhaps that which I have always perceived as a style open to analysis and debate is not appropriate in an essay in which I must pick a direct side and try not to let my personal culture shine through.

All that aside, I what I really want right now is to write a story, so that’s what I’ll go do.

Starting from Scratch

6 Weeks in Russia with no Russian experience… Why Not? 

When you’re a self-proclaimed language enthousiaste and aspiring polyglot, nothing is more exciting that starting a new language, but narrowing down your choices can be quite challenging. Should I take the easy route and pick Italian or Portuguese, or do I challenge myself and tackle Japanese or Korean? There’s a South African regional language that uses three different clicks when they speak- that sounds fun- should I try it? Then of course there’s that part of your mind that yells at you for being too ambitious and recommends that you review French grammar or read a book in Spanish instead. According to your AP Lang teacher, your English may need some work too. It’s always nice when the decision is made for you, and you are able to forge a decisive path onwards. When I received my acceptance letter from NSLI-Y, a government scholarship program to study critical languages abroad, my choice was clear (after I stopped screaming and hitch-kicking around my kitchen of course). My next language endeavor would be Russian.

I’ve dabbled in this language before. I tried to learn the alphabet last year, and my friend Vicky has taught me a few words over the course of a few car rides, but I’ve never fully committed to developing any sort of proficiency until now. I knew that Russian would be a challenge- it’s a category four language on the Foreign Service Institute system- but I felt prepared to immerse myself and felt completely up for the challenge.

In the past, I’ve only studied French and Spanish, two category one romance languages that share 30% or their vocabulary with English and are so closely related that I could already understand quite a bit of Spanish after only two years of France. Basically, I don’t know why it was a surprise that I was very unprepared for Russian.

Nevertheless, I have explored enough websites, books, and grammar guides throughout my time as a language learner to know what sort of resources I would need to start learning a language from scratch. With a language like Russian which uses the cyrillic alphabet, I knew step one would be to learn to read and write. I didn’t need to understand what I was reading, but I had to be able to pronounce any word I saw.

To do this, I downloaded the Foreign Service Institute’s FAST Russian Course, a program used to give Foreign Service Officer’s a basic grasp on the language before they go abroad. These resources are free and are available in nearly all of the world’s national languages. The opening chapter is all about phonetics, and after a few hours or dull, grueling, guided repetition, I could read any word I came across, if not slowly and with a touch of hesitation. I picked up on cognates and wrote down all of my new vocabulary and pronunciation tips in a notebook deemed “Pre-Russia Russian.”

Once I could read, I knew I needed to begin to acquire a vocabulary. Through a combination of Duolingo and FluentU, I had short lessons that presented me with vocabulary and phrases that slowly revealed secrets of grammar and word order. I also ordered some go-to books on Amazon to enrich my understanding of the language’s mechanics; a verb-conjugation guide, grammar book, short story collection, and a picture dictionary. This way, if I ever stumble across a concept I don’t understand, I’ll be able to find a clear explanation without mindlessly searching the internet for hours.

My next step will be what I call the “Labeling Phase”, during which every object of practical use in my house will receive a tag including the object’s name in nominative form, a photo, and a verb that would be commonly associated with that object. For example, the Russian word for bed is кровать, and with it I would couple the phrase  Иди́ в крова́ть; “go to bed”. This way, every time I see that object, I associate it with the Russian word and am able to put it into an everyday context.  

In a month or so, once I’ve leveled up a few more times on Duolingo and moved past the novice phase on FluentU, I’ll pick up that anthology of short stories for beginners and find a language partner with whom I can converse a few times a week. By the time I board the plane in June, three months from now, I hope to have a functional vocabulary of phrases, and fundamental understanding of basic grammar, and the ability of understand both written and spoken Russian at about an A1 level.

Starting a language from a blank slate is a daunting task, so I find that I need to set small, attainable goals so as to not feel entirely overwhelmed. Knowing that in a matter of months I will be in a foreign country where my only means of communication will be Russian serves as plenty of motivation, but it can be hard to carve out time in my schedule to practice. If it were up to me, I would quit chemistry right now and dedicate that hour to Russian, but unfortunately I can’t do that. To anyone hoping to start a new language journey, I say, don’t wait. Even if your schedule is crazy, know that there is no perfect time to begin learning. As long as you can learn a word or two a day, you’ll be making progress, and that’s all that matters!