i spent many blissful summers at a set of camps in northern minnesota that teach foreign languages to kids through immersion.  the kids come for one, two or four weeks, and do all the usual fun summer camp stuff (swim, play outside, get poison ivy, push food they don’t like around their plates three times a day), but while they’re there, they only hear the target language spoken by the staff.  they are free to speak english among themselves of course, but at the table, and when interacting directly with staff, they are encouraged to use words and phrases in the foreign language, and it works amazingly well.  i learned norwegian this way, two weeks at a time, for six years.  later, when i learned (much more) german, i went back and taught for five years, and that too was incredibly good for my language skills – speaking only german for six weeks a summer was like a mini living-abroad experience, and i loved it.
but it’s been a long time – 21 years, actually – since i had the ‘new villager’ experience and tried to learn a language from absolute zero, just by being immersed in it.  yet here i find myself, listening hard to the ship’s announcements (all in russian), to see whether i can catch anything at all.  by studying a detailed wall chart of the ship with labels in both languages, i refreshed my memory on the cyrillic alphabet, by sounding out words that were similar and extrapolating the letter sounds i didn’t know (‘tweendeck’ is твеендек, ‘tveendek;’ ‘elevator’ is лифт, ‘lift’ (i mean, er… what elevator?  this isn’t a luxury outfit, you know), ‘meteorological laboratory’ is, well, ‘meteorologiski laboratoria’ or something like that).  apart from the really alien characters, like the letters for ‘zh’ (ж), ‘ts’ (ц), and ‘ui’ (ы), i managed to get most of them on my own.  for the rest i entreated help from a friendly kitchen guy, who has also been trading us some informal russian lessons for some english and spanish ones.  embarassingly, while we learn to say ‘good morning’ and ‘thank you,’ he (an avid reader of english detective and crime fiction) is perfecting phrases like ‘i won’t answer your questions until i consult my lawyer.’  (we do wonder what his life on land involves.)  he also used the word ‘insalubrious’ in casual conversation the other day.  but lessons in humility are always good for the soul, so i can grit my teeth and soldier on with ‘a little, and very badly’ (my hypothetical answer to the question ‘do you speak russian?’, probably doubly useless in that (1) no in their right mind will ever, EVER think i can speak enough russian to even comprehend that question, and (2) a much safer answer would just be ‘no’). and as my understanding of the letters and sounds improves, he has less and less occasion to laugh at my attempts to render the phrases i learn into intelligible written form, although i think my handwriting will be like a russian five-year-old’s for a good long while yet.
with my newfound skills, i can have such meaningful exchanges as ‘hello / goodbye’ (at any time of day, i hasten to add), ‘thanks / you’re welcome,’ ‘how are you? / well, thanks, and you?’ (this last actually occurred unprompted yesterday with one of the mates in the bridge – apart from the ridiculous look of concentration and 10-second delay between question and answer while i dredged the words out of my brain, i was very proud.  we won’t talk about the fact that my russian experiences must always be cheerful because i can only say that i’m doing well), and i can ask how to say something in russian, probably the phrase i use the most often but with the least effect, since i have to hear the word/phrase at least five times before i can remember it.
yesterday’s other big accomplishment was reading the names of the countries whose flags are stored in wooden cubbies in the bridge, for when the ship is in foreign ports – ‘iapano,’ ‘nova zelandya,’ ‘avstralia,’ ‘urugvaya,’ ‘egyepto.’  look out, next i might actually be able to read the menu in the dining hall!  … although then i would have to decide whether the joyful anticipation of, say, pizza, would cancel out the dread of knowing in advance that we were having liverwurst for breakfast (like this morning).
i don’t think i’ll be turning spy any time soon, or passing myself off as a local if i ever make it to russia, but i’ve always loved foreign languages, and i have to say i’m having fun with this one.  the pleasantly camp-like atmosphere probably helps, although the drawback of being on a shipful of adults is that they dare to serve things like aspic and tongue.  luckily, i can now say, ‘no, thank you’ … assuming our friendly russian teacher hasn’t taught us to unknowingly say ‘my buttocks are on fire’ instead.