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Chapter 4: 'See Spot Run …'
April 2004

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Greetings again from Star City, Russia! Knee-deep in my second four-week International Space Station (ISS) training session, I have contemplated for some time now what the content of Chapter 4 should include. After some serious thought about some of the questions I have received since Chapters 1-3 were completed, I have decided that this Chapter must deal with the “art” of learning to speak a foreign language. Obviously, in this case that would be Russian!

I have two children, ages 3 and 8. One can read and the other is learning the alphabet. But what of a 40+-year-old astronaut, hoping to fly in space, who also must learn to speak, read and understand a different language? Can we apply the principles used when working with my three year old? Where is the best place to start?

From the perspective of a grown-up, this all seems like it would be a pretty easy task…learning the alphabet just requires that you memorize some symbols and how they are pronounced. Then you must learn what they look like in small and capital letters; printed and cursive. Next we’ll try to “glue” those letters together into words. Once that’s mastered, we move on to piecing the words together to form sentences and finally, with a little bit of “style” we can group these sentences into complete thoughts and stories! Spend a couple of weeks and we’re done, right!??? Not so fast…everybody doesn’t use the same alphabet that we do. The Russians use one called Cyrillic. That means you have to think back to your college and high school days when you had math classes that required you to know some of the Greek letters…rho, phi, gamma, etc. Remember? Well, it gets a bit harder than that.

You see, the Russian alphabet and its Cyrillic characters further complicate the learning process by the simple fact that much of what you learned as a child to help you master English has to be “unlearned” for you to master Russian! Here are some examples. Consider the English letters C, K, B, E, H, P and Y. Think of the various sounds you can make with those letters. “C” can be an seh sound as in cessation, or a kuh sound as in Clay. Well in Russian and Cyrillic, those letters don’t necessarily match our English. While “C” is ess and “K” is kah; “B” is veh, “P” is err, “E” is yeh, “H” is en and “Y” is oo! Boy, that hurts my brain! It is also interesting to note that when one is writing a Russian word in cursive, lower case letters may also be different. So different that “m” represents a “t” and a “d” represents a “g!” For me, the concept of “unlearning” is paramount! Right now I feel that I am not very good at it.

But wait, there’s more! Russian words that are spelled exactly the same can have very different meanings based on which syllable of the word is accented. For example, Пи-сат, spoken with the accent on the second syllable (pronounced “pee-sot”), means, “to write” while Пи-сат with the accent on the first syllable (pronounced “pee-sot”) means to…, well, you know, go to the potty.

As I write this Chapter, it is beginning to dawn on me just how formidable the Russian language can be. I think that I am going to have to continue this subject in a future installment as my skills (hopefully) grow along this journey.

Меня зовут клей Андерсон, и Я Астронавт!!!
(Pronounced “Men-ya za-voot Clay Anderson, ee Ya Astro-navt”)

My name is Clay Anderson, and I am an Astronaut!!!

Thanks for reading!