When the Ukrainian and I first, he did not speak English very well. He could read it with great comprehension. He could listen and fully understand almost everything being said. But when it came to speaking (and to a certain extent, writing), I couldn’t understand him at all. His accent was thick. His grammar lacking. When I could understand his words, I couldn’t understand what he was trying to say. Phrases like “What are you doing yesterday?” really meant “What did you do today?”. When he met my friends and they asked him how long he had been in the States, he would answer, “I am here for 3 months” when really he meant to say “I have been here for 3 months.”
The Ukrainian was dreamily cute and he was nice. These were all that mattered. I wasn’t looking for someone to “complete me”. And I didn’t need to be saved. All I wanted was someone fun to go out with who would treat me well. And the Ukrainian more than delivered on those accounts. But still, sometimes I wondered…What is going on inside that head of his? Anything? I knew he had a PhD in Economics from Kiev University, so I knew he must be smart. But due to the language barrier, we kept our conversations simple. “I want to go to the beach!” “When do you want to meet?” “What are you doing yesterday?” So we went to the beach and the movies and to Dolores Park where he would carry me around on his back while the dogs ran around us in circles.
Then, one afternoon, after he picked me up at work, he tried to explain something about economics to me. I *think* it might’ve been about his thesis. But maybe it was about an article he had read in a news magazine. It didn’t really matter. What mattered was for the first time he was trying to communicate to me about something other than the concrete here and now. I was relieved. And I had hope. Someday, I knew, we would have real conversations about anything and everything under the sun.
But “someday” did not equivocate to “the next day”. Evening after evening, he would ask me English questions. Happy, at first, to help. I began to resent the constant additional demands on my brain. I wanted our relationship to be relaxing, not ongoingly academic. I put a moratorium on the English questions: No English questions after 10 p.m. Only 3 English questions while watching a movie. The Ukrainian was hungry. He wanted to be fluent in English “right now”. I merely wanted to have a conversation where we both understood each other.
Sometimes my lack of understanding would cause frustration. I would ask him to repeat a word over and over again, hoping to try to understand what he was saying. He soon learned to spelled out the letters and I would explain how to pronounce it. He would repeat the word into his voice recorder, hoping to get it right and trying to burn the correct pronunciation into his memory. During our phone conversation, I found myself picking the simplest English words so he would hopefully better understand what I was trying to say. It was hit or miss whether we would fully understand each other on where to meet, when to meet, how to get someplace, what should be picked up from the store, etc. It was exhaustingly frustratiing. Sometimes I would break down in tears. I would cry into the phone, “I can’t understand you, I don’t know what you want.”
But the Ukrainian persevered. He kept his weekly appointment with his private English tutor. He made charts of English grammar. He made word lists and looked them up and not only memorized their meanings, but practiced their usage. He got a job working only with other native English speakers, so he had other styles to listen to. In time, the questions became fewer. The tears of frustration being cried into the phone stopped. I don’t know when it happened, but at some point correcting the Ukrainian’s English became a footnote in any conversation rather than being the subject of the conversation itself, or worse, being the conversation stopper.
Then, Wednesday night, the Ukrainian and I needed to go to Whole Foods downtown to purchase some fine foods for the Thanksgiving Feast. Not knowing how crowded the store would be or how long it would take us to complete our shopping, we opted to take BART (the regional train) rather than rent a ZipCar so we would not be pressured for time.
We had just sat down in our seats when the Ukrainian asked, “Are you feeling inspired?”
“I want to ask you some English questions.”
“Ok, sure. I will do my best to answer them.” My brain was feeling relaxed. I had worked from home that day. And, I realized, it had been ages since he had asked me any English questions.”
He took out our grocery list. On the back of it, he had made some notes of several different kinds of sentences.
“When you mean X, is it better to say Y or Z?” he asked.
“Either way is correct, but Y sounds more natural and native,” I responded.
“What about when you mean B, is it better to say C or D?”
“Same thing as X, Y, and Z. C sounds more natural and native, but D is correct as well.”
“What about J? Which way is better to say?” he continued. His questions regarded phrases like “down the hall”, “email it to you”, “cc me on it”, and other office-related speak.
“Oh, that one is different. That verb is intransitive so there aren’t 2 ways to do it. And you need to change the preposition to sound more native. The other preposistion is correct, but doesn’t sound as natural.”
Suddenly, I realized most of his questions were questions of style, not of correctness. How far we had come in the past year and a half. He had made the transition from trying to speak English correctly, to trying to speak it natively. Wow!
“One more question,” he said. “When do you use ‘well’ and when do you use ‘good’. How do you know which one to use?”
“Oh, that’s a hard one. A lot of native English speakers get it wrong, so I wouldn’t worry too much about it.”
“But how do you know?” He really wanted to speak English well — not good.
I struggled to remember the rule that ‘well’ modifies the verb and ‘good’ modifies the noun. But before I could put the words together in a way that made sense, the BART train screeched to a halt at the Powell St. stop.
“Ok, English lesson over. Let’s go get some food!” I answered.
We walked in the brisk night air down 4th Street. With the cessation of our English lesson, our conversation turned to our hopes and dreams for our life together. It was not an unfamiliar conversation. All week we had been discussing what sort of car would we buy if we decided to get one (Honda Fit, Volkswagen Rabbit, and Honda CRV are our top 3 choices). We often daydream about buying a house. (Currently unaffordable in San Francisco city proper on our salaries). But on Wednesday evening, our dreams turned from the concrete material to the philosophical. We don’t want our lives to be weighed down bills and financial obligations. We do want to travel a lot. We do want our not-yet conceived child to be multilingual.
These exact threads of conversation were not entirely new. We had discussed them before. But in shorter, more spurtful ways. But on our walk from 4th and Market to 4th and Harrison, we discussed them in-depth. Philosophically. Dreamily. We discussed them in a way where the Ukrainian did not have to struggle for his words. I did not have to limit my word choices to simpler English. We spoke at a native level.
And it was dreamy.
It did occur to me then that I got very lucky with the Ukrainian. It was always clear that he’s a very nice guy. What wasn’t clear was whether or not we had much in common on a more intellectual level. We don’t agree on vegetarianism vs. eating meat. He drove an SUV when we first met (it has since been junked) while I was all about car-sharing and bicycle riding. And while some of these differences seem large, they don’t seem so large as to what could’ve gone wrong in our relationship once he possessed enough English for us to truly disagree. His expression in English could’ve pushed us apart rather than brought us further together.
And so, I must say, that with each new level of English the Ukrainian reaches, I love him all the more. I am all the more impressed by what a great guy I married.
And I’m thankful.
A belated Happy Thanksgiving to everyone.