How the collapse of the Soviet Union taught me English



Through almastrakova

I remember a few years ago asking my father a question that had just occurred to me at that time.

“When did you know I understood English?” “

Growing up in a post-Soviet country meant that much of my teenage years was very different from what my parents had experienced growing up. There are the obvious things, like politics and fashion, societal norms and education, etc. but then there is also something that many of us (or at least I) haven’t always given much thought to – in particular, the accessibility to knowledge that modern technology has given us.

I know my father would refute this argument by saying that they too had access to knowledge – books were very cheap in the USSR and education was available to almost anyone who wanted to study. However, while this is true, the accessibility to knowledge that the Internet and other technologies have given our generation makes a completely different experience than adolescence.

I think a lot of people who are now in their twenties can relate to my childhood experience with tech – I had a family computer for the first ten years of my life, I had my first phone when I was about nine years old (past my sister, of course), and I watched a lot of American children’s television. The last of these experiences is the one that I think shaped me the most as a person, because that’s why I learned English.

While it might sound funny to say, I think the Disney Channel is responsible for why I am where I am today. From the age of about five, I had access to children’s media in English – a language neither of my parents spoke at all when I was a child. They both speak Latvian and as they grew up in the Soviet Union they are fluent in Russian as well. English was not as popular a choice for learning a third language as it is today when they were children and, for obvious reasons, was not taught very well even when people were studying it. . This meant that their knowledge of English was, and still is, fairly minimal – at least not good enough to teach me or my sister much when we were young.

And yet here I am studying English language and culture, as I learned English by watching cartoons. My experience is not unique – many people my age have learned this the same way. However, I think my experience is heavily influenced by a few key circumstances. The first of these would be the fact that I grew up in Latvia – a very small post-Soviet country. Our language is spoken by around 2.5 million people in the world, and to say that my country was not very rich when I was a child (about fifteen years after the fall of the USSR) would be a very diplomatic to express the situation. This meant that when foreign media became accessible to us, much of it was not translated from its original language, which was usually English, due to a lack of funding. The reason I think this is something important to mention is that a lot of my Dutch friends in the Netherlands don’t quite share the same experience. Most of their media was accessible to them in their native language, meaning most of them learned English at an older age than I did, usually by taking English lessons at school or in consuming content on YouTube in their early teens. In a funny turn of events, this might be considered lucky on my part, as acquiring a second language at such a young age meant that I had to do a lot less work to master it than a lot of people. my dutch friends.

It was often the case that the media were made “more accessible” by being in Russian – however, this came with its own problems. On the one hand, the trauma of the Soviet times influenced many parents of my generation not to teach their children Russian. It was, and often still is, considered the “language of the oppressors”. My parents were also influenced by this belief and therefore, when it came to educating me and my sister, my parents chose not to actively teach us Russian and not to expose us to the media in that language. Whether this is a choice that is totally conscious or subconsciously influenced by their own trauma is open to debate; but, whatever the real reason, it meant that most of the media I was exposed to as a child were only available in Latvian or English. My afternoons after school I spent browsing the Barbie game website or watching Disney Channel shows, all in English. I think it took a while for my parents to realize how much I was exposed to this medium in my youth. However, as my dad explained when answering my question, they realized the moment they realized that I understood the content I was consuming.

“When you were about eight or nine, watching TV shows that I didn’t understand [because they were in English] and laughing at jokes, ”was my father’s precise answer to my question.

At that point, I realized that the reality of the amount of content and information that had become available to people over the past 20 years due to the development of technology was not something I did. hadn’t thought – this was something a lot of people didn’t and still haven’t understood. Realization often comes only after you’ve been hit like a ton of bricks – for example, when you realize that your child knows a language you haven’t taught him and which you don’t understand.

The possibilities that technology has given us go beyond just being able to Google “how to remove a red wine stain” or search for a YouTube tutorial on how to fix your leaky sink. Technology has a much bigger impact on our daily lives than we realize, and although many of us like to focus only on the worst parts of it (like our growing screen times and our attention spans are getting shorter), we also need to recognize the more “hidden” possibilities. it could bring us.

Previously published on digmedia with Creative Commons licenses


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