Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Dasha's Diligence in Mastering English

Darya with the book she picked up at Strand Book Store.

Darya Banchugova is reading a book she recently bought at Strand, the storied bookstore in the Village which she visited at the suggestion of Mike Dunphy, one of her instructors at New York Language Center. The book is a collection of essays by New York writers about the city, and Darya is fascinated by their stories about life here. In many ways, she totally relates.

"I'm just like them," she confesses. "They are both inspired and frightened by New York; they are all searching for something here."

The writers are seeking fame and fortune, she explains. She, on the other hand, is not quite sure what she's searching for if, in fact, she is searching for anything.

This uncertainly, however, is not much of a problem as her goals have always been clear since the first day five months ago when she first arrived in New York and sat in her first class at NYLC--an academic course in Reading and Writing. She always knew she wanted to improve her English and build on the expertise she's gained studying Business English at her university and regular everyday English in high school. Her main goal in New York has always been to master the language and use it to make herself more marketable when she starts applying for jobs.

Dasha, as her friends and classmates call her, graduated from South Ural State University in southern Russia just 400 kilometers (about 249 miles) north of her hometown in Kazakhstan. She finished her studies just five months before deciding to spend one year in New York with her sister, Mariya, who planned, arranged, and funded the whole trip. At Mariya's urging, Dasha decided to pack her bags and temporarily settle down in New York, ready to open herself up to new experiences. Her sister's generous invitation was hard to resist. 

At SUSU, Dasha earned two Specialist degrees--five-year degrees specific to certain programs--one in Finance and Credit; the other in Business English. Her professional goal is to work in a large international company with colleagues from around the globe. While the location of the company is not so important, she does hope to travel and spend some time abroad now and then, and she realizes that her proficiency in English will be a major factor in securing such a position.

Learning English has always been her dream even as a little girl, but it hasn't always been easy. She struggled to remember vocabulary and use what she learned in the classroom. Her English classes in school were not inspiring and as a result, she'd almost given up until an English tutor, Olesya, came along when Dasha was in the eighth grade. Olesya, who happened to be a friend of her father's, taught her some learning techniques, encouraged and motivated her, and advised her to find an excellent teacher in school. 

As luck would have it, she came across such a teacher in high school. Nina Shandetskaya was an award winning educator who used innovative teaching techniques and who was recognized as the best teacher in all of Kazakhstan. However, because of Dasha's low level of English at that point, Shandetskaya wouldn't allow her to join the class at first. With constant pleading and promising to work hard, however, Dasha was able to get in when she was in the 10th grade and her English began to improve. In fact, she eventually participated in a citywide English competition with about 250 other students and finished third place in the final round. 

Her love for the language blossomed in her last two years of high school and while everyone in her city was enrolling into English Clubs, she never felt the need to do so as the English instruction she was receiving at school under Shandetskaya was already at a high level. When she started her university courses, however, and with her focus on Business English, she felt her regular English began to suffer. 

Despite this slight loss in her language ability, she came to New York with advanced English skills, but not without some difficulty in freely expressing herself. She confesses that it was not easy to simply start talking when she first arrived. With hard work, however, and by taking advantage of her surroundings, she's been able to notice substantial improvements. She says it's as if a barrier has been lifted and she doesn't hesitate as much when she talks; she's gotten bolder, more comfortable and more used to speaking faster than before.

Dasha grew up in Kostanay, in northern Kazakhstan in the 1990s at a time when western--mostly American--products and ideas came flooding into her country. The Iron Curtain had fallen early in the decade and learning English, along with wearing jeans, and watching American movies had become fashionable.

As a child, she watched Disney movies and was able to listen to the original English dialogs through poorly dubbed versions of The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and even older films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. The songs, however, were left in their original form, and she was mesmerized by them. She wanted to learn more and perhaps be part of this English-speaking world.

This desire may be one reason she unwittingly revealed she was a budding Anglophile at just 5 years old. Being a child of a Tatar father and a Russian mother, she was asked by a school official which nationality she preferred to be. Thinking that she could choose from any nationality, she boldly declared, "English!" 

In addition to the Disney films, her English tutor, her high school teacher, and the political climate in which she grew up in, her father Rashid Mahmutov was also a major influence in her affinity for the language. A self-professed daddy's girl, she picked up a love for English and things American from him. Despite the widespread anti-American propaganda of the Soviet Union of his youth, Mahmutov played jazz piano and clarinet in the 1970s and 80s and listened to the Voice of America through a radio he had made, himself. He conveyed his love for languages and the importance of visiting places to open the mind. 

"He wanted me to travel a lot," Dasha says. "He believed your mind changed and you stopped judging people so hard."

Her father traveled abroad and within the former Soviet Union and taught her that travel also allowed him to distinguish propaganda when he came across it. This ability to sense and pick out what's real perhaps is also helping her detect real learning and hard work especially when it comes to mastering a language. As a serious learner who works daily to improve her English, she notices that not all students who want to improve are doing all they can to accomplish their goals.

Dasha sees that the desire to learn how to speak and use English is usually there, and with the status of English as a fashionable, professional, and important language to master, as it is in her country, a lot of people are flocking to English schools to improve their skills. However, while it is typical to want to learn English, she notices it's not typical to work hard to achieve their goals. She credits her tutor in the 8th grade and her teacher in the 10th and 11th grades for giving her the motivation to work hard. 

One technique she still uses is to post words around her house. This helps her recall vocabulary she has a hard time remembering. Lately, it's how she's able to remember and use the words "beet," the vegetable, and "oblivious." She also encourages other English learners to get used to thinking in English and to spend some time training themselves in this skill.   

Book of essays about New York by NYC
writers that Dasha got at the Strand.
With their flight back to Kazakhstan all but set in October, she intends to make use of the next seven months to make her English skills soar even higher. She considers this chance to study English in New York for a whole year a gift from God. 

"Everyone has a passion in life," she says. "This is mine." She continues to unwrap her divine present, and she intends to continue making the most of it.

We applaud all the success she's had, and we wish her an amazing future.

--written by Joe Yu, ESL instructor        

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