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How a language mentor opened a new world for a Russian in Grafton

Originally appeared in Ozaukee Press Good Living on October 14, 2021.

By Mitch Maersch

When Kate Igumenova and her family moved to Grafton from Moscow nearly three years ago, it was the expected culture shock. The language barrier was one enormous challenge.

Kate started to learn English in Moscow, but those lessons didn’t compare to living in America and immersing herself in the culture.

Her three school age sons learned the language from their teachers and friends, quickly picking up the lingo as children often do.

Her husband Max knew some English. He worked for an American company in Russia and had been to America before — his information technology engineering job is why they moved, fulfilling his dream to live in the United States.

But Kate who is at home and doesn’t have as much of an opportunity to practice the new language, struggled.

That’s where the Adult Literacy Center of Ozaukee County came in. Kate has been meeting with ALC tutor Kelly Talley twice a week for nearly three years and now is communicating well in English.

Kate took German in school but was apprehensive about English.

“I thought, What is this? It’s not for me,” she said. “Thanks to Kelly, it’s possible for me. I’m not so confused.”

This was also a new experience for Talley, a retired English teacher who used to be a department director at Alverno College. Kate is her first student at the ALC, which operates out of its own wing at Grace Lutheran Church in Grafton.

Talley first asked Kate what she hoped their sessions would accomplish. Her objective was higher than that of native speakers.

“It was to speak perfect English,” Talley said. “But it’s difficult for her to find the opportunity to speak with people casually.”

Kate had a translation app on her phone she often used to help her, but after a couple of months Talley told her not to use it.

“When I stopped her, she was startled. I wanted her to struggle for the language rather than use the translator,” Talley said.

Talley could only help Kate in English. She doesn’t know Russian.

“It makes me realize what a journey this all is. She spoke little English at first and needed training to communicate with me,” she said.

“It was very effective,” Kate said of having her phone taken away.

Some Russian-speaking friends she met through Max’s company are also helpful, but Kate’s confidence came slowly.

At first, she took her oldest son, now 14, to the store with her to help her navigate the new products and conversation with clerks.

“I was very confused. I didn’t understand people. It was very different for me,” Kate said. “Now I know more about the community, the people and me too.”

Kate can go to the store on her own now. Once, she took her youngest son, 9, along to a supermarket. He wore a shirt that says “I have autism.”

“More people pay attention,” Kate said, citing a difference between the American and Russian cultures. In Russia, that shirt wouldn’t be worn and autistic children would stay home.

“People don’t understand,” Kate said, adding in America, “These children know about autism.” She added, “I like American people. American people are very open.”

Kate speaks Russian at home because she wants her children to retain the language. She and her sons go back to Russia each summer to visit relatives.

She video chatted with Talley weekly from Russia to keep up her studies. “I made her talk to me in English,” Talley said.

One of the obstacles, she said, is the Russian language is structured and formal, while English tends to be more casual. People learning languages come in two types, Talley said — ones who understand grammar and make sense of it and those who don’t. Kate gets it.

The pair have gone beyond learning language and have formed a friendship. “As I’m getting to know her, there’s a strong woman there,” Talley said, “and she’s able to express that more.”

Kate sometimes snaps her fingers and looks up in trying to figure out what she wants to say, but she is much more comfortable in the language and culture than before.

The Literacy Center, which started in 1988 and serves 40 to 75 people per year, helps immigrants and American- born citizens improve language skills, prepare for citizenship tests and earn their GEDs. It doesn’t have an equivalent in Russia.

“I’m very surprised there are people who come and do this for no money. This is an important thing to do for other people. I would like to tell people about this place. It gives people hope, opportunity,” Kate said.

Her sons, 14, 12 and 9, are assimilating quickly. Kate wants them to retain some of their homeland’s culinary fare, but that is not going as planned.

“I try but my children prefer American food, unfortunately,” she said.

Visits to McDonald’s in Russia were rare and special. Now, the children often request the iconic American fare after soccer games.

“‘I need more protein. I need more energy,’” they tell her. “‘I want to eat biggest burger.’” Then there’s the special holiday at the end of October that isn’t celebrated in Russia, and Kate doesn’t let her children have candy often.

“Now my children are waiting for Halloween,” she said. “This tradition is very good.”

But she knows her sons won’t control the intake of their trick or treat hauls.

“I’m a stronger mother. I take it,” Kate said. “One day, one candy.”

At least one cultural element is the same between the two countries. Kate had no problem sharing her age, but she did not want it printed after her birthday in January. She is currently 39.

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