I vividly remember the first day of my second-year Russian class in college. I had gone to the wrong building, so the time cushion I had built into my morning had all but evaporated. By the time I got my bearings, found the right building, and slid into my back-row seat, I was three minutes late and the professor was already talking. My head was still a bit foggy from running around campus, but it cleared quickly when I heard these words (heavily accented): “Last year you learned all the rules. This year we’ll learn the exceptions.”

At that point, everyone chuckled a bit and we dove into the cursory first day introductions. As time went by, however, I realized the professor wasn’t kidding. We really did spend the whole year–both semesters!–learning exceptions to the grammar rules we had committed to memory in the first year.

Looking back, I realize how lucky I was to have a professor who spent time with these things. Ultimately, it is knowing the exceptions that gives a person insight into a language. It is knowing the “real” way to do things, not just the “book” way. It is knowing the slang and the shortcuts. It is almost as good as nailing the accent. Knowing the exceptions helps build your credibility; it helps people know you’re serious about the language.

Sadly, Russian is one of those use-it-or-lose it languages, and I haven’t used it since college. The knowledge I gained from that class, though, has carried me through many other situations. Thanks, Professor Levitsky, for teaching me the importance of exceptions.

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