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Boris Ilinets Learns on the Move

Ilinets on vacation in Bratislava, Slovakia. (Photo courtesy of Boris Ilinets. Click for larger image.)

When Boris Ilinets moved to the United States at the age of 39, he knew only one word in English: OK. "I used it for everything," says the SLAC electrical engineer. Now, after speaking English for 14 years, he says, "I'm still learning this language."

Friends, movies, books and radio all help Ilinets and his wife continue to learn about American language, culture and customs. He listens to National Public Radio for more than an hour each day on his commute to and from San Francisco, and maintains friendships with some of the very first people who taught him English when he arrived in America. "We met very nice American people who taught us. Not just the language, but how to live here," says Ilinets. "I have a friend who just turned 86 who I met when I was first learning English. We talked every evening for years."

Ilinets visiting Potsdam, Germany. (Photo courtesy of Boris Ilinets. Click for larger image.)

Ilinets and his wife moved to the Bay Area with their two children and his wife's family. They took intensive English classes during their first few months, and continued with private lessons for a few years. His parents have since moved to America, and he and his wife host friends and family who visit from Kazakhstan. They continue to speak Russian at home.

Ilinets was born in Ukraine, but lived most of his life in Kazakhstan. "You've seen the movie Borat?" he asks. "He is from Kazakhstan." The film depicts the country, however ironically, as impoverished and somewhat barbaric. But Ilinets says the country's president at the time—"a very smart man," he says—wanted the film screened there, and that it "got big laughs."

With his family living close by, Ilinets says he hasn't had much reason to travel back to Kazakhstan. But he's developed a great love for other European countries. "I fell in love with Paris," he says. "And a surprising number of people speak Russian there." He recommends Prague and Budapest to European travelers, and would like to return to those cities himself someday. He has enjoyed many trips to Germany and around central Europe through the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Hungary.

Soon Ilinets and his wife will take a long tour of South America. "It's a part of the world I've read about and would like to explore," he says. They'll visit Brazil, Argentina and Chile. Does Ilinets speak Spanish or Portuguese? No. But language barriers haven't stopped him before.

—Calla Cofield
SLAC Today, October 1, 2008