Where is Russian spoken? Official language (dark blue) and unofficial (light blue)
I’ve encountered the idea occasionally that learning Russian is a useless endeavor because it is a “dying language”. Proponents of this thesis allege that since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian has been in decline because no one outside of Russia is forced to learn it anymore.
And then there are the cases of other post-Soviet countries, such as Belarus and Kazakhstan. In both of these countries, Russian remains an official language. (In fact, in Belarus, the majority of the population speaks Russian in their daily lives.) In Ukraine, Russian is not an official language, but it is very, very widely used and understood. Continue reading →
I’ve been thinking about this idea for a while but finally decided to write about it when I stumbled across a post on Alex Rawlings’ blog. Alex, who is studying German and Russian at Oxford, was named most multilingual student in Britain in a contest. In the aforementioned post, Alex asks whether he and a friend acted differently when they spoke three different languages (Russian, Hebrew, and English) in a video he recorded for the post.
Sometimes I feel like I’m a different person when I speak Russian. I talk more in Russian than I do in English – or rather, I talk more with random people in Russian that I do in English. When I’m speaking Russian, I have no qualms about going up to random Russian speakers and saying hello. To be honest, I don’t often talk to random people when I’m speaking English. (I actually wish I were the sort of person who did this!) In Russian, though, I randomly ask people if they speak Russian and if they do, then a whole conversation ensues. Luckily Russian people really seem to like meeting random Americans who speak their language, so I’ve never had any bad experiences that resulted from talking to random people. Continue reading →
I don’t like Ukrainian quite as much as Russian, but it’s a close second.
Corinne McKay, a translator whose blog I’ve been reading for a while, has a post on which language is “the best” to learn. She approaches it from a translation perspective (no surprises there, since she works as a translator), but the entire post got me thinking about the question from a more general perspective.
There are definite advantages to studying what I call world languages – those that are spoken by such a large number of people are widely studied throughout the world. Examples would be Spanish, French, and German. To a lesser extent, Russian, Arabic, and Chinese qualify, too. I know from personal experience that the first three are very commonly taught in the United States and the latter three commonly taught in other parts of the world (or so I’ve heard). These world languages have a wealth of learning materials available and one can often meet speakers of these languages around the world. (Of course, English qualifies as world language, too. But since I’m an English speaker, I wasn’t really thinking of learning English when writing this article.) Continue reading →
What I haven’t said on this blog is how I’ve been pining for this language. Sure, I’ve had loads of stuff going on in my life this year (I’m in two classes right now and the material is becoming quite difficult), but I have lamented my lack of language learning this year. I don’t want to just be language learner (admittedly, it would be nice if someone would pay me good money to learn languages all day, but that’s not going to happen), but I do not want to give up language learning entirely, either.
So I’m going forward with my Afrikaans project. It’s okay if I learn more slowly than I did with Russian (this time, I don’t have a very demanding professor assigning homework every day, as I did in Russian!). At minimum, though, I want to do something in Afrikaans every day, whether it’s learning vocabulary, grammar, or doing some listening.
I have already met some very nice Afrikaans speakers on the internet who have been very helpful. They all were quite curious to know why I decided to learn Afrikaans. Admittedly it is a bit hard even for me to understand. I just really like the way the language sounds and what little speaking I’ve done so far feels almost like speaking my native English. (In comparison to Russian, that is. Even after four years, moving my mouth around those Russian sounds can be very difficult.)
That link is to a very long and detailed post by a Canadian living in Korea that details his experiences learning Korean. It’s epic, but definitely worth a read, as it’s the one of the best language learning posts I’ve read in a while.
A few caveats: first off, I don’t believe you can become fluent in a foreign language just by reading. (In this post, I use the word fluent to indicate a very high level of competency in a language, a level at which one can read and understand material that an educated native speaker reads, engage in a conversation with a native speaker without making many grammatical errors or needing lots of repetition to understand what is being said, and communicate effectively with native speakers in writing.) Academics often have what is called “reading knowledge” of a language; that is, they can read scholarly work in the language, but not speak it. Some of the more arrogant academics I’ve met have claimed fluency in a language of which they really only had reading knowledge. Continue reading →
Yesterday, I was reading Aaron G. Myers’ excellent book Activities and Strategies for Everyday Language Learners (I talked more about this book here but please note the book is no longer free) and one thing in particular stood out for me. On page 37, Aaron writes that the most common reason we reach a plateau in language learning is we get comfortable.
In more detail:
I believe there is a truism in language learning that you reach where you need to reach in the language. If you need to be at a low intermediate level of proficiency, you will get to that level and perhaps a bit past that level. But pushing forward toward the summit requires extra effort and that effort requires more than most of us want to give.
I needed to reach a certain level of Russian because I had to take an advanced conversation and grammar class at my university. Russian language & literature was one of my areas of study at university and I had to take a certain amount of classes and reach a certain level.
However, since graduation, I feel that I have stagnated a bit in my learning. For a little while I even felt like I had regressed in my knowledge, but now I just feel like I’ve hit a plateau. I can read just about any news article, I can have conversations, I can listen to radio programs and understand just about everything. But I feel like I haven’t learned any truly new vocabulary in a while. (To be honest, I know pretty much everything there is to know about Russian grammar, thanks to my dear professor M at my university.)
So my question is: what does one do when one hits a plateau? So far, Aaron hasn’t really touched on this in his book (though I have not finished reading it yet, so perhaps he does later). I have a few ideas for getting out this plateau.
Find some new books to read. More books means more reading, and more reading means more vocabulary acquisition.
Learn specialized vocabulary in a genre you’re interested in but don’t know. For example, I’m interested in business, economics, and finance, but I do not know the vocabulary related to these topics in Russian. As if asset-backed securities aren’t hard enough already – now I’m going to study them in Russian too!
Do a 1000-word challenge. I saw this on the internet – regrettably, I do not remember where – and it means learning 1000 new vocabulary words in a month (about thirty words a day).
Keep in mind I’ve never actually tried these tips before. I am looking for suggestions to get away from this plateau, so don’t hesitate to share your thoughts below!
Just a quick note about this for all language learners who are interested: Aaron G. Myers, the blogger who writes The Everyday Language Learner, has released an ebook with strategies and tips for language learning. The book is called, appropriately enough, Activities and Strategies for Everyday Language Learners and is available for free download here. (Technically, I think you have to click a small button to “pay with a tweet”, but that’s certainly a small price to pay for such a fantastic book!) Update, February 16: Aaron informs me that the book will be free until February 20, after which it will be available in the store, for a price.
What I like most about Aaron’s writing is how he has tips for regular people to learn languages – by regular, I mean those who have jobs and families and the assorted responsibilities that come with being an adult. Students have an undeniable advantage when it comes to learning languages, as they often have the free time to do it. (I had an epiphany recently that all students, whether in school or at universities, should study a foreign language until they are at a decent conversational level at the very least, but this will be the subject of another post.)
Recently, I feel like I have stagnated a bit in my language learning. I intend to focus on improving my Russian this year instead of trying to pick up another language (sorry, Afrikaans!), but I haven’t actually done much work so far. I’ve started reading Aaron’s book, though, and I hope it will help me overcome this stagnation I’m feeling.
So, I read an absolutely fascinating article about modern Russia. I wanted to talk to my mom about it and discuss it with readers here… but then I realized that I cannot, as it is in Russian. (And I’m pretty sure most of my readers don’t speak Russian.) File this under #BilingualProblems…
(I’m working on translating the article so that we can read it and discuss it. But I’m a slow translator, especially when I’m busy with other stuff.)
(Does this post make me look obnoxious? Like, in a “I know a foreign language that you don’t” sort of way? Because Jon Huntsman always came across that way in the Republican primary debates and I really don’t want to be like that!)
This is embarrassing. In addition to my other rather, er, esoteric interests, I’ve discovered that I quite enjoy Polish pop music. I don’t speak a word of Polish, but this song (which I found on a friend’s blog) is stuck in my head right now. It’s called “Czy ten pan i pani” by Ania Wyszkoni. Be careful if you listen to it – it’s catchy and will probably stick in your head, too!
I have mixed feelings about linguistic purism. It’s a fascinating topic – for example, did you know that one of the reasons why Icelandic is so difficult to learn is because there are not many modern loanwords in the language? The official policy of the government is to create new words from Old Norse roots (technology-related words are invented from old words, so unlike in other languages, the word for “internet” in Icelandic doesn’t actually resemble the English word at all, at least according to what I’ve read). A similar phenomenon is present in Croatia – after the breakup of Yugoslavia, Croats have promoted words with Slavic roots over their Serb variants (which sometimes have Latin or Germanic roots).
The one problem I have with linguistic purism is that language changes. A living language organically changes and grows. Usually this is not inherently a bad thing or a good thing; it is simply a fact of life. Old English is now unintelligible to an English speaker (unless one specifically studies it, of course) and Middle English can be pretty strange, too.
What prompted this post was a blog entry I found on a Russian-language blog. It contains a list of 235 loanwords that have Russian equivalents. From what I can tell, the author was mourning the fact that foreign words like арест [arrest] and бизнес [business] have displaced their Russian equivalents (задержание and дело, respectively).
In general, people who rail against loanwords and want to expel them from a language are fighting a losing battle. Unless a language is isolated and has a government-backed policy of linguistic purism (like Icelandic), such efforts to keep a language “pure” are doomed to failure.
This post pretty much describes my entire thought process today. Basically, I really, really want to study the Serbian language because:
I have an interest in the history and politics of the region.
I want to travel to Serbia and Croatia.
I want to do research with Serbian-language materials.
The only problem is Serbian words often are similar to Russian, but have a different stress pattern, and after spending so much time and money to learn Russian, I really don’t want to confuse my Russian with Serbian.