Monday, November 24, 2008

Изучаю русский

Храм Спаса–на–Крови
Resurrection Church of our Savior
aka Church on Spilled Blood
St Petersburg, Russia

A coworker this afternoon asked when my trip was. He assumed I would not be working this hard on learning Russian unless the trip were near.

Alas, it's not.

There is no schedule, though my fantasy is that we will visit St Petersburg and Moscow in 2010. This means I have a good year and a half to work on learning Russian. But the point is not to put all that effort into conversation for a week or two - it is to learn a new language so that I can use it on more than a trip.

The good news, for me, is that Russian is an Indo-European tongue with most of its structure comparable to languages I have studied before. Cases have diminished in English to the point that "whom" is almost lost in public speech and writing but Latin and Greek were good preparation for Russian declension. The anarthrous aspect is like Latin (in shorter words this means there is no article, either "a/an" or "the"). When translating into English one must supply the appropriate article, inferring it from context. The doubling of verbs involves a major shift in gears - i.e., having most concepts expressed by pairs of verbs. One might be perfective and the other imperfective, or one might be unidirectional and the other multi-directional. That is very challenging. Still, the overall structure makes sense. I just need to learn the rules, the patterns, and the vocabulary, then practice, practice, practice.

It's work. But for me it is pleasurable work.

Which is a long preface to noting that I just finished another hour with Rosetta Stone. Stuff is beginning to come at me faster and faster. Since I understand some of the grammar I can see what they are trying to teach (e.g., masculine and feminine forms of the possessive "my" or singular and plural verb forms). When they get into usages we had not yet covered in class last spring I can guess what's up but I scramble to figure it out and answer correctly. One minute I get all that "correct" harp music and the next there are repeated "dings" to tell me I got it wrong.

I had learned from CDs in prior years about multiple plural forms, shifting between 4 and 5. For example one hour (or one o'clock) is "chas" without a numeral. With 2, 3, and 4 the plural of hour is "chasa" (sounding like ch'sa). 5 upward gets "chesof." The pattern is clear and we learned it with rubles also (rubl, rubli, rublof). Tonight I got it with boys and girls. Having gotten dyevochka and dyevochki now I learn dyevochek. But that is simply counting in the nominative and does not even touch the usages in other cases. The head begins to spin.

My goal is to learn enough Russian that I can carry on elementary conversations and polite interchanges with relative ease, whether on Nevsky Prospect in St Petersburg or Santa Monica Boulevard just east of Fairfax in Los Angeles. I have a long way to go but it is lots of fun.

Oh, and the bad news, for my learning, is that it is a Slavic tongue and not a Romance language. This makes vocabulary and sound combinations much more like an obstacle course. By the time the Russians shove about four consonants together and then put an accent on a syllable that has four unaccented syllables following it my mouth starts doing weird things. It feels like the vocal equivalent of tripping in the clumsiest possible manner.

So, here's a general question for any takers:

If you could learn a foreign language you do not yet know, what might you choose? And why that one?
--the BB


Jane R said...

I'm not answering your question, because I first want to finish learning languages: goal #1 is to finish learning Spanish, which I speak and read but not fluently and in which I really want and need to become fluent (for pastoral and other reasons). Goal #2 is to get back to biblical Hebrew, which I have all but forgotten and of which I had only one year. That is so I can read the Bible. Goal #3 is sometime to get back to Russian, because you're tempting me here with your Russian stories and I had three semesters in college and can still pronounce it fine, but have otherwise forgotten all but a few words and sentences. Use it or lose it. It's a great language in which to curse, by the way; all those consonants.

Now I'll answer your question: if I had to learn a foreign language I do not yet know, at all at all, and I had time and leisure (and had taken care of #1 and #2 above - not sure #3 will ever happen), I would learn Turkish. (I know about five words, but that doesn't count, right?) Because my brother's partner lives in Turkey and my brother lives with her part of the time and I want to go back to Istanbul (where I went for the first time last December) and be able to get around and converse.

I would also like to learn Arabic, if I had the time and leisure, because so many people around the world speak it, and because it has some beautiful literature, and because it would be good to be able to read the Qur'an in the original and attend worship services at mosques as a guest (which I have before and will probably do again) and be able to understand what is going on.

Also, I would like to learn American Sign Language. Maybe I need to learn that before I tackle Turkish.

FranIAm said...

My Spanish is not great, but I can function. French - not as much but still can manage. Italian a little less, same with German and Polish.

If I could learn any language I think I would learn Arabic. When I was in Jordan I loved hearing it spoken and I felt drawn in by it in a special way.

Paul said...

I hope I get more responses to this questions, anticipating that the reasons behind our choices will fascinate. So far, so true. After we get some more comments I will come clean with my choice.