Friday, August 10, 2012

Language Learning, Part 1

We're moving to Kazakhstan, where the official language used for business and most interaction is Russian. There is a Kazakh language, but when Soviet Russia took over, that got mashed down and everyone had to speak Russian. Most everyone does now, and my impression from the little bit of info on the internet is that the younger folks in Kazakhstan prefer it while the older folks prefer Kazakh.

I took a half-semester of Russian in college. I was majoring in linguistics, and studying Japanese at the time. There was a bizarre requirement for linguistics majors for which I had to have four semesters of a main language (which could be anything) and two semesters of a non-Indo-European language, i.e. a language that was not really related to English ancestrally. The point of that requirement was to open the horizons of people studying languages. If you only studied Spanish or French, which have a lot of phonetics, vocabulary, and syntactic structures in common with English, then you would never really understand how much variety there is in human language. I applaud that aspect of the requirement, and to be honest, I think it should probably be a requirement of everyone...

The point, however, the reason why I call the requirement bizarre, is that I was already taking Japanese as my main language. Japanese is as non-English as you can get. The basic sentence order is different, the writing system is entirely unlike English, there are very few words in common, and the ones that are in common have been new additions in the past 60 years or so. Japanese is a perfect example of the kind of non-Indo-European language that the requirement was supposed to force people to learn about. But the fact that it was my main language meant that it didn't meet the requirement for the two semesters of a non-IE language. The requirement should have been four semesters of one language, two semesters of another, and at least one should be non-IE. Instead, I ended up going for Korean, which is as similar to Japanese as any two languages can be.

I wasn't getting much experience outside of that realm, though, which missed the entire point of the requirements while fitting snugly in the bureaucratic "letter of the law" side of things. The grammar was remarkably similar, lots of similar words (both languages having lots of imported words from Chinese), and even pronunciation was similar. I did enjoy learning both, but I felt like there was more I could do. I had a couple of friends who were taking Russian at the time, and I (foolishly) thought, "That sounds interesting." I got in touch with the professor and asked if I could be a late add to the class. I was already familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet, having subconsciously absorbed it by working with so many transliterated newspapers in the library periodicals department, so I figured starting a week or so late wouldn't be too much trouble. He said it would be fine.

It turns out that it wasn't much trouble at first. By this time I had a pretty solid technique to memorize words, verb forms, noun forms, and the like. But as time went on, I had more and more trouble. I was in my third year of Japanese, so things were beginning to become fairly complicated and daunting, and with Korean in there as well, I was having to work in three different writing systems, memorize three different words for everything, and avoid trying to jumble it all up on tests. I clearly had taken on too much, and it was unpleasant. Some people might say "That's obvious, studying three languages at once is dumb." My only response is that studying three languages at once like that is entirely possible although difficult, and I just didn't want to work that hard for something that I didn't need to do. It's not a lack of ability that did me in, but a lack of dedication. I wore down and eventually dropped the class.

Now, having lived in Japan, the Japanese paid off somewhat. You never realize how much of a language you can't use until you are dropped off in the country and have to make you way around. The Japanese I was able to use got me around, and the two years living there ramped up my fluency in ways that years of studying both before and after did not. I never did go to Korea, though, and I doubt that I ever will, although with Susie's job, you never know. I have forgotten basically everything I learned about Korean, too (Go, go, university requirements!). The same goes for Russian, which I studied less than any language I have ever studied. Forgotten!

I wish I had been able to do more, especially now that I am headed to a Russian speaking country. I'm re-familiarizing myself with the alphabet and getting some basic vocabulary going. I've ordered a couple of books from Amazon that should help, and Susie is finding what options the Foreign Service can offer. We're hoping to get a general grasp of some useful stuff before we go, and get some training in the language when we get to Kazakhstan. We'll be there for two years, and lots of other places use Russian. If Susie can pass a proficiency test with the right level, it makes her more likely to get those posts, and raises her pay when she gets them.

Learning Russian will be an enjoyable experience, I'm sure. Learning languages in general is one of the most exciting parts of the Foreign Service for me. I'm already having anxious dreams about getting out into Astana and having to interact with people and use what little language I have to get along. But it's not just that it will be an adventure, it will also give me a new skill. If I don't come back from Kazakhstan speaking Russian, I will have no one to blame but myself. And if I do come back speaking Russian, how awesome will that be? Where will we be going next, and what will I learn to speak there?

In the next post, I explain what our options for learning languages are, both good and bad.

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