Gravity's Rainbow

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New Year’s Resolutions: Studying Russian


I love learning languages, but I’m bad about starting and not ‘finishing.’ I know you never truly ‘finish’ learning a language, but I want to get to a reasonable level of competency, instead of just learning the basic structure of the language and colors, numbers, and food.  I tend to put language learning on the back burner since it’s not directly related to my job or research interests.  But I enjoy studying languages and speaking another language definitely makes you a more attractive employee in research.  So this year, I’m committed:  I’m making a little time for studying every day, just like yoga.

Esperanto Jubilee Symbol

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Languages I’ve started and not finished include: Spanish, French, Esperanto, Mandarin, and Russian.  I got the furthest in Esperanto because it’s a made-up language with very regular rules and roots I’m familiar with. I’d still like to learn enough to do Pasporta Servo someday (What? You don’t know Esperanto?! Here’s the Wikipedia page, then.).  I learned quite a bit of a dialect of Mandarin, mostly because I lived in China for a year and it was learn or only eat overpriced noodles. Someday I’m going to learn proper Mandarin; I want to participate in this program while I’m in grad school.  Since I do want to work with Chinese researchers someday, it would make sense to focus on Mandarin this year.  Since I want to travel with Pasporta Servo, it would make as much sense to focus on Esperanto.

But instead, I’m going to focus on Russian.  I took 3 semesters of Russian when I started college. I did pretty terribly since I was dealing with near constant migraines.  One semester, I attended a total of 4 classes (out of about 50).  But I really loved it.  One of the things I like best is the similarity between Russian and Latin grammar.  I took Latin in high school and had so much fun.

Boxing scene from the Aeneid (book 5), when th...
Image via Wikipedia

We ended up translating (badly) a fair bit of The Aeneid. Most people grimace when I tell them that, but it was AWESOME (especially the part where my Latin teacher pretended to be an enraged cyclops).  Since Latin has super specific endings depending on what a word is doing in a sentence, you can put words in essentially any order for literary effect and still make sense. Playing around with word order doesn’t work very well in English, e.g. Work order around playing with in very doesn’t English well word.  I’m not sure if Russian poetry is as flexible with word order as Latin is, but I enjoy the precision of the language. Plus, I think Russian sounds lovely, even if all the bad guys in the movies have Russian accents.  It reminds me of my grandfather, who most certainly was not a bad guy. (He wasn’t Russian either, but my fuzzy memories of Polish aren’t distinguishable from Russian.) I’ve also been interested in Russia for as long as can remember because of an article I read about Lake Baikal when I was kid.  I’d still love to do research there.

I’ve got some good tools to get started with that didn’t hurt my wallet, thanks to the internet and some friends. I’ll start watching movies and TV shows in Russian right away to get a better feel for the language.  In a few months, I’ll start reading a book I’ve read in English in Russian.  I’m thinking Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone– I’d learn lots of fun vocabulary like ‘cauldron’ and ‘wizard.’  And I’ll try to find someone to practice with.  I’m not sure how well I’ll do with that goal in my small and not very diverse town, but wherever I head for graduate school this summer should have better options.  The one thing I don’t have that I think would be useful is a good, basic grammar book that I can use as a reference.  Any suggestions?

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  1. This is a great New Year’s resolution! If you ever need help or practice, I’m always here. As for a good grammar book, this one is considered to be the classic, most often used text:

    It has lots of exrecises for each topic that is explained.

  2. Thanks for the grammar book recommendation. Despite the amount of Russian homework I didn’t turn in when I was in regular classes, I’m actually looking forward to doing some exercises!

  3. When I majored in Russian in college, our grammer book was Pulkina’s A Short Russian Reference Grammar. It did the job, but I’ve never tried others.

    When speaking Russian, to sound “correct”, keep the tip of your tongue stuck to the back of your lower teeth. That’s the simplest of the pronunciation rules I learned at the university in Moscow. And work on the soft consonants; Americans suck at them.


  4. Keep going with Esperanto !!

    Can I add that Esperanto is not only a great idea, but is now a living language.

    The study course is now receiving 120,000 hits per month.

    That can’t be bad 🙂

    • I learned so much on lernu, but I’d totally forgotten about it. Thanks for reminding me!

      • Oh I just realised, this article is quite old but you’re still writing for this blog so hopefully you’ll see this comment, too 😉

        I found this as I was looking for esperanto blog content and because you mention it here, I came across your blog.

        Did you continue to learn esperanto at any time? I don’t know if you’re still interested but did you know that there is a really outstanding app for language learning that also offers an esperanto course for english speakers. if you’re curious, try Duolingo. It’s really fun and is a good supplement to the lernu course. Just saying… 😉

        I had a struggle with EO in the first attempt because I stopped learning at one point. However, I began again this year and made more progress than ever before. Now I’ll probably stick with it. Sometimes we need a break. But you’ll see that you won’t have forgotten everything.

        All the best for you

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