My one month Russian challenge

February 2, 2012, [MD]

I don't know if it's because I was reading about how Mark Zuckerberg is on a one year challenge to only eat what he kills, or if I was inspired by the speakers at TEDxIBYORK last Friday, but I decided I wanted to do some language learning. Initially, I was thinking about Urdu - it's very similar to Hindi, which I can kind of understand orally (and read, although very slowly - I made it through one Hindi novel when I was in Varanasi (which looked somewhat like the picture to the left). I'm really fascinated by the Arabic script, and given that I already kind of know the language, it makes more sense to try to learn to read Urdu than say Arabic...

However, Arabic is tricky in it's own right (letters look different depending on whether it's at a start of a word, the end of a word, etc, and vowels are typically not included), and the typically writing style used with Urdu, Nastaliq is very ornamented, and relies on stacking letters on top of each other in a way that I find very hard to decode. The picture below is not from a religious text, but the headline of a daily newspaper (which posts its articles as pictures, because they cannot replicate this effect using computer fonts).

In contrast, below is a newspaper headline from a daily newspaper in Saudi Arabia, which uses the Naskh style of writing, common for published secular material in the Arab-speaking world.





So that's a challenge, but obviously not something completely insuperable. However, the other thing that kept bugging me is that even if I put in a lot of effort to learn to read Urdu, there isn't really that much worth reading that's easily available to me...

Don't get me wrong, there's a great Urdu poetry tradition, and I've always wanted to read the works of Ibn-e Safi, a Pakistani who never travelled outside Pakistan, but wrote a 120-book ouvre about a Pakistani spy on secret missions around the world... But it's very hard to find Urdu literature online, or in Toronto (if I find it online, it's typically in scanned format, which means I cannot use online dictionaries), and just like with the Indian languages, there isn't that much modern literature being written (English being more prominent).

I still really want to learn Urdu, as well as proper fluent Hindi for that matter, at some point. But in the meantime, I decided to study... Russian! I know, quite different. But it's another language which I've learnt a bit of, but never gained fluency in.

My first meeting with Russian was taking the trans-Siberian from Norway to Beijing for my first trip to China (and first time leaving Europe) in 2001. I spent a month there, visiting Esperantists. Later, I travelled through Russia on the train one more time, and also spent some time travelling through the 'stans in Central Asia. I picked up a few words, but never learnt much.

Then in 2004, I had a chance to go to People's Friendship University of Russia for a one month intensive course in Russian, together with activists from different civil society organizations in Europe, funded by the European Council (the picture below is from the school's homepage).The school is a pretty interesting place - it's where a lot of African and Asian leaders were trained in the communist era, and to this day 60% of the students are from Asia and Africa. We had this wonderful old babushka of a teacher, who had dedicated her life to teaching Russian to foreigners, and we learnt a lot. But of course, there's still a limit to how much you can learn during a month - and worse, I barely ever had a chance to use Russian in the years after (this was in 2003).

So I can read the alphabet, know some of the grammar, and remember some of the words, but that's about it. Now, the neat thing about Russian, which I've been noticing during the last few years, is that there is a huge amount of material available online. Russian literature is well known, but there is not just classical literature, there are tons of novels being published continuously. And most of this is readily available online. As well as Russian movies, and the thing that I love - audiobooks!

So somehow I made a snap decision, and decided to do a 30-day Russian Challenge. Rather than reading a classical novel, I wanted to read something that is very popular in Russia right now. I came across Boris Akunin, who seems really cool, and is apparently one of the best-selling authors currently. He writes detective novels set in Tsarist Russia, and is very web savvy - his novels are available for free download on his website, and he has even created websites for some of the characters in his books.

So I grabbed one of his books, The Winter Queen, or Азазель in Russian, and was able to download the full-text in both English and Russian. I also found the audio book in Russian! So for one month, I will spend one hour each day (technically two pomodori) reading the novel in Russian, using the TranslateIt dictionary to provide mouse-over dictionary look-up. The way I do it, is to have the book open in TextEdit, so I can use the mouse-over dictionary. For every few sentences or paragraph, I read the same section of the book in the English translation, on my Kindle. I find this kind of bi-lingual reading really effective (it would be great if more authors put out bi-lingual editions, but in the meantime, we can hack it like this).

I have no idea if this is the best way to learn a language - choosing a fairly complex book, rather than a pedagogically adapted text, but at this point, I'm much more interested in reading an interesting, authentic text, rather than something that was designed for me.

Update: I wrote the draft for this blog post in November, and did enjoy this "Russian challenge" for about two weeks, making steady progress and having a lot of fun, before I fell out of it due to too many other commitments. I am going to try to take up the thread again now, so I am finally posting this.



Stian Håklev February 2, 2012 Toronto, Canada
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