Tag Archives: Russia

What’s the point of learning Russian?

Here’s a guest post from New York-based writer Alina Simone.

When my editor, Patrick, assigned me a story about how the Russian language is dying, I thought he was being funny.

I pointed out that, yoo hoo! — I speak Russian and so does my entire family. I invited, no, dared, him to step into a crowded elevator in New York City and start complaining in loud Russian about someone’s B.O.

And then I headed to Bright Minds Center in Manhattan for graduation day, where classes in Russian are offered for kids age 2 to 15… and business is booming.

“In the first year, we signed up 60 kids. Now we have around 300 families,” co-founder Anna Volkova tells me. In fact, the school has expanded so fast since 2008 that they are now looking to open a second branch. But when I ferried this news back to my editor, he directed my attention to a national survey conducted by the Center for Applied Linguistics, which paints a different picture. Russian now places last among foreign languages taught in American elementary or secondary schools. At just 0.3 percent, it ranks behind Greek, Arabic and Native American languages.

That wasn’t the case before the Iron Curtain fell. But the US government’s interest in Russian studies was closely tied to their interest in keeping the Soviet Union in check.

As Russian language expert Kevin Hendzel explains, “When the Soviet Union first collapsed, the language money went away from Russian and into Ukrainian and Kazakh and the Baltic languages because there was no capability in the United States. And after 9/11, all the money got pulled into Arabic and Pashtu and Dari and Urdu and a lot of other languages. In a limited pool of dollars, you tend to move them around to where you feel a need.”

That need hasn’t been keenly felt here in the US for years. And the former Soviet satellite countries are dropping Russian as a second language faster than Vladimir Putin can say Pussy Riot. Without government funding, interest in learning Russian depends more on its pop-appeal, but even during the Sochi Olympics, the cultural ambassadors Russia touted were mostly… dead. Safe to say there are just aren’t a surplus of youngsters out there jonesing to read Tolstoy or Dostoevsky in the original.

But there is still one place where Americans are required to know Russian, and that’s Outer Space. Starting in 2011, NASA made learning Russian a requirement for all astronauts, the same year it began relying on Russian Soyuz rockets to reach the International Space Station. But recent tensions over the crisis in Ukraine have had the Russians threatening to end their participation in the International Space Station program. That doesn’t mean American astronauts should put away their Russian grammar textbooks quite yet.

“The Russians take some delight in being the means by which the Americans are able to get to the space station, and there’s still a fair amount of decent science being done up there that can’t be done really anywhere else.” Kevin told me. “So I think what you’re going to see is the effort will continue.”

And according to Kevin, the chill that’s settled over US-Russian relations may paradoxically end up driving us back into Russia’s arms — linguistically speaking that is.

“Within the government, I think they’re looking at it and saying, “We may have run away from this a little bit too quickly. Let’s put a little bit of money here. Let’s put some more chips on the table. Let’s be aware of the advantages that knowing a language at a native level, or certainly at a technical level, give us.”

And yet, Russian will never again be as widely spoken as it was when the Soviet Union straddled the globe like a sumo wrestler, threatening to sit on countries that dared say Nyet to Russian. But just as I was starting to feel depressed that Russian would soon just be a lonely secret I shared with 144 million other native speakers, I met up with linguist John McWhorter, who reminded me just how unlikely the spread of Russian was to begin with.

“Russian is really, really hard. And I say that as somebody who loves Russian very much. Just all of the jangling stuff on the nouns, all the brick-a-brack with the verbs, just try to say something as simple as ‘I went to the store.’ The verbs of motion. Just try to count! It’s a magnificent nightmare.”

You’d think the languages easiest to speak and learn, would also be the most common. But it turns out tanks and bombers spread a language much more effectively than the promise of regular verbs.

“And so it just shows that there’s nothing about the way a language happens to be put together that allows it to spread and become a language of empire,” McWhorter informs me. “Any language can become a language of empire so long as certain conditions are met.”

Dmitry Golden, and his daughter, a student at Bright Minds Center in New York City. (Photo: Alina Simone)

Dmitry Golden, and his daughter, a student at Bright Minds Center in New York City. (Photo: Alina Simone)

Of course, politics and war aren’t the only way a language can spread. Forty years ago, we may have had a lot more Americans speaking Russian as a second language, but the number of Russian immigrants in the US was infinitesimal. Not so today.

At Bright Minds Center, 90 percent of the kids studying Russian are from mixed parentage with only one Russian-speaking parent.

Many of the kids even end up being trilingual, like Dmitry Golden’s daughter, a student at Bright Minds, who speaks Spanish as well as Russian because her mother is a native of the Dominican Republic.

As the saying goes: languages are best learned on the pillow. Or to put it another way: To Russian, with love.


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A Canadian journalist escapes detention in Ukraine by speaking French

Photo: Ashok666/Flickr

Photo: Ashok666/Flickr

Here’s a guest post from my Big Show colleague, Nina Porzucki.

It may not be quite an epidemic, but pro-Russia insurgents in Ukraine are increasingly turning to an ominous new tactic: kidnapping.

Many people have been held hostage in the eastern town of Slovyansk — including journalists, pro-Ukraine activists and military observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

One person not caught up in the sweep is the Toronto Star’s reporter in Slovyansk, Mitch Potter.

And that’s not for lack of trying on the part of pro-Russia activists.

Last week, Potter and his interpreter were pulled over by a group of angry insurgents. It was a tense situation and the one thing that Potter knew he shouldn’t do was speak English.

“It was known, well-known for days, that it was trouble to speak English on the streets,” said Potter. “There are pamphlets circulating in that city warning that anyone who speaks English is a spy and turn them in.”

So what did the English-speaking Canadian do?

“My lips started moving and the French language came out,” said Potter.

“I’m French Canadian,” Potter told the angry insurgents. “I have nothing to do with the English language.”

That’s not true. Potter is not French Canadian. Yet, somehow his improvised French worked and the Pro-Russian activists let him and his interpreter leave Slovyansk.

“This was after a week on the ground. And it was clear that we’re all Americans now, when we go to that place. They make no distinction between Americans and Canadians,” said Potter.

So why did speaking French pacify the insurgents in eastern Ukraine? Potter doubts that it has anything to do with an affinity for the French-Canadian separatist movement.

“People there tend not to travel. It’s a very insular place. They don’t even travel to western Ukraine, let alone pay attention to language politics in Canada,” said Potter.


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Do you answer ‘How are you?’ the American or the Russian way?

Alina Simone's Russian grandmother. When congratulated on becoming 90, she declared that she was disappointed that she was still alive.  (Courtesy Alina Simone)

Alina Simone’s Russian grandmother. When congratulated on becoming 90, she declared that she was disappointed that she was still alive. (Courtesy Alina Simone)

Here’s a guest post from New York-based writer and Big Show contributor Alina Simone.

My Russian grandmother had a stock response to “How are you?” “Terrible.” And if you didn’t like it, the same applied to you.

Last month, I wrote an op-ed for the New York Times about the difference between how Americans and Russians respond to the question, “How are you?” (The answer can almost be summarized: Fine/Not fine.)

Alina Simone and her American husband Josh Knobe (Courtesy Alina Simone)

Alina Simone and her American husband Josh Knobe (Courtesy Alina Simone)

My inbox exploded. People from all over the world wrote to tell me how they were. I learned that Russians are not the only ones who take “How are you?” literally. The same holds true for Chinese, Israelis, and very grumpy Americans — or Americans simply unable to gloss over the truth, even for the sake of a benign social ritual. One American with Stage 4 breast cancer wrote to tell me that she had given up on “fine” and now just told people the honest truth: “I couldn’t be worse.” Alternatively, a man named Tom put forth the theory that saying “fine” was a telltale sign of emotional repression — or worse. “Fine actually stands for Feelings I’m Not Expressing,” Tom wrote. “Or, (Unprintable Word), Insecure, Neurotic, and Empty.”

I found it interesting that while the Americans I spoke to didn’t much care whether Russians responded to “How are you?” with some news about their psoriasis, Russians really agonized over these interactions with Americans. My Russian father went so far as to discover fresh source of “How Are You?” humiliation: the tendency Americans had of not sticking around long enough to hear the answer.

“The shortest answer I can think of to the question ‘How are you?’ is, ‘Good,’” my father said. “But I still have not figured out what to do when someone blurts ‘Hi! How Are You!’ and runs by. Should I run after him and say ‘Good?'”

America: a nation of people shouting “Good!” at one another’s disappearing backs. For some reason, I kind of like that.


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Turkish, Stalin, and just say non!

The avidly pro-Western Georgian government has just torn down a statue of Joseph Stalin in his hometown of Gori. Many people think of Stalin as Russian, but he was Georgian, much to the embarrassment of many Georgians today. There’s an exception: Georgians who live in Gori adore the former Soviet leader; for them it’s a case of local boy made good bad and all of that. As it happens, I visited Gori in 2005, and filed a story from there on Stalinphilia and the language of denial.

The newest star of Germany’s national soccer team is an ethnic Turk. And the  popularity of Mesut Özil is one of the reasons why Turkish has become just a little more accepted in Germany today. There are other reasons: the emergence of a small middle class, as well as  the rise of writers, filmakers and politicians (our report from Cyrus Farivar includes comments from Cem Özdemir, Germany’s first member of parliament of Turkish descent). Turkish in Germany remains nowhere near as prominent as Spanish is in the United States. It’s the exception rather than the rule to find a German corporation marketing a product to ethnic Turks in Turkish. Earlier this year Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on Germany to offer Turkish as a language of instruction in high schools.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel responded by promising more bilingual education. Related articles: a blanket ban on foreign languages at one German school, and the influence of Turkish and Arabic on urban, spoken German.

World Cup notes:  this World Cup is breaking TV viewing records from China to Chile. A story here on U.S. TV ratings, which are especially impressive on the Spanish-language Univision channel. The Argentina-Mexico game was the most-watched  Spanish-language telecast in U.S. history, with nearly 10 million viewers. Combined with English-language coverage, that game attracted nearly 14 million viewers — impressive for a contest that did not feature the United States. In contast, a combined 19  million watched the U.S.-Ghana game.

And there’s a nice video montage from BBC Mundo here of the eleven official languages of South Africa.

Finally,  British politician Chris Bryant has called French a “useless” language to learn. He suggested that children should instead learn Chinese or Arabic. After he made those comments, the BBC hauled him into a studio to defend himself, and to debate the issue with a German diplomat. (Late replacement for a French diplomat? Peut-être.)



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Windows 7 in African languages, unfortunate name translations, and the new Klingon

For the latest podcast, I have five language news stories from the past month:

5. African languages to get their versions of Windows.

Microsoft says by 2011 it will release versions of its new Windows 7 operating system in ten African languages:  Sesotho sa Leboa, Setswana, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Afrikaans, Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, kiSwahili and Amharic. It’s a big boost for those languages, as well as for the people who prefer to speak and write in them, rather than English or French.

4. The government of Moldova moves to change the name of the country’s official language.

Most people who live in small eastern European nation of Moldova speak a dialect of Romanian.  But in Moldova, the language is known officially as Moldovan. This is an act of  placation: it placates non-Romanian- speakers in Moldova and, more importantly, in Moscow. Calling the language Romanian is seen by some in the Kremlin as tantamount to a vote for unification with Romania. Russia, of course, doesn’t want that: it views Moldova, a former Soviet republic, as part of its “Near Abroad”.  But Moldova recently elected a pro-Western government. One of its first acts was to change the name of the language on its official website from Moldovan to Romanian. What’s more, the President-elect has declared himself a speaker of Romanian. (He also declared himself “a Romanian.”) That’s in sharp constrast to his  pro-Moscow predecessors, who insisted on translators when they had meetings with Romanian officials.

3. South Korean birthing centers go multilingual.

South Korea doesn’t have much of a history of immigration; very few foreigners have learned Korean, at least with a view to settling there. Now though, there’s a shortage of women, especially in the countryside. So South Korean men have starting marrying women from other Asian countries. And they’re having children.  Most of women speak very little Korean, so doctors and nurses are learning a few words in Chinese, Thai and Tagalog.  That’s just the start of what appears to be quite  an ordeal. Even with Korean speakers in their families, the women and their children have a hard time integrating, linguistically and otherwise,  into Korean society.

2. Unfortunate foreign meanings of baby names and how YOU can protect yourself (should you wish to).

A London-based translation company with an eye for publicity is offering what appears to be a unique service: for about $1,700, it will run a translation check on the name you have chosen for your baby. It will, of course, alert you if that name means say, pickpocket  in Japanese (“Suri”) or shut up in Yoruba (“Kai”). Maybe the celebs, with their surfeit cash and zany name choices will be tempted. For the rest of us, there’s Google Translate. Or we could just call our firstborn, I don’t know, Jessica. Or John.

1. Na’vi, invented for the silver screen, hopes to emulate Klingon.

Klingon’s been in the news a lot recently. There was the (recycled) story of the man who tried to raise his son bilingually — in Klingon, and just to be on safe side, English. Then there’s the story of a new Klingon dictionary in the works. Now, there’s another nod to Klingon. James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar is scheduled to annex and occupy the cinematic world on December 18.  Much of the movie takes place on a planet whose inhabitants are 10 feet tall, have tails and blue skin, etc etc. And they speak their own language. Tolkein created Elvish . Star Trek came up with Klingon. And now Avatar has midwifed Na’vi. Cameron  commissioned University of South California linguist Paul Frommer to dream up a new language. And he did.

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Russia’s national lyricist, Canada’s language laws, and the rehabilitation of a code-breaker

MikhalkovThis week, a look back at the career of the late Sergei Mikhalkov, who has died aged 96.  During World War Two, Mikhalkov wrote the lyrics to the Soviet national anthem.  After Stalin died, he rewrote the lyrics, expunging all mention of  Stalin. Decades later, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian government adopted a new national anthem, but no-one particularly liked it: it just didn’t sound grand and powerful enough.  So in 2000, Vladimir Putin re-installed the old tune  by Alexander Alexandrov and had Mikhalkov re-write the lyrics yet again. This time round, instead of praising Stalin or Lenin, the anthem gave a nod to God. As someone who so readily held his finger to the political winds, it’s no surprise that Mikhalkov took part in smear campaigns against the likes Boris Pasternak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  Of course that was during Stalin’s rule, which means that not participating in such campaigns could have dire consequences.

Next, a conversation with Keith Spicer on Canada’s 40-year-old language laws.  Spicer was the country’s first enforcer of bilingualism. Being Canadian, there wasn’t much enforcing– more like pusuading, cajoling and endless, endless debating. The way Spicer tells it, Canadians eventually embraced the law, with millions of English Canadians clamoring to learn French. He says that Quebec’s provincial language rules that outlawed signs in English and discouraged English-language expressions in French were silly but understandable, given the historical hostility to French in Anglophone Canada.

turingFinally, this month the British government finally apologized for its treatment of Alan Turing, who helped break the Nazis’ war codes.  When Turing’s homosexuality was exposed, the British government stripped him of his security clearance and prosecuted him for gross indecency. Faced with a prison term, Turing agreed as an alternative to hormone treatment. The treatment drove him to suicide in 1954.

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podcast #2: putinology and don’t exaggerate on your resume

In this week’s podcast, the focus is on the Russian language.  There are those names of leaders: Putin, Stalin, Medvedev. They all mean – or at least connote – concrete things to Russians. (A lot of non-Russians, btw, have great trouble pronouncing Medvedev. ) Then we enter the linguistic world of outgoing president Vladimir Putin. The man likes to juice up his rhetoric with a mix of 19th century Russian poetry and hardcore street talk.  We end with the confessions of a hopelessly unqualified Israeli government speechwriter whose exaggerated claim of fluency in French is tested at the highest diplomatic levels.  Listen to the cast in iTunes or  here.

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