Showing posts with label Language learning. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Language learning. Show all posts

Thursday, 28 June 2012

*@!$@!! Russian swear words

I have an unfortunate tendency, when very upset, to want to lapse into nineteenth-century English. I am not sure how people nowadays are expected to react when their sister runs off with some unsuitable man or when someone insults them, but I just want to throw my gloves on the floor and tell the offender my second will be round in the morning. There is something in the back of my mind, though, that tells me I should be swearing at the person instead.

Swearing at people is best avoided in foreign languages, even apart from the obvious rudeness, since swearing is all about attitude, which is much harder to pull off with a funny accent. Plus you really need to understand a lot about the nuances of the words to use them properly, otherwise we are back to sounding silly or just odd rather than threatening. The upside of all this is that it is also very difficult to be insulted in a foreign language. Even if you technically know the words are very rude, you don't FEEL that they are rude, and hence it is almost impossible to take offense.

Russian swear words, it turns out, are much "stronger" than British swear words, in the sense that you can't actually use them on TV, radio or in print, whereas I think you are allowed to swear as much as you like after nine o'clock in the evening in the UK. There are two groups of Russian swear words: one set that are pretty bad but are in fact usable, although not in polite company, in front of children etc, and one set that are much stronger and are basically not usable if you are an educated person (this group of words is called мат (mat)). There are four basic words in this group, but if four words is not enough there are basically limitless variations - you can add prefixes or suffixes or combine them with other words. Four words should be four times as many as you need though - Dostoevsky wrote that a Russian could express the entire range of his feelings with one word of мат. But I guess people like to be creative. A quick Google search will take you to this site, which lists an unbelievable 1700 words or expressions you shouldn't use. Or this Russian language tutorial site, which hilariously has a lesson on Russian swear words between discussions on meeting people and shopping.

There is a long history of intolerance of the use of мат. Catherine the Great issued a special proclamation banning all use of one of the words. Under the Soviets you could end up with a fifteen day jail sentence for using мат, and even today public use of these words is punishable by a fine and possible arrest (although in practice this is rarely enforced). According to a 2003 article in the New Yorker, the prejudice against these words came in with Christianity in the 10th century. The theory is that these words, which are all to do with sex, were previously part of a pagan fertility cult the Christian missionaries were trying to stamp out. They apparently still sound, to Russian ears, fairly blasphemous (and Russians are overall more religious than people in the UK so this matters more). For example, one of the most basic formulae implies that the mother of the person you are talking to slept with the devil. On the other hand, Pushkin, Lermontov, Turgenev and Chekov all used мат in their writing, and it shows up in a lot of folk tales. Some people feel that while it can be rude, it isn't necessarily - it can just be expressive. That article in the New Yorker referred to it as "more of a philosophy than a language", indicating everything from power dynamics to sincerity, with the real meaning of the words heavily dependent on intonation and context and thus almost impossible to translate. I don't think you'd find anyone saying that about British swear words. Or maybe I just don't know enough about them.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

End of term and accents

Yesterday was the last day of the summer term at the language school I attend, so the last week or so has been taken up with farewells. It is not the last day for me, since I am staying on until September at least, but most of the university students are leaving. We had another talent show type thing, which was marginally less embarrassing than the one at Christmas, but rather more depressing, because it did underline how bad most of us still are at Russian. According to the US State Department, it should take a native English speaker around 2,300 hours (1,100 hours of classes and the rest self-study) of study to reach competency in Russian, whatever that means. I think so far I am at around 850, so I am not even half way there yet. Must work harder. Presumably the number of required hours is higher for Japanese/Korean/Chinese people, who form the majority of the student body. Since a lot of them basically didn't know any Russian at all when they got here, a year isn't really that long.

Even with 2,300 hours I don't expect I'll get the accent right, which is another problem. British people, so presumably Americans as well, mainly have problems with soft sounds in Russian, i.e. we tend to pronounce щ like ш, and don't say things like счастье (shactiye - happiness) and любовь (lubov - love) correctly, or anything else that involves soft signs (ь), i.e. almost every single verb. I have now watched over 60 hours of my Russian soap opera Poor Nastya (Бедная Настя), and the word любовь comes up a lot (it is a melodrama), and every time I try to copy the way the actors say it, but I still can't get it right. People from Belarus have the same problem according to my teacher, so I guess maybe British people and Belarussians sound similar when speaking Russian?

Speaking of accents, I started watching a different soap opera last week, because I already know the only people I like in Бедная Настя are going to end up unhappy, and it really disturbs me when people I like are unhappy, even fictional people (perhaps especially fictional people, since in reality the possibility of future happiness always exists, whereas in fiction being unhappy at the end of a book is final). This one is called Грехи Отцов (Grekhi Otsov - Sins of the Fathers) and the main attraction of it is that it has most of the same actors as Бедная Настя, including the people I like, so I am hoping they will end up happy this time round. Anyway, the point of all this burble is that they have a couple of American characters (played by Russians), who have to do American accents in Russian, which is really strange to listen to. It's obvious, I suppose, that actors from every country must have to do foreign accents, I just hadn't really thought about it before. It would be really interesting to know how they describe different accents to Russians in theatre school - what does an American/French/English accent sound like to a Russian person? And do they bother trying to distinguish a New York American accent from a Texan American accent?

Lots of native English-speaking people like foreign accents, especially French, Italian and Spanish ones, but apparently these accents don't sound so great when you are speaking Russian. My teacher said French accents sound especially bad, which is a new and totally bizarre concept to me, since almost everyone loves French accents in the UK. The best foreign accents to have are from the Baltic republics, which are pleasant to listen to. Maybe like Irish accents sound to the English?

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Electronic dictionaries

No one would call America a small, insignificant country (at least not to its face), so why don't the manufacturers of electronic dictionaries make products with the base language as English? Almost every single Japanese, Korean or Chinese person at my school (i.e. 60% of the entire student population) has an electronic dictionary. I was in Media Markt (an electronics store) yesterday, and I even overheard one employee telling another that if a Japanese person comes in to send them straight to the electronic dictionaries, since that's all they ever buy.

I don't remember electronic dictionaries as working very well, but that was when I was twelve, which is like the age of the dinosaurs in electronic-dictionary terms. The Casio Ex-word versions the Japanese use now are fantastic. Not only do they include Japanese-Russian-English dictionaries, complete with conjugations, usage examples etc, but also monolingual dictionaries in Russian and Japanese, an encyclopaedia in Japanese, grammar textbooks in Russian and Japanese, and they have audio recordings of all the words so you can hear how they should be pronounced. Pretty cool, right? Having one massively reduces the time spent looking up words, and since they are really small, they are perfect for people who want to exercise in the gym rather than carrying around dictionaries the size of a couple of bricks.

Naturally I wanted to buy one, preferably a Russian-English-German-Spanish one, since then my dictionary buying days would be forever at an end, but I was prepared to accept Russian-English. Unfortunately Casio's UK/US websites don't even mention the things, because they don't produce them for English-speaking people. If I wanted one where the base language was German, or French, or Italian, Spanish, Russian, Japanese or seemingly any other language known to man, I could buy one, but not for English. You might think I could buy the one built for Russians learning English, and I might end up doing that, but it is far from ideal. For a start, you can't click through to see the conjugation of a verb you have looked up in English, you have to look it up again in Russian. Secondly, there is only audio for English words, not for Russian ones, and thirdly, the thing includes ten monolingual English dictionaries and only one Russian monolingual one, and no Russian grammar. I didn't even know that you could have ten different monolingual English dictionaries - doesn't that just mean the first nine were missing out words? It even contains 100 works of world literature in English, and the texts of famous English speeches. Even though it doesn't exactly take up space, I would still have to pay for all that rubbish, when I only actually want two out of seventeen volumes on the machine (or three if you count the encyclopaedia in Russian). Since these things cost £250, it means that only £45 of that would be useful to me.

I feel very aggrieved.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The prosody of Russian poetry

The guy who lives next door to me likes love songs by 90s US boybands. I know this because he sings along to them at high volume late at night or absurdly early on Sunday mornings, mispronouncing half the words. Occasionally this is loud enough to wake me up, at which point I lie for a while in bed, debating the merits of turning the other cheek and why it is that I am still capable of getting so angry at things like this. Eventually I yell "замолчи" (zamolchi - shut up) and then "shut up", since English is the international language of shouting. If this doesn't work I jump out of bed and bash the wall several times with my fists, which isn't recommended, since the building is alarmingly flimsy and every time I do things start falling from the ceiling. By this point I am normally laughing and he usually shuts up, so everything is ok.

In my more awake moments, I think I should be more considerate of his attempts at karaoke, since the way he feels about the Backstreet Boys is probably the way I feel about Russian poetry. He loves the way the lyrics sound, and I think the prosody of Russian is beautiful. Listening to Russians recite poetry, or really just speak Russian at all, is like listening to a song. It's one of the things that attracted me to Russian in the first place. One the other hand, since my accent is not terribly good, I'm sure I would cause Russians exquisite pain if I were to recite poetry at them. At Christmas my school had a "talent show" of the type I abhor, where overly-jolly administrators bully participants into ritually humiliating themselves in front of an embarrassed audience. A couple of people decided to recite Pushkin, so I watched the Russian teachers to see how they would react. Several of them spent the time wincing whilst rubbing their eyes, and one had her head in her hands. Russian is only beautiful when spoken by Russians, I guess. Or maybe they just feel the same way I do about talent shows.

Anyway, I don't think you need to be able to understand the words to appreciate the sound [in fact, since one of the parts of the brain that responds to rhythm and is involved in emotional reactions to music is the cerebellum, a part of the brain we share with, for example, reptiles, there is a possibility that crocodiles would also like Russian poetry].

So here are two of my favourite Russian poems, one by Lermontov, and one by Pushkin. They are both fairly short, which makes them easier for me to remember. Learning poetry is a good way to learn vocabulary, since everything is easier if it rhymes. Plus then you have something to recite at tram stops to save yourself from death-by-boredom whilst waiting for your tram to show up. Translations into English obviously not done by me.

Lermontov - Парус

  Парус by ayearinmoscow

Белеет парус одинокой
В тумане моря голубом!...
Что ищет он в стране далёкой?
Что кинул он в краю родном?...

Играют волны - ветер свищет,
И мачта гнётся и скрыпит...
Увы, он счастия не ищет
И не от счастия бежит!

Под ним струя светлей лазури,
Над ним луч солнца золотой...
А он, мятежный, просит бури,
Как будто в бурях есть покой!

A single sail is passing, white
In blue and oceanic haze.
What does it seek in foreign seas?
Why has it left its native bays?

The waves are playing. Wind is wailing
Against the bending, creaking mast.
Oh no, it seeks no happy future
And does not flee a happy past.

The azure waves roll out beneath it,
The solar gold above it glows,
And yet this rebel begs for storms
As if a storm could hold repose.

Pushkin - Я вас любил

  Я вас любил by ayearinmoscow

Я вас любил: любовь ещё, быть может,
В душе моей угасла не совсем;
Но пусть она вас больше не тревожит;
Я не хочу печалить вас ничем.
Я вас любил безмолвно, безнадежно,
То робостью, то ревностью томим;
Я вас любил так искренно, так нежно,
Как дай вам Бог любимой быть другим.

I loved you; even now I must confess,
Some embers of my love their fire retain;
But do not let it cause you more distress,
I do not want to sadden you again.
Hopeless and tonguetied, yet I loved you dearly
With pangs the jealous and the timid know;
So tenderly I love you, so sincerely,
I pray God grant another love you so.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Tricking your brain into learning vocabulary

I like grammar. This may put me in the minority, but I think there's something fascinating about understanding how sentences work, and the ways you can twist and play with words and word order to emphasise different things. I love learning a new grammatical construct and then feeling that there is now a whole new group of thoughts I can express.

What I don't love is learning vocabulary - mainly because it can never, ever end. There are always more words to know, and as soon as you learn them, you will forget the old ones. I used to try and learn vocabulary in lists, but this is no good at all, because my brain outsmarts me and remembers the words in sequence rather than each one separately connected with a meaning. Thus I can tell you the Russian word for "prophetic", but only if you've just asked me to translate "to whine", because these words happened to come up in the same lesson at school. Clearly a non-starter.

Possibly the rest of the world has known this for years, but I came across a programme that temporarily gave me the lead in the arms race between me and my brain, by randomly asking me words from a list I have inputted. It then remembers which ones you got wrong and asks you them more frequently in the future compared with the words you got right. It also automatically assumes you will forget words after some time, so it repeats everything every month or so. In case anyone else would find it useful, it is called ProVoc, and you can download it for free here.

Of course, in the medium term my brain found a way of getting round this. It now appears to operate on a group basis instead of sequentially. So it now knows the word for "prophetic" only if we have been previously discussing words from the Chekov story Дама с собачкой (Dama s Sabachkoi - Woman with small dog).

Sunday, 18 March 2012

The joys of В Контакте

Russians don't really use Facebook that much, instead they have В Контакте. I have no idea if this is better for keeping in touch with your friends, but it is a lot more useful for learning languages. On В Контакте you can watch films, TV shows, music videos etc etc, in Russian, for free. This is probably illegal but people seem quite relaxed about copyright here. Currently I am watching the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast in Russian whilst trying to read Lermontov. The songs are pretty distracting, because since I know all the words in English (and why not?), I keep trying to predict how they will translate them whilst trying to keep the rhymes (like "large" and "barge" when Gaston is singing about how many eggs he eats).

But the best thing so far about В Контакте is a Russian soap opera set at the beginning of the 19th century called Бедная Настя. It's weirdly addictive, a bit like Sunset Beach (with similar production values and believability of story lines). I think it was made for the hard-of-thinking, because everyone speaks really slowly, so I can actually understand what they are saying. Plus, like Sunset Beach, nothing ever happens. You can skip four or five episodes and the same people will still be in the same room talking about the same thing, which means lots of repetition of vocabulary. One girl spent three episodes complaining about being locked in her room, trying to pick the lock with a variety of knitting needles, combs, hair pins etc, before it occurred to her that she could just climb out the window. Another scene involved a serf theatre rehearsing Romeo and Juliet in Russian, with the барин yelling at some poor serf girl about how could she not know the balcony scene - EVERYONE knows the balcony scene. I can't think of any British soap operas where people quote Shakespeare (although to be fair, this may be because I don't watch any British soap operas). Yes, so Бедная Настя is fantastic, even if they do dance to pop music at their balls.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Why are the English bad at learning languages?

One of the first things I noticed when I started at my language school here was that 60% of the student body was from East Asia (China, Japan and Korea).  I hadn’t given much thought to what nationalities would be in the school, but if you’d asked me to guess, I wouldn’t have come up with there being twice as many South Koreans as British people. Why were the Koreans studying Russian? The answer I got from everyone was that it would be useful for a career in business. Russia (along with Brazil, India and China) is one of the BRIC countries, a group of key emerging market countries that are expected to be at the forefront of the shift in global economic power away from G7 countries to the developing world.

If Russia is going to become increasingly important, why aren’t more British students studying Russian? If we are all going to be competing for a piece of the economic growth here, a big advantage will accrue to countries that can field workers familiar with both the language and the culture.

Russkiy Mir, a foundation set up to promote Russian language and culture around the world, estimates that 300,000 Chinese and 150,000 German school children are studying Russian. In England and Wales I estimate the number is more like 12,000-15,000, i.e. Germany has more than ten times the number of children studying Russian than England and Wales.

Russian is a minority language in the UK, and is probably only offered by a small number of schools, but these low numbers are part of the wider problem of language tuition in English schools. There has been a fair amount of comment on language learning in the press (well, in the Guardian anyway), but sometimes it seems to me that people just accept that English people are bad at languages, as though it were some law of nature we couldn’t change if we wanted to. There is often an unspoken feeling that foreign countries superior to us in language skills have an “unfair” advantage, because they watch US films, listen to US music and play US video games.

But there is a simpler explanation as to why so few English people speak a foreign language: we don’t study them for very long. England requires children to study a foreign language for 3 years (ages 11-14), compared with an average of 8.2 years across a group of other nations investigated by INCA, an organisation that compares education policies across countries [I added in Germany and the US, using Texas as a stand-in for the latter].  Note that Welsh and Scottish children seem much better off [Figure 1]

Figure 1. Source: INCA, Texas Department of Education

English children also study languages for fewer hours per school year than in other countries. At age 14, the government recommends that children in England study a foreign language for 72 hours across the school year, compared with 126 hours in France, and 114 in Germany. [Figure 2] The combination of fewer years of language teaching, and fewer hours in those years, means that at the end of compulsory education, an English child will have had 70% fewer hours of language teaching than their equivalents in France or Germany. [Figure 3] Ta-da! There’s no magic stopping us from learning languages, we just don’t put the hours in.

Figure 2. Source: INCA, own estimates

Figure 3. Source: INCA, own estimates

All this suggests a fairly simple route for improving the foreign language skills of the average school child – teach them for longer. According to a Eurobarometer survey from 2005, 78% of people in the UK agree with the statement “everyone in the European Union should be able to speak one language in addition to their mother tongue”. If we are serious about this we have to make a longer period of language tuition compulsory.

There are three main objections I can see to this. Firstly, it is difficult to learn languages, so it’s not fair to force less academic children to study them; secondly, we don’t have enough language teachers to pull this off; and thirdly, there isn’t enough space on the timetable to double the number of hours a week children spend on languages.

As I sit here, taking a break from trying to stuff Russian verbs into my head, I can’t honestly say that languages are easy. In fact, I often complain to myself that if only I had started learning Russian at six rather than sixteen, I wouldn’t have to bother with any of this. And that is the answer – start teaching languages at primary school. It makes no sense to only begin teaching languages to someone when their natural ability to learn them has already fallen off dramatically. Of course, you could argue that there are too many children with English as a second language to worry about teaching children anything other than English in primary school. But obviously, since I brought it up, I don’t think this a good argument. Less than 10% of British people speak a language other than English as their mother tongue. Even allowing for some skew towards young people, this doesn’t seem prohibitively high to me, since Germany has a similar proportion of its population with a mother tongue other than German, and they manage to teach languages just fine.

I don’t think finding language teachers should be an insurmountable problem either. Primary schools could have one language teacher each, who would teach all the classes in that school, or language teachers could be peripatetic and teach at several schools in one area. If there aren’t enough qualified people in England, hire qualified foreigners.

The third obstacle, that there isn’t enough space in the timetable, is the most difficult. It depends on what our priorities are. What do children need to learn?  How do we compare the importance of a foreign language with the importance of drama, or history, or design? It should at least give us pause that other countries almost uniformly give languages a much higher priority than we do.  Which brings me back to my own situation, sitting in a tiny box room in Moscow, trying to learn Russian. I am doing this because if I want to work in an international organisation, from the UN to the EU to the World Bank, I need to speak another language. Speaking a foreign language is an advantage in many companies, and this will only become more true, if the economic prosperity of the UK comes to depend more and more on the BRICs and other emerging markets. An ability to cut shapes out of MDF is not, however, likely to be required.