Giving up on Chinese for… Russian?

As I mentioned in my previous post, I hadn’t done much reading in English this semester because I had another thought: why not read in another language? To which you might respond “Chinese, right?” Well, no. You see, I’ve got kinda fed up with Chinese. Not only is learning Chinese difficult, it’s made more difficult in Beijing because a) I teach English, b) most people here have a working knowledge of English, and c) unless you’re Chinese is very good (re: perfect tones and accent), most Chinese people who can speak English would rather do so than hear out your terrible Chinese. They may compliment you with a smile “Your Chinese is very good” or they may be a little more blunt, “What? Your Chinese is terrible.” Their answers usually depend on how tired they are.

Anyway, if you’ve followed my travels for any length of time you’ll know that I’m knowledgeable in a few different languages, not least my “university languages” of Latin and Ancient Greek. Well, this semester, being fed up with learning Chinese, I decided to try something easier. And so I chose Russian.

Huh? Russian? Easier?

Yes. Easier… than Chinese.

You might recall me mentioning that I have made tentative plans for my next two vacations during which I’ll travel to another country and finally/hopefully practice some of these languages that I’ve been studying for so long. The first “mission”, if you will, is pretty much here and is the one that is causing me the most headache, not so much because of the language itself, but because of the country’s entrance regulations, that is, Russia. (Well, at least I hope to get to Russia, which I’ll have to explain in a bit.)

But why Russia and Russian? Let me explain.

Although you’d be right in saying that Chinese is probably the most practical language for me to learn right now, I can’t help but wonder just how much progress I’m making and, furthermore, how much more I really need to make. Although it’s great to entertain the idea of conversing fluently in the language, I wonder if it’s possible inside the time I’ve allotted for China (I’ll re-evaluate my stay here after about five years). However, this semester I made up my mind to get back to some other languages that I’ve studied in the past. Knowing I didn’t want to handle studying too many languages at once, I had to make a choice. So, after I came back from the Philippines, my interest in studying Chinese on the wane and desire to possibly “prove myself” as some sort of multi-lingual traveller, I chose to go with something familiar, and Russian fit the bill.

Simply writing the word “Russian” will probably cause many in my friend circle in Canada to cringe before they cross themselves and mutter to themselves, “Господи, помилуй / hospody pomyluy / Lord, Have Mercy”. You see, I derive ancestry from Ukraine, Western Ukraine in particular, an area that has staunchly fought for its own unique identity apart from others around it, despite what the political borders may be at any given time. To begin studying Russian is to basically learn the language of a country and culture that has been actively trying to quash the Ukrainian identity. Add to that, Russia’s current leader does not know English but he does speak German fluently as he too remains staunchly Russian all the while impeding upon Ukraine’s territorial boundaries.

(I’m not sure I would go so far as to say it’s the Russian people, as there are elements of pro-Russian in Ukraine and pro-Ukrainian in Russia. So, it’s not so much something of the people, but much more complicated than that. Is it simply political? Economical? Religious? This is part of the entire debate between these two countries. Ukraine is not Russia and Russian is not Ukrainian, but both cultures do have a lot in common.)

I’ve discussed the situation in Ukraine and Russia before and you might even recall that a few years ago I myself went to Ukraine and left with the impression that the country would eventually be divided in two. Well, now it has been divided all but in name. I also never thought it would actually happen the way it did. I will confess, it’s difficult to keep up on current events as the situation in Ukraine has fallen from the mainstream media’s focus. As far as I can tell, however, the situation is still not cleared up.

What prompted this change of attitude?

I mentioned I didn’t get to read very much in English this past semester. However, I finally just finished Sergii Plokhy’s Gates of Europe and have now begun Paul Robert Magosci’s A History of Ukraine. The first is the more modern book, having been published in 2015 and incorporates a discussion of the lead-up and current state of things in Ukraine. The second book is a much more lengthy and in-depth examination of Ukraine, its people, and the country’s history. So, while reading all of this history and the more I read about Russia, its history and its famous literary people, the more I realize the importance of studying and keeping alive a language such as Ukrainian. So, both of those books sort of contributed to my decision in going back to my roots and studying something a little more familiar than Chinese.

So, why Russian and not Ukrainian?

And herein lies the problem. Much like English dominates global business and, geographically, can be found in many parts of the world, Russian’s previous dominance in the Soviet Union saw to it that the language and culture was spread far from Moscow itself. So, the result is that many of the countries that border China speak Russian in addition to their own native languages. Furthermore, modern Ukrainian people I meet either in hostels or wherever around the world typically speak Russian and not Ukrainian. If they speak Ukrainian then they are usually from some small village and haven’t lived in big-city Ukraine for very long, if at all. On top of that, many of the Ukrainian travellers I meet are from Kyiv, which speaks Russian and “surzyk”, a mixture of modern Ukrainian and Russian.

So, since I have a lifetime of experience with the Ukrainian language and because I travel quite a bit, Russian seemed like a natural choice.

How is Russian easier than Chinese?

When I say Russian is “easier” than Chinese and you’d probably agree simply because Chinese is viewed as one of the hardest languages in the world to learn, but you might not be aware of the finer points of that statement.

First, Russian uses the Cyrillic alphabet (а б в г / ah buh vuh guh / a b c g) which means that once you learn the letters, then you can read anything. What’s more, and probably the familiar part of Russian to any learned of the language, is that when you learn the word stems then you just need to focus on the word endings and you’ll have a large vocabulary. Contrast that with Chinese in which there are hundreds and thousands of characters to learn each of which have their own meaning and then can be combined with others to make new words. You won’t learn either language over night but you can at least have a basic grasp of the Russian alphabet over night which helps you use a dictionary.

Finally, combining the Cyrillic alphabet and the word stems means using a Russian dictionary is much easier than using a Chinese dictionary, even if it’s electronic. Granted, in this day and age of cell phones and touch displays, it’s not too difficult to enter in your text or simply take a picture and have it translated for you (which I’ve described before). However, typing in a Russian word is easier than trying to write in a Chinese character. Further, when you look up a Russian word you are faced with the word itself (which you can read because you now know the alphabet) and then its meaning. Contrast the Chinese language in which you need to first get the right character (some are very similar to each other but have very different meanings), then write down the pinyin (that is, the romanized method of pronouncing the Chinese character and helps a lot of people learn the language quicker than without), and then the definition of that character.

So how good is my Russian and what books did you use?

I didn’t really want to study with a teacher because I knew it would be expensive and also require much more of a commitment of time, which I don’t always have during the semester. So, instead, I opted to focus on reading and listening. I bought two books, The New Penguin Russian Course by Nicholas J. Brown and Russian Stories: A Dual-Language Book by Gleb Struve which contains several short stories by well-known Russian writers, including Tolstoy, Tergenov and Gogol (though many will point out that he was Ukrainian, he did write in Russian). I made it about half way through the course book and only maybe a third of the way through the Russian short stories but, in my defense, I opted to read and watch “real Russian” news instead of simply trying to learn from the textbook. So, on top of reading I also watched quite a bit of Russia 24 (a Russian news network) and read articles from RT.ru. Along the way, as if only fair, I also read a little bit more Ukrainian just to see how interchangeable the languages are. They are a little bit, but they are still subtantially different from one another.

And at this point, I’d say my Russian is pretty terrible, which is the purpose of this winter vacation. Right after I decided to learn Russian I also asked myself “How can I apply this language? Why spend any time learning this language at all?” To which I responded, as any normal person would say, “Go to Russia!” Which would prompt me to ask, “When should I go there?” and to which you might respond, “During your vacation!”

And so this winter vacation I will be taking the train from Beijing all the way up to Saint Petersberg, a route you probably know to be the Trans-Siberian or the Trans-Mongolian, in an effort to practice my Russian.