Sunday, November 30, 2008

Is Russian Difficult?

Many people told me that Russian language is difficult to learn. Well, it is not exactly so. First, there are no articles in Russian. No a/the, der/die/das/ein/eine and other puzzles. Second, Russian has only three grammatical tenses — past, present and future. The last one encouraging note is about Russian alphabet (it is called Cyrillic): we have the whole five same letters with Latin alphabet. They are: A (like a in father), E (like ye in yet), K (like k in kitten), M (like m in map), and O (like o in not). I’m through with good news.

Frankly, if I were not a native speaker, I would never learn Russian. This language is too irregular, too irrational. Russian spelling follows three different logics (interesting, what would Mr. Sapir and Mr.Whorf say about this?) — morphological principle, phonetic principle (what I spell is what I hear) and sometimes historical principle. As a result, we get many rules and even more exceptions.

Russian grammar is pretty complicated. Nouns in Russian have three genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter), however a large number of words can be easily identified both as masculine and feminine. Russian is one of a few languages that have a category of animacy. Russian nouns can be animate or inanimate. Hypothetically, many years ago people used animacy to mark if the referent of the noun is alive or not. In modern Russian, the word “corpse” (труп) is inanimate, the word “deadman” (мертвец) is animate, however, obviously, the referent of both these words is not alive anymore. Russian syntax is based on free word order that means only that there’s no universal scheme “subject – verb – object”. Words in Russian sentences can be put in any order you like, but it doesn’t mean that there’s no rules. Russian word order depends strongly on what you want to say. In other words, the word order expresses the logical stress, and the degree of definiteness. Let me stop here.

When I was a child, I learned Russian knowing nothing about genders, tenses, logical stresses and communicative intentions. My parents talked to me, I listened to them and repeated after them. Most kids learned speaking very well at age of 3 or 4. I’ve been learning English since 10, at school and at the university. I learned grammar rules and word usage. And know what? My English is still not so good as my Russian.

“Be like children” is a good advise. The only one way to learn language is to use it. It is like dancing – you should dance to learn dancing. You would never start dancing well if you learned dancing from books only. If you listen to native speakers, read books, watch movies, and, try speak and write the language you are studying as frequently as possible, your memory works for you. Step by step, you remember words and their combinations from fiction, pop songs etc. Practicing this way, you unavoidably start speaking the language soon and choose correct grammatical forms automatically. It’s just a question of how often you use the language. So, there are no difficult languages in the world.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Beyond Culture

Culture is what we often take for granted. Normally, we live and communicate in a semi-automatic mode, producing standard reaction for regular stimuli and predicting others’ behavior easily. We play social games every day and rarely care of rules – we’ve learned them from the early childhood. We start thinking of culture only when something goes wrong. I.e. negotiations with business partners from another country failed for unknown reason. Or managers of a global company faced strong and irrational resistance from the staff etc. You may be aware of cultural differences in theory, but real practice of cross-cultural communication is always (and often unpleasantly) surprising.

Mr. Edward T. Hall, an anthropologist and cultural researcher, has a great experience in solving cross-cultural problems, grounding anthropological theorizing in concrete examples. Beyond Culture is his third book summarizing years of direct experience in inter-cultural communications.

When I bought Beyond Culture, I thought that this book is good to begin cross-cultural studying with. I didn’t expect to get any practical use of it. I was wrong. Besides expanding my knowledge of communicative linguistics and other related sciences, I learned how to recognize cultural issues in my everyday work, I got deeper understanding of behavior of my colleagues from other countries. I really found this book very helpful. However, Beyond Culture is not a how-to sort of books. I’d say, this is a why-guidance to cross-cultural communication — it explains why misunderstanding happens, why miscommunication occurs. It helps to take a fresh look at routing things. It teaches to distrust the common sense which is, in fact, not so common.

Written an a popular manner, this book deserves attention of everyone who works globally and deals with more than one culture.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Forvo: the pronunciation guide

Do you learn foreign languages and want to improve your pronunciation? Are you a journalist an need to check how to pronounce unfamiliar names and places? Or may be you are a linguist and research dialects and accents? If you answer “yes”, visit Forvo. If you answer “no”, well, visit Forvo anyway, just to have fun.

Forvo is a social pronouncing dictionary. Social means that users can add new words to the website and contribute pronouncing. The idea is to put together all words in the world pronounced by native speakers. Forvo has launched in early 2008. By that moment, there are 113.780 words with 55.928 pronunciations in 196 languages and more than 5000 collaborators in this project.

Everyone can add the word and request native speakers for pronouncing, everyone can record pronouncing and submit it to the site. You do not need to be a registered user to contribute your records, but registered users get more features at Forvo, like tracking your words or notifications and getting a rating. Languages are also ranked by popularity (English is a leader, Russian, my native language, is on the15th place).

Forvo offers nice features and tools:

  • Geolocation – each user can map his accent (Google map’s interface)
  • A special flash applet for recording, so you do not need any additional software to record your pronouncing
  • Tags and search engine to make the work with the site easy and comfortable.

Like any social project, Forvo is a nice place to collect raw data and analyze it. For example, Forvo developers publish top search words and other interesting statistics regularly on their blog.

I personally want to thank Forvo for the brilliant idea. I’m the happiest Forvo user as I learn foreign languages, I’m a journalist and linguist. Definitely, forvo.com tends to appear at the top lines of my frequently opened pages.