Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty to write about this week. I could talk about how Assad (and Russia?) abrogated a hollow, delicate truce in Syria. Or maybe a better topic would be the recent triumph of the United Russia party in last week’s Duma elections, which saw the lowest turnout since the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia is also hitting close to home with allegations of hacking and interference in the U.S. election cycle done to support Trump against Clinton. But why even bother talking about business as usual? United Russia was bound to win, the truce was made to be broken, and I have no doubts that the Russian bear has its paws in the election.
Why focus on bad news when we can focus on the good! While Russia maintained its status quo I have made a decision to move forward: I am going to try and apply for grad school. While I had originally intended to go into Russian/Eurasian Area Studies a cursory investigation of my options has prompted me to abandon this route. There seems to be virtually no doctorates in this area; I would be pigeonholed into a master’s degree. Furthermore, Eurasian Area Studies programs generally have a prerequisite of fluency in the Russian language whereas a doctorate program would give me more time to pick up the language. So as it stands now, I am looking at doctorate programs in international relations. Being in Maryland, I have plenty of local options that would work well.
Regardless of what I end up doing, I am taking every action I can to learn the Russian language.
A little bit of backstory: foreign language has always been my Achilles’ heel of sorts. That is not to say that I am bad at it. I don’t find foreign languages particularly difficult, I merely have lacked the intent and motivation to thoroughly master them. I took three years of Spanish in grade school which has mostly evaporated. In high school I studied Latin for three years, and I still boast some knowledge of Latin. I put off language courses in college. Unfortunately I decided too late to start Russian so I only have a year’s worth of actual coursework in my belt (although my alma mater’s Russian program only offered 4 courses, so even if I had taken all available classes I still would not meet the criteria for most master’s programs).
I have been making every effort to learn, although I did fall off the wagon for a brief while. Duolingo has been a pretty big help, but I am looking for something that will help me master the grammar more in-depth. Grammar has always been a challenge, probably since I skipped second grade. I can write with a fair amount of skill and clarity (hopefully you’ve noticed), but the finer details of grammar have never really stuck. This helps make language more challenging for me to master…
Luckily I do have a leg up on Russian grammar. Russia uses the same sort of case system as my ex, Latin. Syntax and structure is derived from specific endings of words. Russian and Latin both share certain cases, such as the accusative and dative, and this has made the language much more approachable for me. Of course this can be a double-edged sword. Some cases have identical or similar endings, meaning that you have to rely on syntax, and the sheer abundance of endings and alternate forms can be as baffling as it is intimidating.
Ironically the easiest part of the Russian language, the Cyrillic alphabet, impresses most laypersons. It only has a few more letters than English, and for the most part the sounds are verily similar (the alphabet has actually been simplified over the years by successive regimes, with the modern alphabet stemming from the Soviet edition. Some Russian letters are merely just familiar sounds grouped into one, such as ч for the “ch” sound or ш for the “sh” sound (not to mention щ which is a bizarre, punctuated “shch” sound). Learning a few easy rules, like spelling peculiarities and the split between soft and hard vowels, makes the learning process much easier. Writing in Russian is easy once you master Russian cursive. I am pretty comfortable with English cursive and calligraphy, so Russian cursive came fairly naturally. I even incorporated some the strokes from Russian into my English cursive.
Pronunciation of Russian is fairly straightforward. Certain vowel have a “y” sound before them which can be a little tricky, and sometimes the “i kratkaya” (й) is used as a y-glide which can be difficult to notice or incorporate into spelling. The only difficult pronunciation rules really revolve around stress, which has an impact on how vowels like “о” and “я” are pronounced. Every language has its strange sounds, and for Russian this is the “yuri” (the letter Ы). Ы ends up sounding like the French “oui” with the front loaded “w” sound dulled. The exact pronunciation is hard to articulate here, but you would likely be able to pick up on this relatively common letter by listening to Russian speech. The good news is that most Russian native speakers could still make sense of a butchered pronunciation mistake like this. I was told by native Russian speakers from Ukraine and the motherland itself that my pronunciation sounds natural, something I take a particular pride in.
So here was a brief primer of my journey through the Russian language. As of right now I am mildly conversation and literate, but I lack the depth and exposure needed for more articulate, natural sounding Russian. Its easy to learn any language with a modicum of patience, but you also need actual, tangible motivation as well. Looking to the future, I will definitely need to develop and perfect my Russian. Moving forward, I simply need more work (and greater organization: I think I will start a Russian notebook).