I did indeed follow through with my intention of starting to learn a new language, and the language I eventually picked was Russian. The more I thought about it, Russian was the logical choice because I have a great fondness for Russian literature, and so I'd be much more likely to use a knowledge of Russian and keep it up. While Persian and Arabic strike me as interesting because I'm interested in Islam and the Middle East (and because I just find the Arabic script which both languages use attractive) but present rather less that I'd be actively interested in reading. (Though I did pick up a few books on Persian from the library and get through learning part of the alphabet.)
So I ordered a copy of the Penguin Russian Course by Nicholas Brown from Amazon, and from the library I picked up Pimsleur's Basic Russian at the library.
I've been progressing through both programs slowly. In the Penguin text, I've worked through the alphabet and some basic words, but am taking some time to be able to write reliably, due in part to the fact that handwritten Russian script is in a few cases drastically different from the printed alphabet. For example: the Russian "t" sound is represented by a letter that looks pretty much like an English "t" or Greek tao -- but the cursive version looks like an English cursive M. Almost makes me tempted to forget about cursive (as I long ago did in English) and just write the exercises as if they were typed. But some it seems like one ought to try to do the thing properly.
With the Pimsleur audio course, I've been extracting the lessons to my iPod and listening to them while taking my afternoon walk around the corporate campus. I'm now moderately proficient at saying things like "Excuse me", "Hello", "Goodbye", "Do you understand English?", "I don't understand Russian very well", "I'm American", etc. However it's been making me realize how essential spelling (and the instincts coming from knowing the phonetics of English, Latin and Greek) is to my language acquisition skills. In English, and to an extent in Latin or Greek, I can hear a word and pick it up pretty quickly because I'm fairly confident as to what phonetic sounds make it up. I know enough of those languages to know how a word is likely to be spelled -- and thus what phonetic sounds I am likely to be hearing.
However, I have no such instincts when it comes to Slavic languages as of yet, and so I find it very difficult to tell if what is being said and say it correctly. For instance, the word for "hello" is (spelled very roughly phonetically) edravstvoyte. However, to hear it (even with many, many repetitions) it was hard for me to tell if it ended in an "itche" or "oyte" kind of sound.
Clearly, we must originally learn language without giving any thought to spelling, but it seems that I at least have lost much of any ability to address things in that manner. I find it very hard to feel confident in using a word if I don't know for sure what phonetic sounds compose it, and in a langauge I'm not yet very familiar with, I can't feel confident in knowing the phonetic compostion without knowing the spelling.
So while I'm enjoying the walking and listening approach (and it assures that I get my daily dose of Russian) I'm finding that as of yet there is no replacement for book learning.
Recipe time: Sloppy Joes
45 minutes ago