Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Time For a New Language

For some reason, I've been itching to learn a new language lately.

Over the last year, I've been gradually getting my Latin back in use, by trying to use as much liturgical Latin as possible. (Reading the text of the mass in Latin while hearing it in English, reading the Office in Latin, using a devotional of Latin prayers by Thomas Aquinas, etc. My Latin is still a bit rusty, but it's gradually coming back. I'm pretty decent at remembering grammar, it's always vocabulary that's been why weak point. So regular use within the limited vocabulary of liturgical Latin is gradually building a (small) vocabulary back up for me.

My Greek, I fear, is still mostly rusting. Occasionally I pull out an old Greek text, or look up a passage in the New Testament, but the fact is that it's rusting. I have sitting patiently in my Amazon wish list a pair of introductory Homer books, which given that I never got the chance to do Homer in college, and I've got so rusty in the meantime, is probably what I need. (Pharr's Homeric Greek: A Book for Beginners and Reading Course in Homeric Greek: Book One)

So the logical thing would be to make a push on Greek, and I intend to that eventually, but for some reason I feel the urge to try something new. Specifically, a language which is not fully a dead language, and which has a different alphabet. Plus, if I'm going to learn a living language, it seems interesting to learn one that has some geo-political relevance, just in case marketing analysts go out of fashion in favor of intelligence analysts and soldiers. (Never hurts to be prepared...)

So three obvious languages occur to me: Arabic, Persian and Russian

There's kind of a romantic appeal to Arabic or Persian. The alphabets are more different. Persian would be an interesting variant on the Indo-European language family, and Arabic presents a chance to learn a Semitic language. And I've had a particular interest in the Middle East for quite some time. (I looked into majoring in Islamic Studies, but couldn't find a decent department at a college I had any interest in going to.)

On the other hand, there's more language I'd be interested to read in Russian: Chekov, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, and Pushkin. And from a business point of view, there's probably much more utility in knowing Russian: Everyone seems to think that Brazil, China and Russia are the business frontiers, but no one really wants to go where Arabic and Persian are spoken. And, of course, there's various Orthodox stuff in Russian.

So, anyone out there with experience with any of these three (or a dark horse recommendation) who has an interesting and weighing in? And does anyone have textbook recommendations? (Being a classics type, I think I'm looking for a Wheelock style text which starts out with tables of declensions and conjugations, rather than having you learn to say "Where is the bathroom" and "I am looking for a good hotel" phonetically.)

So far the possibilities I've identified are:


Fidei Defensor said...

Don't forget, learning Russian would open the door to the great family of Slavic languages and while of course Russian is not interchangable with Czech or Polish it probably close on par with like Spanish and Italian.

Also Russian, I am pretty sure, is quite similar to Ukrainian and Bellarussian and it probably is not too far of a stretch to Serbian.

I have met some Slavs who contend that all their langauges are quite different, I have met others who claim that can essentially understand any other Slavic language without much training.

With my 15 weeks of Polish, when I see TV broadcasts in Polish or when I see TV broadcasts in Russian I seem to pick up about the same ammount of info (though that ain't much.)

Go with Russian, you've already got the Mosin, besides, you said you want to learn a new alphabet, how could you go wrong with one devised by saints?

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

Japanese is fascinating. And it has three "alphabets" -- kana, hiragana, and katakana.

Unknown said...

Of course, Arabic is very close to Hebrew, so if you go with Arabic, you would get a head start on reading the Old Testament in the original. Masoretic studies are fascinating if you have a sufficiently warped mind ;-)

On the other hand, I am finding Russian much easier than either Hebrew or Arabic. First, it's Indo-European so you have a better chance of getting to grips with the grammar. For English speakers, knowing Latin is a big plus there, Russian has six cases compared to the Latin five and the English zero. Second, the Russians actually write their vowels, unlike the Arabs. Trust me: that helps a lot.

Finally, I liked Georgian too, a completely unrelated language group (and they write their vowels), but completely useless for business and only marginally less so for literature...

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

For reasons not worth discussing, I took both introductory Arabic and some pretty substantial amounts of Russian (all of which I've managed to forget) in college.

Russian is infinitely easier. Arabic has infixes, which will mean it will be a long time before you're even able to look up an Arabic word in a dictionary. Also, "Arabic" in books and classes generally means classical Arabic, which no one actually speaks. I remember reading about the little revolution when Israeli schools decided to offer the Arabic that Palestinians actually use, rather than classical Arabic, so that the students could *use* the language.

Our Russian textbooks were Soviet-made, quite good, and cool in a dedicated communist way (we learned the word for "female construction worker" in the first week). They were called "Russky Yazik dlya vcyech" (if I've transliterated the Cyrillic right): "Russian Language for All." Which, in the Cold War context, I suppose you could have taken in more than one way.

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

Oh, and Russian has 4 genders. Beaten only by Polish, with 5, and Dutch, with two but which are not masculine and feminine.

John Farrell said...

I used Horace Lunt's Basics of Russian grammar back in the day. For all I know it may still be available.

On the other hand, I pretty much try to exploit my iPod for languages now rather than a book. I have a lot of commuting time on the train, so I basically rip language CDs and listen a little whenever I can....

Anonymous said...

Why not Aramaic? You can learn to speak in the language of Jesus, and converse with our Carmelite bretheren at the same time!

Thomas said...

If you're going to go with Russian you owe it to yourself to at least supplement with the Lipson textbook. It's a hoot.

Anonymous said...

The language of Shona has 20 grammatical genders, leaving Polish's pitiful 5 in the dust.

Darwin said...

The language of Shona has 20 grammatical genders, leaving Polish's pitiful 5 in the dust.

20 genders... A number that would put even Alcibiades unable to imagine a mating dynamic.

Anonymous said...

Atsiprašau, bet aš labai mazai suprantu lietuviškai.

This is what I've learned after a month of listening to Lithuanian lessons on my ipod while riding my bike to work. (With just the right ear-bud in, thank you very much.)

If you want to kick it old-school, just remember that lietuviškai is the oldest remaining IndoEuropean language. And they have a respectable 7 declension cases (for each of the 13 nominative endings) in the singular.

Shona has 20 grammatical genders
Shona schmona. Here in California we grant legal protection to at least that many actual genders.

Mahsheed said...

Speaking of gender, Persian (Farsi) has just one pronoun "oo" for he/she. I don't know how linguists describe the language, but it has comparatively little gender in it, and that makes conversations harder for me to follow.

Bernard Brandt said...

My comments as regards language resources got so large that I decided instead to post them as an entry on my weblog at

Enjoy. Or endure.

Kevin J. Jones said...

Russian was the first foreign language I studied, before moving on to Latin and Greek and then Italian.

Knowing Cyrillic was quite helpful in picking up the Greek alphabet, so the reverse should be true too.

If you're aiming for relatively quick competence, I'd stick with Russian. If you're aiming for exoticism, the Russian experience is still quite different, but it has enough familiarity for one to remain comfortable.

Bernard Brandt said...

I've decided to join the other side, and give some advice as regards what languages to learn. Hell, if you can't beat 'em, subvert 'em.

But, attracted as I am to such things as fact rather than opinion, and as it is a fact that Darwin has expressed interest in languages with geopolitical relevance, my suggestion is that Darwin might want to learn languages on the "critical need list" made by the U.S. security establishment as languages which we need to know, and which too few U.S. citizens know.

That list includes the following languages:

Chinese (Mandarin)

As I recall,
has free courses in Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Russian and Turkish. Those languages might be ones which it would be reasonable for one wishing to assist the U.S. in national security.

Just a thought.