LEARNING RUSSIAN.

A funny and perceptive piece by Robert Skidelsky (or “Lord Skidelsky,” in the quaint terminology of the British Isles) about his eight-year struggle, under varying conditions, to learn Russian, starting at the age of 56.

Short periods of immersion are no good, continual reinforcement is needed. The late 1990s were linguistically disastrous. I was finishing the third volume of my biography of Keynes, being an opposition front bench spokesman in the Lords and trying to salvage the Social Market Foundation from bankruptcy. By 2001 I was free of all these commitments and the road to Russian was open again.
It started that spring with my renting a flat in Moscow for two months. My new teacher Masha, inherited from Edward, spoke no English and so I was forced to speak Russian with her. It was my first big breakthrough. But it was hard work, and I spent much of my time in despair.
In retrospect I realise that my method was not really efficient. I should have lived with a Russian family, and let more of the language sink in by osmosis, but I was too jealous of my privacy…

(Via Ultima Thule.)
Update. There is a fascinating discussion going on in the comments about how people learn languages; I commend it to the attention of anyone interested in the subject. A particularly thought-provoking paragraph from joe tomei:

The research question of applied lingustics is fundamentally ‘why do we have different learner outcomes from what appears to be the same learning circumstances?’ How that question is phrased can twist the answer, so if I ask the question as ‘why does virtually everyone learn a first language, but not a second?’, you are in generative grammar territory, postulating a Language Acquistion Device in someone’s head. However, if you ask the question as ‘Why can’t everyone be like the guy you mentioned, ‘picking up’ languages?’ you are where I call home, which is functional linguistics. If we view language learning as something that almost everyone can do, so long as they are in an environment where it is valued, then we see that the fluency that Krashen argues for is partly due to the anonymity that he creates by presenting the judges with a tape recording. I am certain that if the listeners were told that this was a test to join Mossad and they needed to determine whether the speaker [a 29-year-old immigrant from Mexico who works in an Israeli restaurant in Los Angeles and speaks fluent Hebrew] was an agent who was trying to pass as a Hebrew speaker, their judgement might be quite different.

Comments

  1. In a post titled “Learning From the Area of Second Language Acquisition”, Alaric Radosh pointed (http://alaric-radosh.blog-city.com/read/358666.htm) to Stephen D. Krashen’s site, which offers a range of papers of interest to the language student.
    One of these papers, titled “What Does it Take to Acquire Language?” (http://www.sdkrashen.com/articles/what_does_it_take/index.html), concerns “Armando, a 29-year-old immigrant from Mexico who has lived in the United States for 12 years. Armando, who attended school in Mexico up to grade nine, has worked in an Israeli restaurant in Los Angeles nearly the entire time he has lived in the United States. While Armando speaks English quite well, he says he speaks Hebrew better”.
    Krashen read about Armando in a newspaper article, interviewed him, and conducted an informal language evaluation by recording a conversation between Armando and an Israeli friend, then playing the tape to four native Hebrew speakers. All regarded him as a fluent, comfortable speaker of Hebrew, and two of the four judges thought he spoke Hebrew like someone born in Israel — yet he had never had any formal instruction. Krashen suggests that the “crucial variables appear to be comprehensible input and having a good relationship with speakers of the language”.

  2. Ahhh, but Jonathon, Krashen definitely has an agenda. His whole ‘research’ effort is to suggest that people do not need to have anything taught explicitly, and that challenging input is all that is necessary to learn to speak a language (he terms it as i+1, input that is a little more difficult that the level you are at) Unfortunately, none of his terms are rigourously definable, and so there is no way to properly research what input is and what +1 is.
    The research question of applied lingustics is fundamentally ‘why do we have different learner outcomes from what appears to be the same learning circumstances?’ How that question is phrased can twist the answer, so if I ask the question as ‘why does virtually everyone learn a first language, but not a second?’, you are in generative grammar territory, postulating a Language Acquistion Device in someone’s head. However, if you ask the question as ‘Why can’t everyone be like the guy you mentioned, ‘picking up’ languages?’ you are where I call home, which is functional linguistics. If we view language learning as something that almost everyone can do, so long as they are in an environment where it is valued, then we see that the fluency that Krashen argues for is partly due to the anonymity that he creates by presenting the judges with a tape recording. I am certain that if the listeners were told that this was a test to join Mossad and they needed to determine whether the speaker was an agent who was trying to pass as a Hebrew speaker, their judgement might be quite different.
    Unfortunately, Krashen’s view is that of an iconoclast, who wants to suggest that no formal structure is needed to teach languages, just the correct level of input. This devalues the teacher (which in the case of the self taught, is the individual him/herself) Now, I ascribe to the view that the purpose of education is primarily to socialize, and actual learning is often a random byproduct. But I really dislike Krashen’s reductionist ‘hey, it’s just what you are exposed to’ line.
    One of my grad school profs (a die hard functionalist) said that he figured the reason why we can learn language(s) as children is that we have nothing better to do. But note that this is different from Krashen, in that implies the structure of our lives is such that we can’t simply drop all our committments and learn like children. Krashen would have us believe that language teaching is simply a matter of presenting the child with the right mix of input, sort of like setting a washing machine and then after that, learning will remarkably take place. It should come as no surprise that Krashen has a book entitled _Language Teaching: The Easy Way_ Sure, it’s important to have comprehensible input (but what makes something comprehensible? How is incomprehensible input changed into comprehensible?) and a good relationship with speakers of the language, but ‘crucial variables’ imply that everything else is an afterthought.

  3. Some folk have more talent/ interest in learning other languages. In Slovakia, I speak English & my Slovak wife Slovak to our bi-lingual kids (5,6,8). While all are comfy bi-lingual, and smart, the more introverted middle boy has more trouble/ less desire to speak to me in English. His younger sister is already a bit better.
    After 12 years, I’m comfy in conversational Slovak, but have needed to do written homework to get better on the grammar, which I haven’t done (and have even gotten worse). I’m sure most folk can learn by taking courses, and living & using it — but it’s tougher for some than for others.
    Reading books in the new language helps; also listening to tapes and repeating. I hope to start a bi-lingual English-Slovak blog …

  4. I’d say that the fact that the guy had been intensly exposed to, and actively used, Hebrew for, say, 10 hours a day, 6 (or 7) days a week, for 12 years, could have something to do with his proficiency.
    I’d think those are the true crucial variables.

  5. In my experience as an ESL teachers I’ve found that Middle Easterners learn spoken English easily but not reading, whereas East Asians are good at reading, but not spoken English or writing. I think that extroversion is the variable, and behind that is the fact that Middle Easterners are unembarassed by mistakes. . I knew one Moroccan who attained fluency in spoken English of the street and TV with no classes at all. When he first met people, he asked them to correct his mistakes. According to his report, which I believe after seeing him at work on English, he did the same with German and Spanish.
    Based on what I’ve seen of ESL, Krashen might be extreme but a lot of people need to listen to him. In Taiwan a lot of people thought they were learning English who really weren’t, because they limited themselves to the classroom experience where they got A’s. This is actually a national problem when TA’s are hired from East Asia.*
    For the record, I studied Chinese the way Chinese study English, and I read well or fairly well, but speak and understand very poorly.
    * I don’t recognize the rule that apostrophes never are used to form plurals. So sue me.

  6. Ah, language acquisition.
    I put this into the larger question of how possible it is for someone of advanced years (say, above the age of twenty) to make a radical change. Or, to refine the question, can an intelligent adult pick up a language, an instrument, and a new discipline and bring them all to proficiency?
    Let’s say, for instance, I were in the mood for a life-altering experiment: one might take an art-historian, fluent in Yoruba and English (and with basic reading/listening understanding of German and French- but an inability to speak or write either), and see if he, in twenty years could become fluent in, say, Dutch, proficient on the viola da gamba (he loves music, but can hardly read a note, and can certainly play nothing) and expert in, say, the calculus (of which he has only the vaguest idea presently, having long ago designated himself “not a math person”).
    I think most people would say, “impossible”! But I find it all rather comfortably within the realm of possibility.
    Alas, our subject is lazy and unwilling, so we shall likely never find out.

  7. Commonbeauty: calculus is actually pretty straightforward, and certainly very learnable by adults, to whom it is most usually taught these days; Dutch is as much like English as any language could be and still be foreign; and the thing that’s proverbially out of reach for non-infant musicians is virtuoso concert soloist. Proficient is not unachievable.
    I’m taking Swedish classes, and the people who work at it get better much faster than the people who don’t. (I’ve been in both groups at different times.) And I’ve seen (and experienced) the same with music, as well.

  8. commonbeauty – let’s hope for my sake that what you propose is possible!
    i’m 25, began playing cello at 22, took up linguistics at 23, and started learning arabic at 24. i hope to master all of them.

  9. As an exercise try translating the following phrase of Skidelsky into Russian:
    “My family were Russian, Jewish on my father’s side, Christian on my mother’s.”
    Ìîÿ ñåìüÿ áûëà ðóññêàÿ. Åâðåè ñî ñòîðîíû îòöà è õðèñòèàíå ñî ñòîðîíû ìàòåðè.
    Sounds strange to the Russian ear. Who is Russian if father’s side is Jewish and on mother’s side there are Christians of an unknown ethnicity?
    Ìîÿ ñåìüÿ áûëà ðóññêàÿ. Èóäåè ñî ñòîðîíû îòöà è õðèñòèàíå ñî ñòîðîíû ìàòåðè.
    This gives a strange idea (for the tsarist’s Russia) of ýòíè÷åñêè ðóññêîãî èóäåÿ.
    The word “Ðîññèÿíå” comes to mind, though it’s rather awkward in my view.

  10. I have two questions. First, because we are on the topic of languagelearning, whether anyone knows of a good German web community site, like a German MetaFilter really? Second, Jack, having no knowledge of Russian, how is that phrase on his ancestry difficult to comprehend in Russian? He has Russian ancestry, one side is Jewish (Russian Jews, of course) and the other is Christian (Russian Christians). Do Russians have no easy way of phrasing that someone is of at least culturally Russian background, but Jewish, or Muslim, or whatever?

  11. Nathaniel, the phrase is not diffucult to comprehend. The point is the different mentality. The main difference is that for the Western English-speaking world Jewish is a relgious characteristic. In terms of the Russian language “åâðåé” marks ethnicity, and “èóäåé” marks religion.
    I.e. Berezovsky is still Jewish (in Russian eyes) even if he professes Christianity.
    For an English-speaking person a Jewish Christian should sound as an oxymoron.

  12. It’s strange about language learning – when I left Russia last spring, I spoke Russian, according to several people, like a Russian, but with an accent (though my vocabulary was certainly limited, I was competent to express myself idiomatically, and to make educated guesses at words others used that I didn’t recognize). After having spent five months in France, and then having returned to Russia, where I’ve been for two months, my Russian is much worse, though I know more words and know them better than I did last spring (because I spent much of my time in France in the bathtub reading Tolstoy). I sound much more foreign than I did last spring.
    Jack, I can’t read your Russian, no matter what encoding I try. Might be this effed-up computer, though.

  13. Try Cyrillic Windows. Worked for me.
    Des: Dutch, easy? Yeah. Try finding someone to speak it to. Best I could do was a Flemish shopkeeper.
    At this rate, I would be better off with a language in which the folks didn’t speak such impeccable English. Russian, perhaps.

  14. Was the fault of the effed up computer.

  15. While applied linguistics research handbooks state (I should say appeal) that there is a research question for applied linguistics, there is no standard research methodology which is a failing of the field (as well as incredibly frustrating for grad students), and so it usually borrows research methods from education or cognitive psychology.
    One of the better researchers is Michael Ullman (Georgetown Univ) who has recently turned his attention to second language learning (he was a student of Steven Pinker’s). His research model is somewhat based on Michel Paradis’s work (McGill Univ) from which he has posited his procedural/declarative model.
    Basically this model proposes that declarative memory (i.e., words and idioms) uses the parietal and temporal cortical regions while procedural memory (i.e., grammar rules) uses the frontal cortex and the parietal cortex along with the basal ganglia.
    And so, perhaps beyond childhood procedural memory is not employed as it is in childhood when learning one’s mother tongue.
    Further, subserving declarative and procedural memory is short-term memory, and so if aspects of your short-term memory (eg. phonological loop) are sketchy then this will limit your ability to learn a language.
    I suppose including the age of Lord Skidelsky suggests that because of his older age, his memory is not quite what it used to be and so that is why he is having troubles learning Russian, but that may be more of a concern regarding neurochemistry than the neurobiological projections for language.

  16. I pass on the joke about applied linguistics, which is that it is like grape nuts (a breakfast cereal in the US) because it’s neither grapes nor nuts…
    Thanks to jobson for the link: it’s interesting to see where this research is going. When I was in grad school, one prof was quite interested in Baddeley’s concept of working memory, and his 1988 book is a good read. You are quite right to point out that the research methods are being borrowed. However, it says something that rather than looking to the primary field, two other (albeit related) fields are being looked to. However, I think the biggest problem is that there is no operational definition of fluency. Given that we can’t rigourously define fluency (though we know it when we see it), we can’t really make judgements on when or how fluency is acquired.
    All this sounds like I’m quite dismissive of applied linguistics, but that’s not the case. I think that there are lots of great insights to be garnered, and every psychology department should have at least one applied linguist as a matter of course.
    However, it would be nice if universities would fund linguistic departments appropriately first

  17. I agree [above] with Joe’s diehard functionalist linguistics teacher and with Bertilo.
    Children learn languages because they have nothing better to do with their time, and they have lots more time than adults.
    Since I’ve met people supposedly bilingual from years of intense childhood exposure to both English and Hungarian who make odd mistakes in both languages, I’ve become pretty sceptical about the second-language-acquisition critical-period idea [as I repeatedly bore language hat by saying!].
    It seems to me to be mainly about time, effort and lack of distractions.
    Adults who spend a year or two in a foreign prison or hospital [places mimicking the power-poor but time-rich environment of childhood, only for adults] come out damn good at the language usually, often with a totally convincing accent [so defying the supposedly cast-iron Josef Conrad Effect].
    Adults who can have the resources of an intelligence agency or a military heirarchy lavished on them [for example, that naval attache who gets sent to a house in the country for six months with nobody and nothing but five, constantly-rotated Russian teachers for company] do extremely well too.
    Absent either situation, very few adult lifestyles are extreme and intense enough to approach the sheer years of distraction-free immersion time children get as a matter of course. But if they do, hour for hour adults are of course much quicker.
    .

  18. Yes Mark, I agree with your views on immersion, and how difficult it is for an adult to truly have that. And the power thing is a nice distinction too.
    But have you any idea how difficult it is to get oneself imprisoned in Amsterdam?
    Now, if I wanted to learn Thai…

  19. Ah yes, getting locked up by the Beneluxers might be tricky, I agree.
    Perhaps put it about that you would like to say and do intolerant things to handicapped people, people of different sexual orientations etc.
    That might get you into a rather comfy kind of therapeutic language-skill-enriching internment among the heel leuke, vriendelijke Platlanders.
    .

  20. Watching TV 24/7 has been recommended.

  21. After 9 months of Army language school (with 6 hours a day of class and almost no other duties) starting at age 19, and then 9 months in a ‘curs de perfectionare’ for foreign students at the University of Bucharest over a decade later, I managed to become fluent enough to be mistaken at one point for a Transylvanian German. (I look more Nordic than Balkan.) Come to think of it, perhaps that wasn’t as flattering as I took it to be at the time.

  22. Watching TV 24/7 has been recommended
    This works. It’s how one of my brothers learned (Argentine) Spanish; he had no interest in studying it, but he was addicted to TV, so kept watching it after we moved to Buenos Aires regardless of the fact that he could no longer understand it, and before long he could; then he was speaking it himself.

  23. Children learn languages because they have nothing better to do with their time, and they have lots more time than adults.
    I’m skeptical. As the father of two small children, this does not seem consistent with what I’m observing every day.
    My two year old is a busy little dude; and while he’s not ADD, his attention span is normally as short as, well, a two year old’s. On the rare occasions when I can get him to stop, look and listen, I can occasionally watch him acquire a new word; but those occasions are indeed rare, and so noteworthy.
    The explosion in his passive vocabulary is astounding, and I don’t think time and powerlessness adequately account for it.
    Also, isn’t there evidence (from PETs, MRIs and the like) that the brain uses childhood-acquired languages somewhat differently than later ones?
    Adults who spend a year or two in a foreign prison or hospital [places mimicking the power-poor but time-rich environment of childhood, only for adults] come out damn good at the language usually, often with a totally convincing accent [so defying the supposedly cast-iron Josef Conrad Effect].
    Actually, I do think the point about powerlessness is well taken… for adults.
    As for Josef Conrad, there are lots of people who speak adult-acquired languages without an accent; I’m married to one of them. (Although when she’s very agitated, Bavaria begins creeping back into her diphtongs.)
    Doug M.

  24. Speaking English extremely well as a second language:
    I have, for some strange reason, learned to dismiss any examples involving Germans, Netherlanders or Scandinavians. These people have the secret code to English.
    But find me an accentless Milanese or Iranian or Chinese born and raised Chinese, then I’m impressed.
    The French, in this matter, are merely obstinate. Then again, few are the Britishers who speak French fluently.

  25. People have said I’m good at languages, so with French and Spanish under my belt, I wanted to learn Russian (and feel stupid and humiliated, more able to empathize with my struggling ESL students.) My ideal Russian teacher is monolingual, knowing no English, friendly and educated, not bored with using grammar-based Russian language textbooks and quite gossippy. I want her to feed me “chai” and “shoot the sh*&” with me in rooski yazik, talking at me if necessary. Some of this becomes comprehensible input for me and my understanding of the language is increased. By the way, comprehension as a skill is highly under-rated and in an naturalistic language-learning setting, it’s the one we pick up first. When I was first in Moscow, before the fall of the USSR, it took me weeks to get over my silent period and start talking to people, trying to develop my Russian. And by then, it was time to fly back. Ochin zhal. Some Russian teachers are so mean, as they are probably not really trained Russian as a foreign language teachers. They get frustrated at our pronunciation, our inability to quickly decode those miles-long Russian words in a new alphabet.

  26. I once had an ESL student who was a peasant youth from El Salvador with a second grade education back home. He got a job dishwashing in a Japanese restaurant and worked his way up to sushi chef, learning Japanese in the process. His name was Dolores, nicknamed Lolo. Of course his Japanese co-workers called him “Ro-Ro”.

  27. A peasant youth from El-Salvador called Delores? Lord Toby, surely thou maketh sport with us.
    (Do we still say things like “peasant youth”? Does it add anything to the narrative?).
    Roro Haze.
    I’ve got a Nigerian friend called Nieros. Her nickname’s Roro, but I’ve no idea what she’d be called by Japanese peasant chefs.

  28. I have, for some strange reason, learned to dismiss any examples involving Germans
    The problem with Germans (I know I’m generalizing here; I’ve got a bad cold, so bear with me) is that they are so aware their English is good they feel entitled to correct native speakers. I literally had a German tell me I was pronouncing English wrong, and I’ve heard similar stories from others. Hmph.

  29. This is way off topic, but I need to clarify. The use of the work peasant was not meant to be derrogatory, merely descriptive of someone who is from a rural background. I have known Central American men with names we generally associate with women such as Concepción, Guadalupe (Lupito is the male nickname),and José Isabel. Of course a female Dolores would be nicknamed Lola or Lolita. Dolores for a male is uncommon but I’m not making up this true story about Lolo, aka Roro at the Japanese sushi bar.

Speak Your Mind

*