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Slavic Language Family Learning Sequence

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ProfArguelles
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foreignlanguageexper
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 Message 1 of 51
15 May 2005 at 8:31am | IP Logged 
On the FSI scale, Slavic languages are all grouped in the current group 2 of 3 in terms of difficulty, while in the c. 1970 rankings Bulgarian was in group 2 of 4 and the others were in groups 3 of 4. To achieve goal 2 out of 5 (to read and speak with “limited working proficiency,” i.e., to be able to satisfy routine social and limited office needs and to read short, typewritten or printed straightforward texts” takes 10 months or 44 weeks or 1100 class hours of intensive, exclusive study + about 900 hours of homework/individual study to achieve (= about 2000 total hours).

As a number of articles and my personal experience indicate, these numbers are roughly valid for one’s first Slavic language. However, once one knows one language of a group, there is a considerable amount of transfer from that language to other members of the group, and Slavic languages are by all accounts + my personal experience far more closely related to each other than are either Romance or Germanic languages. Thus, while your first Slavic language may take roughly the equivalent of a year and a half of exclusive, intensive study to achieve, your second should probably take fewer than six months, your third fewer than three months, your fourth about one month, etc.

As has been noted before, the best entry to the Slavic languages should be any language, however small and insignificant, to which you have personal ties or special opportunities to study, etc. However, what is the best course for an ideal someone who wants to learn the whole family from scratch?

First of all, what is the whole family? The “grandmother” is “Old Bulgarian” or “Old Church Slavonic” and it is divided into three geographic sub-families. East is Russian, Ukrainian, and Byelorussian, West is Polish, Czech, Slovak, and Sorbian, while South is Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian, Macedonian, Bosnian, and Bulgarian—and there are undoubtedly others that I have forgotten sitting here writing from memory. Some of these have tens of millions of speakers, others only a few; some have long-standing literary traditions, others have really only come into being since c. 1990. The literary factor is more important to me than the spoken factor, and thus as far as I am concerned (apart from Old Church Slavonic) the main languages are six: Russian, Polish, Czech, Serbian, Slovenian, and Bulgarian. Of these, Slovenian is so small (something like a million speakers) that there are few learning resources, and these are of poor quality. What about the other five?

I believe there are three learning strategies for getting at them:

1)     “Conservative” = learn Russian first. Russian is unquestionably the largest and most important by any standards. No one will regret having begun with Russian and gotten no further, whereas someone who starts with Macedonian or Slovak and gets no further will probably regret this decision somewhere down the line. Presuming you do continue with the project, after Russian it would probably be best to alternate Western and Southern languages.

2)     “Grammatical”: If you know that grammar is your weak point, then you should being with Bulgarian, for this is unquestionably the most “simplified” language of the family. From Bulgarian, you should proceed to one Eastern (Russian) and then one Western (Czech/Polish) before returning to another Southern language, then the other Western.

3)     “Lexical”: If you know that vocabulary is your weak point, then you should begin with a Western language (either Polish or Czech) as these have the most Latin/ French/ German (and therefore English) words, and then Russian and then a Southern language before returning to the other Western and concluding with the other Southern.

I myself started with Russian. I cannot calculate the hours exactly, but I shadowed Assimil's older Russisch ohne Muehe for years, wrote out the entire text numerous times, and did grammatical exercises from an old Hugo's course and several others, then read bilingual texts and some children's texts before spending a month immersed in it, living with a family in St. Petersburg and taking private tutorials for about 6 hours each day.

When I was able to read Russian literature with ease and pleasure, I began with Polish, then moved through Serbocroatian, Czech, and Bulgarian. I've never yet stood the test of speaking any of these, but I believe I built a solid foundation in all of them. Knowing Russian as well as I did, they was indeed a great amount of knowledge to transfer, and they were all largely transparent when I began with them. By the time I got to Bulgarian, I didn't feel as if I was really learning anything new anymore, but rather only practicing variations on a theme. This may be because of the above mentioned grammatical simplicity of the language, but I think it was rather due to overall familiarity with the family.

I would recommend this sequence or one of the other two to others, even if you are more interested in learning the purely "conversational" languages in addition to the literary five. These five have the most abundant learning materials, and after you know them, you should not need much assistance to get at the others.

Those with scholarly philological interest should of course also study Old Church Slavonic at some point early in the process. However, this is not really the direct ancestor of them all, but rather only the earliest attested form of the language that we have, so knowledge of it is not as indispensable as knowledge of Latin for the Romance family.

Edited by Ardaschir on 15 May 2005 at 8:48pm

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Chung
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 Message 2 of 51
17 May 2005 at 4:02pm | IP Logged 
This is an interesting thread Ardaschir.

All else equal, I believe however that if a native English speaker had to pick one Slavonic language to start, he or she should pick Slovak. (FYI my first Slavonic language was Polish)

The pros:
- Latin alphabet
- regular stress on the first syllable (like Czech, and similar in idea to Polish which has penultimate stress but unlike Eastern and Southern Slavic languages with variable stress)
- phonetic spelling (unlike Russian)
- if you get a good background in one Slavonic language, learning the next Slavonic language is relatively easy (obviously).
- About 80% of the time, a Czech can completely understand a Slovak conversation on a complex topic. So moving on to Czech is relatively seamless (as compared to a Russian or Bulgarian speaker who wants to learn Czech as a new language) (Mind you this degree of linguistic overlap is quite pronounced within the Slavonic subgroups i.e. Russians, Ukrainians and Belarussians can easily interact with each other, while Serbs, Croats and Bosnians can do likewise amongst themselves.)

The cons:
- native speakers are relatively difficult to find unless you're in Slovakia or Czech Republic.
- relatively few good materials for English-speaking learners (a couple of good courses to get you started are "Beginning Slovak" by Oscar Swan and Sylvia Lorinc-Galova and "Elementary Slovak" by Louise Hammer. There's no Pimsleur or FSI course in Slovak)

In spite of the cons, my experience has been that learning Slovak is a much less intimidating task than learning any of the other Slavonic languages as the first one. Polish is enjoyable (I'm still learning it), but its grammar is somewhat more intricate than Slovak (e.g. Slovak has dropped the vocative while Czech and Polish still use it). Czech is indeed a bit of an enfant terrible, and I often find myself resorting to Slovak when talking with my friends or emailing them since Slovak declensions do not seem as ambiguous as Czech's.

I tried Russian awhile ago, but was thrown off by the irregular pronunciation (this was over ten years ago). However, learning Cyrillic was fun. Now armed with my knowledge of West Slavonic languages, I can often understand headlines and some articles from Russian newspapers.

I am now planning to tackle Russian next year once I complete the Czech, Slovak and Polish courses by the end of the year. I think I'll be adding to Mr. Pimsleur's revenue for the next fiscal year. :-)

I'm curious to hear other people's experiences with learning Slavonic languages.

Regards
Chung

Edited by administrator on 18 May 2005 at 12:39am

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Nephilim
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 Message 3 of 51
17 May 2005 at 6:16pm | IP Logged 
Chung,

I live and work in Poland and so have been learning Polish for quite some time now. For me the initial hurdle was getting stuff to stick. Once I learned a new structure I found that I didn't really have much in the way of meaningful vocabulary to go with it. Similarly when I learned new vocabulary I never seemed to have the right structures to go with the words. I found it quite dull making very artificial sentences just to fixed the vocabulary/structures in my head. It got easier after a while but for an English person, Slavonic languages are not the best place to start. Also, as I live in Poland and knew fairly early on that I would be living here, I wasn't so strict in the early stages. It was a case of, 'well...as I live here, there's plenty of time to learn.' Looking back I should have taken a more disciplined approach and certainly will in the future. I do thing that Czech is very very similar to Polish and the two should not be learned at the same time. I like Ardashir's idea of learning one from the west, then one from the east and then one from the south. Do you still keep up your olish Chung?


Edited by administrator on 18 May 2005 at 12:26am



administrator
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 Message 4 of 51
18 May 2005 at 12:50am | IP Logged 
Ardaschir, thank you for your master post! I have received De Bray's Guide to the slavonic language and was reading it yesterday, but your contribution is much more useful and condensed for our purpose here.

I am considering adding a new slavic language myself (after Russian which I hope to see the end of the tunnel soon). The candidates were:

Serbo-Croatian: fun, I like music, country and food, many newspapers and speakers where I live, easy to travel to, great cyrillic script for Serbian.

Czech: captivating country, I know czech people here, but the language does not appeal to me in itself.

Polish: the most useful after Russian, Polish bookshop in Paris, many things to visit. The language is not overly appealing to me.

My question to the Slavonists on this thread is about the difficulty. I think Serbo-Croatian is the easiest (Ardaschir already told me and it certainly appears so) but how about Polish and Czech?



Seth
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 Message 5 of 51
18 May 2005 at 2:39pm | IP Logged 
I must object to the point that "Russians, Belorussians, and Ukranians can easily interact with each other."

I have several Russian friends and they all agree that trying to understand someone speaking Ukranian is difficult and frusturating.

One of my friends eloquently put it like this: "I always thought I could understand Ukranian until I actually had to talk with someone who spoke it."



Seth
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 Message 6 of 51
18 May 2005 at 2:42pm | IP Logged 
Aradaschir,

Is the "Russisch ohne Muehe" the same course still sold at assimil.com? Could one use ti if they already know Russian pretty well but know no German?

Thanks



Chung
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 Message 7 of 51
18 May 2005 at 5:09pm | IP Logged 
Nephilim:

I have Polish friends in North America and Europe. So I get the chance to speak Polish when I hang out with them. As well I correspond regularly via email with my Polish friends (in fact I'm planning my next trip to Poland and arranging things with them for accommodation and hanging out)

Actually I used "Czesc, jak sie masz" when I took the first-year Polish course at university. It was OK in the classroom. I believe that for it to be effective for someone learning on his/her own, it'd be best if the textbook had a guide with answers.

Seth:

I should have said that each Slavonic subgrouping is a dialectal continuum. For example, as you move north from Ukraine, towards Belarus, the Ukrainian language seems to merge gradually towards Belarussian. If we then move east from Belarus towards Russia, it would seem that the language merges gradually towards Russian.

If you try to compare the standard variants of Russian, Ukrainian and Belarussian, the differences are more pronounced. I wonder what kind of Slavonic tongue people speak in the area where the Belarussian, Russian and Ukrainian borders meet. It must sound like a jumbled East Slavonic dialect to the educated ear. ;-)

Edited by Chung on 13 May 2010 at 12:34am



ProfArguelles
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foreignlanguageexper
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 Message 8 of 51
19 May 2005 at 1:40am | IP Logged 
The simple fact is that for most of their history, both Ukranian and Byelorussian have been considered dialects of Russian, not separate languages--this recognition only really came with their independence. Personally, I was once waiting on a very long line in an airport in Japan. The people in front of me were speaking what I took to be Russian, figuring that my difficulties in understanding them were due to the fact that my own Russian must be getting terribly rusty, and thus prompting me to venture to engage them in conversation to get some practice. Face to face, my comprehension improved immediately and there was little difficulty communicating, and it was only after some time had passed that I realized they were speaking Ukranian and not Russian.


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