September 6, 2009 | Arabic

Russian Nostalgia

I grieve my fading Russian while puzzling over Arabic.

I did two Pimsleur Arabic lessons on my run this morning. In addition, Brandt set me up in the office with a headset extension cord, so I can now take Pimsleur into every corner of the office, including the bathroom, without interruption.

I am noticing that the Arabic word ulla (or) seems very like the Russian word for “or,” ili.

It’s been eight or nine days since I last did a Russian Pimsleur lesson, so today I tested my Russian recall by trying out a Level III lesson. I promptly realized I couldn’t remember how to say “you.”

That alarmed me, but pretty soon I got the hang of it and was doing okay. I didn’t really do worse or better than I expected—I knew I was forgetting quickly, after all—but I was surprised by what I retained and what I didn’t. Some things that I thought I knew really well went away, and other things I consistently had a really hard time with—vajnaya fstriecha (important meeting), for example—stuck with me surprisingly well. What is clear, though, is that I will not retain this without working. So I think I have to work a little.

Enough of Russian. I went back to the Alif Baa book I bought at Dahesh bookstore, the one Mike, the manager, said is used at Columbia and NYU. I read the beginning sections, put in the DVD, put on the headphones, and practically blew out my eardrums. In an impressive display of multitasking capabilities, I also simultaneously broke my glasses while trying to get the headphones off my head.

Once I recovered from the headset trauma, I returned to the book, but found myself distracted from the lessons by the following persistent concern, for which I haven’t yet gotten a satisfactory explanation: if there are no markers for short vowel sounds, how the hell are you supposed to know what word you have?! I mean, can’t the same sequence of consonants be combined with different vowel sounds to create a bunch of totally different words? How can vowellessness ever be unambiguous? I need answers.

A more minor gripe: I am feeling as though language books don’t always do a good enough job of clarifying whether you are being told the names of the letters of the alphabet, or the actual sounds that they make. I just got confused by that in the Alif Baa DVD. It’s important to learn the names of letters, too, and not just their corresponding sounds. Otherwise you can’t understand when people spell a simple word.

I wish I had learned to say the Russian alphabet. It makes you look singularly stupid if you can’t follow basic spelling in conversation.

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