learn russian or learn bengali?
September 2, 2008 11:11 AM   Subscribe

Which do you think would be harder to learn, Bengali or Russian? and how long does it take to become conversant in either? Immersion is probably not in the cards. I speak French and Italian and found those pretty easy and fun to learn. But I was in an immersion situation. I'm in Brooklyn, if it matters.
posted by pipti to Education (9 answers total)
Just a guess, but I'd suspect that Russian would be simpler just because the Cyrillic alphabet is much closer to the latin alphabet.

Wikipedia says:
The Bengali abugida is a cursive script with eleven graphemes or signs denoting the independent form of nine vowels and two diphthongs, and thirty-nine signs denoting the consonants with the so called "inherent" vowels
Seems like having to contend with both the writing system and the language at the same time would be considerably more challenging. I believe that Russian also has more cognates with the romance languages than Bengali would, but that is based on inference, not knowledge.
posted by jenkinsEar at 11:28 AM on September 2, 2008

Bengali and Russian are both in the same category - 44 weeks, 25 hours a week, 3-4 hours a day of what it calls "directed self-study" to proficiency (a very high level) - on this State Department page.
posted by mdonley at 11:35 AM on September 2, 2008

I had to learn to read Bengali a few years ago for my graduate school research. I can also read the Cyrillic alphabet and some Russian.

All in all, I found Bengali to be a pretty user-friendly language as Indo-Aryan languages go. I learned Urdu at around the same time and I felt more comfortable with Bengali, hands down.

There are a surprising number of cognates (for example, পুলিস or pulisa for policeman) due to British occupation. There is a slight difference between dialects spoken in Bangladesh and India. I learned the Indian dialect, so YMMV.

I also really liked the script, mostly because it is fun to write and look at. There are special vowel markings, but I treated the whole lot like a syllabary when learning the characters, and it only took me a few weeks to get it memorized.

The big drawback might be the quantity and quality of learning materials. I had a tough time finding good grammars and affordable dictionaries. Luckily, I met a lot of native speakers who helped along the way and more than made up for the gap in materials. So, find a language partner if you really want a chance to get good.
posted by Alison at 11:46 AM on September 2, 2008

If you're talking about self-study, I think availability of resources would factor in heavily. I've never found any well-reviewed materials for learning or even practicing Bengali on your own.
posted by lampoil at 11:51 AM on September 2, 2008

If Bengali is anything like Hindi (and as someone who learned Hindi as an adult and can understand a good deal of Bengali as a result, I'm going to guess that it is rather similar) I'll play devil's advocate and say that Bengali will probably be easier in terms of mastering the grammar. The script is different from anything you've encountered before, but since it is pretty much phonetic, it will be easy to learn (unlike, say, Tamil, where the written and spoken often don't match up at all -- yikes!!). The vocab might pose some problems for you, sure. But I don't think Russian has so many cognates with romance languages that this should be your deciding factor.

I think there's another aspect to this decision which you might want to consider. I studied Hindi and Spanish as a teenager, and what ultimately moved my Hindi to the next level (while my Spanish faltered, despite it being the 'easier' language for an English speaker) was my immense affection for Hindi film and Hindi film music. Watching films and listening to music in your target language is a fantastic and painless way to acquire vocabulary and to develop an intuitive grasp of phrasing and accent.

You're lucky because both Russian and Bengali have huge bodies of literature, fantastic films, etc. But if you have a preference for Russian films and music over Bengali films and music, I would go with Russian -- and vice-versa.
posted by artemisia at 11:52 AM on September 2, 2008

Response by poster: Interesting thoughts, thanks all.
posted by pipti at 11:56 AM on September 2, 2008

I'm going to go with Russian being harder-- although they're both going to be tougher than French and Italian (and probably easier than, say, Mandarin).

I've studied Russian, and I'm currently learning Hindi, which is a similar language to Bengali. Russian and Bengali are both remotely related to English (so there will be some cognates and some familiar features), but they're both far enough away to be very strange in some ways.

Both Russian and Bengali use different scripts than English, which adds an extra obstacle. As jekinsEar points out, the Bengali script is more different from what you're used to, but it's still not going to take you more than a couple of weeks to get down (and, as an added bonus, is quite lovely). Personally, I think the 'different script' thing gives both languages a false sense of difficulty; you'll get the hang of the script after a few weeks and it'll become second nature, and you won't really think about it again.

Russian has a steep learning curve because of its large case system. Word order is flexible, because everything is declined according to its syntactic role. This means that before you can start using and understanding a normal variety of sentences, you have to get the hang of all the declensions, for the six cases, in all three genders, in singular and plural form. If you're good at rote memory stuff, that might not be too bad for you, but it took me (and most of my fellow students) forever to get the case drill down. With Bengali, the subject-object-verb word order and the use of postpositions instead of prepositions may trip you up a little, but it'll be comparatively easier to jump right into things.

One major plus for learning Russian is that there are lots of helpful books, websites, etc to assist you. There's a serious dearth of resources for learning the Indic languages. However, you've got a very large polyglot city at your disposal, so you should be able to find plenty of Bengali speakers to practice on.
posted by bookish at 12:02 PM on September 2, 2008

Russian grammar is murderous. It's true the alphabet has some similarities to the English, but in a way those similarities just make it more confusing. It's 33 letters, and though some of the letters are carried over from English, they're different. For instance, h makes the "n" sound, and n makes the "p" sound, and p makes the trilled "r" sound.

One of the advantages of Russian would be that there's a massive amount of highly entertaining literature and film you could get your hands on quite easily that would probably be very helpful for learning.
posted by Autarky at 12:34 PM on September 2, 2008

I'm in Brooklyn, if it matters.

I think it does, since you might find good practice resources in Brighton Beach:

The neighborhood, with an estimated population of 350,000 (mostly from Russia and Ukraine), has a distinctively ethnic feel – akin to Manhattan's Chinatown.

Not quite immersion, but probably helpful.
posted by mikepop at 12:37 PM on September 2, 2008

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