Language Geekery: Slavic Edition
April 27, 2011 6:40 AM   Subscribe

Which Slavic language should I study?

I just got back from Slovenia! After four days staying in the home of my traveling companion's cousins, I started to pick up basic Slovenian much more quickly than I thought I would. Nothing too complicated, mainly "good morning", "thank you", and the like. But it was a lot easier than I initially thought. I also learned to read (or really "sound out") Slovenian writing extremely well, find cognates, and overall get a beginner's sense of the language in a very short time.

All of this whet my appetite for learning a Slavic language. Of course, Slovenian is a tiny language which is not terribly useful to me in my everyday life. I had fun in Slovenia, but I have no ties to that country or immediate plans to return to that part of the world.

So... if I liked Slovenian, what Slavic language should I start looking at?

Russian would be the obvious choice, but one thing I like about Slovenian is the fact that it's written in Latin characters. This makes it easier for me to jump right into the language and start figuring stuff out through context.

Polish is written in (mostly) Latin characters, and there's a large Polish community here in New York. As people often walk up to me on the street and assume I'm Polish (weird), it could actually be somewhat useful.

But neither Russian nor Polish are actually all that closely related to Slovenian or the other South Slavic languages. And I'm probably overstating their utility in my everyday life. Maybe it would be better to study Czech? Or Serbo-Croatian (which is also written in Cyrillic)? Romanian, as it combines the Romance Language base I already know well with Slavic influences? Or just play with Slovenian if I like it so much?

Are there any great online/free-ish resources for English speakers studying Slavic languages? Should the existence of these in one language or another influence my choice? Since this is all a lark, I'd rather not fork over hundreds of dollars to study a language spoken by very few people which I will likely never actually use outside my capacity as a know-it-all.
posted by Sara C. to Education (33 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

If you don't want to learn cyrillic (really its very easy) Polish is going to be the most "useful" in NYC - but that utility is going to be limited to getting some respect on line in shops in Greenpoint at Easter or Christmas.

So that in hand - why not learn whatever you are most interested in. Hell I did taped catalan lessons for a while just because I thought it was cool.

If practicality matters its Spanish and Chinese in NYC.
posted by JPD at 7:04 AM on April 27, 2011

Czech is closer to Polish - it's a West Slavic language and to an extent is mutually intelligible. Serbo-Croat and Slovenian and both South Slavic (along with Bulgarian) and form a dialect continuum ( ). Of course this part of the world has a really interesting history and culture. I would go for Serbo-Croat.
posted by plep at 7:06 AM on April 27, 2011

posted by plep at 7:06 AM on April 27, 2011

> But neither Russian nor Polish are actually all that closely related to Slovenian or the other South Slavic languages. And I'm probably overstating their utility in my everyday life. Maybe it would be better to study Czech? Or Serbo-Croatian (which is also written in Cyrillic)? Romanian, as it combines the Romance Language base I already know well with Slavic influences? Or just play with Slovenian if I like it so much?

All the Slavic languages are pretty closely related, but East Slavic (Russian and Ukrainian) is at least as closely related to South Slavic as is West Slavic (Czech and Polish), so if you're going to wander out of South Slavic there's no point preferring Czech. Romanian is not Slavic, so it's not going to satisfy the Slavic bug. If you enjoy Slovenian, I would just go ahead and study Slovenian and not worry about "usefulness"—for one thing, it will give you a good base for studying other Slavic languages should you want to. But for heaven's sake, don't worry about the Cyrillic alphabet; it is very easy to learn and will be the least of your worries. (For what it's worth, I'd urge you to study Russian,l which has one of the world's great literatures and best set of curses.)
posted by languagehat at 7:07 AM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Personally, I don't think you should limit yourself based on the alphabet. Cyrillic is easy to learn, and knowing it is really beneficial for anyone interested in Slavic languages. Think of it this way: If you only know the Latin alphabet used for a particular Slavic language, then you will never be able to spot cognates when you come across Slavic texts in Cyrillic.

The Slavic languages are closely related enough that cognates go a long way, so you're cutting yourself off from some really useful knowledge if you decide to stick to the Latin alphabet-ed Slavic languages.

But neither Russian nor Polish are actually all that closely related to Slovenian or the other South Slavic languages.

Compared to other South Slavic languages, no, Russian and Polish are not closely related to Slovenian. But they are still closely related, as the Slavic languages generally are. What did you like about Slovenian? The chances are--unless you're really chuffed about having a dual--that any Slavic language you pick will be similar.

Personally, I would study Czech if I was avoiding Russian. I like its phonology, and it's a large enough language that I could find materials for it.

I think you would run into trouble trying to study most of the South Slavic languages, as they are a little more obscure, teaching-material wise. You might find some, but there will not be as much available to you.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 7:15 AM on April 27, 2011

Response by poster: availablelight - that link is great, thank you! Both because it explains some of the intricacies of Southern Slavic languages that my Slovenian hosts were unable to, and also because that site has tons of great language learning resources, in general.

JPD - I have spent quite a lot of time in Greenpoint over the years, to the extent that it would probably be useful for me to know a bit of Polish. In addition to that, there is a strong likelihood that I will eventually visit Poland on some vacation or other. I have many years of Spanish study under my belt, and while it would be sorta nifty to study Chinese, I don't run in Chinese circles in New York to the same extent that I run in Eastern European ones. I'm definitely looking for a Slavic language to study right now.

languagehat and others - my only "concern" about just sticking with Slovenian for the time being is that I don't know how easy it will be to find cheap/free language learning resources for Slovenian here in New York. I'm basically a spoiled baby who has scratched previous polyglot itches listening to free Spanish, French, Italian, and Hindi language learning podcasts. As far as I know, nothing like this exists for Slovenian. It also seems like it will be difficult to do a language exchange with a Slovenian speaker in New York, as there aren't many of them here. If folks have Slovenian language study resources, though, I'd love to hear them!
posted by Sara C. at 7:17 AM on April 27, 2011

Response by poster: (BTW right now Russian is in the lead - you guys are right that I am totally capable of learning the Cyrillic alphabet. Though links, ideas, tactics, tips, etc. about that would be much appreciated - so far I have not had great success learning other alpabets.)
posted by Sara C. at 7:29 AM on April 27, 2011

As a Serb, I vote Russian for the literature. Don't know about the curses, lots of competition there.
posted by Dragonness at 7:36 AM on April 27, 2011

Learning to read the cyrillic alphabet in five minutes was awesome when I was in Ukraine last year. It's a great starting point to build your confidence.
posted by wingless_angel at 7:37 AM on April 27, 2011 [6 favorites]

Sounds like you're heading that way already, but I'll agree that reading cyrillic is 1) not that hard, and 2) very cool. I've just got a smattering, but being able to decipher the signs around Brighton (the Boston-area one) is fun.

For learning it, I'm not sure about how to get started, but the web lesson wingless_angel linked to has a good idea for continued practice. There are tons and tons of words that sound the same in Russian and English (cognates? is that the term?). Get a list of them, and just try to figure them out reading Cyrillic. You'll know you got it right when you pronounce it as a recognizable word.
posted by benito.strauss at 7:47 AM on April 27, 2011

I agree that Cyrillic isn't difficult to learn at all. Look at it this way. If you are able to look at a dz in Slovenian and remember that it sounds like a 'j', or a c and know that the sound is 'ts', then you can look at a new symbol and remember the sound attached to it. In fact, with no crossing of wires going on when you switch between Slovenian pronunciations of Latin letters and English ones (or English and French, German, etc) having a new alphabet for a language you are learning may actually be easier.

I vote Russian. It's gorgeous and it feels really good in the mouth.
posted by kitcat at 7:47 AM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Just remembered, however, that Russian is going to involve that same kind of wire crossing since you're dealing with stuff like P sounding like 'r' and B sounding like 'v', etc.
posted by kitcat at 8:03 AM on April 27, 2011

If you've already picked up on cognates and groove on that sort of thing, Cyrillic might actually be more fun for the purposes of enjoyable learning. For example, the Cyrillic character B is pronounced as the English V, and there are a lot of B/V switchings across languages (like the spanish "sabor" and the english "savor").

Moreover, many people who speak one slavic language also speak Russian, and New York's Russian community is much larger than its Polish one. (Plus some Jews in Boro Park and Midwood who still speak russian as an everyday language).
posted by Jon_Evil at 8:07 AM on April 27, 2011

Oh, and ignoring my silly comment, kitcat is absoluteley right. Russian is loads of fun to pronounce:

Dooh-Bree Dyyyeen! Kak dellaaaah?
posted by benito.strauss at 8:23 AM on April 27, 2011

I'm biased, but I'm voting for Polish. For no other reason than I learn it and I love it.

Polish is the 6th most common mother tongue in the EU, and 10% of the EU population speaks it. No one ever questions a peron who's learning Italian, but tell them you're learning Polish and you get asked about it. It's something a bit different. And it's hard, if you're up for a challenge.

But I'm not sure how many free/cheap learning resources you'll find out there. There's some, but not a lot. That said, I've not investigated what's available through less than legal avenues.

As others have said, it's common to learn Russian for the literature, and I've met a few people learning Czech for the cinema.

Being able to read Cyrillic is a fun skill in and of itself, and really easy to teach yourself. If you know a Slavic language and Cyrillic, you can muddle through in much of central/eastern Europe.
posted by Helga-woo at 8:25 AM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Dooh-Bree Dyyyeen!

If this means some variation on hello, good day, etc. then it gives me a big hint that learning Russian (or any of the non-southern Slavic languages) won't be too much harder/weirder than my exposure to Slovenian.
posted by Sara C. at 8:36 AM on April 27, 2011

Also, Cyrillic is super fun to write. Most of my doodles during work meetings are in Russian.

Bonus! No can read that I'm writing things like "oh my god, this is so boring, please shut up"
posted by Zoyashka at 8:51 AM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

For some people, shifting alphabets actually helps speed learning after you get over the initial hurdle. I read and write Latin competently, and speak adequate German and piss-poor French. And I often go for a word in any of those languages and come up with one from another. I also have a basic knowledge of Russian (enough to buy stuff, get directions and get slapped, basically. At about the same level as my French), but I almost never confuse Russian vocab with the other languages that I'm familiar with. I attribute this to the visual memory that these words are from a different alphabet and hence very separate. If I could find the time and inclination, I'm sure that I could go much further much faster improving my Russian over my French. And the structures of the languages is only part of the reason.
posted by Mayor Curley at 9:01 AM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Dooh-Bree Dyyyeen!

If this means some variation on hello, good day, etc. then it gives me a big hint that learning Russian (or any of the non-southern Slavic languages) won't be too much harder/weirder than my exposure to Slovenian.

Oh, definitely. I've just got half a year of Russian, and the first time I flipped through a "Teach Yourself Czech" book, the printed words looked weird, but once I tried pronouncing them I realized "hey, this is just Russian written in the wrong alphabet!".

[It's "Good day. How are you?".]
posted by benito.strauss at 9:11 AM on April 27, 2011

Some of my students who are studying English commute from Slovenia. I'm sure they'd be delighted to do some sort of Skype tandem where you teach them English and they teach you Slovenian. MeMail me if you're interested.
posted by MighstAllCruckingFighty at 9:29 AM on April 27, 2011

And to actually answer your question (whoops, sorry!), I think you should just go for Slovenian if you find it interesting. It will be, as others have pointed out, a good base for other Slavic languages and despite being such a small language they have a lot of interesting literature.
posted by MighstAllCruckingFighty at 9:30 AM on April 27, 2011

Perhaps it would be useful for you to hear some of the languages spoken to see what appeals to you the most? I'm biased, but I prefer Czech to Polish, for instance, although they're both close.

If you're interested in learning Czech, I'd suggest picking up Colloquial Czech: The Complete Course for Beginners (for the dialogue) and the ambitiously titled Czech In Three Months (for the grammar).

Local Lingo
has a good free section on basic Czech (with sound) as does

I'd also recommend buy [or, ehem, downloading] some of the many lovely Czech films - Kolya is probably the easiest to obtain, but I can also recommend Pupendo and Pelisky as good for both language and understanding the Czech mentality. I'd be happy to recommend others - just send me a message.

Also, one final word of warning - the Czech language has the 'ř' sound - bane of all foreigners but an excellent party trick if you can master it.
posted by brambory at 11:10 AM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'd vote Russian. It's the biggest Slavic language, lots of people speak it, Cyrillic is fun (and much easier than you think), you'll have far more resources than you would for many of the smaller languages... But it's true, you should study whichever one appeals to you most. Oh, but I can't imagine choosing something written in the Latin alphabet when a new one is a possibility!!! (Then again, I studied Old Church Slavonic in college, and for a while even knew a little bit of Glagolitic. Because I am a dork.)
posted by Because at 3:57 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

The cyrillic alphabet is probably the easiest part of russian. The spelling is more phonetic than english (though the words can get long). There are lots of explanations of the alphabet online (one quick and amusing intro), but one less handy resource is Google Translate; set it as russian to english with phonetic typing checked, then type "dobriy dyen ," (trailing space) and it'll transliterate it into the russian alphabet. (Also try "dobrih dyen"... Google spellchecks the resulting "добрих день" with the correct "добрый день.") This of course is only useful if you already know the russian words.
posted by mnemonic at 6:38 PM on April 27, 2011

one less handy
posted by mnemonic at 6:38 PM on April 27, 2011

I put four years into Russian and it didn't take more than a few weeks to get comfortable with the Cyrillic alphabet. Never did tackle any of the huge novels, but poetry sounds terrific.

I liked brambory's suggestion to watch some Czech films. I think Netflix Instant Watch just picked up War and Peace (but I don't know if it's dubbed or subbed) and there may be other Russian films there.
posted by dragonplayer at 6:41 PM on April 27, 2011

Russian, especially when you get to any minimally-interesting topic, actually has a lot of cognates with English, French, Dutch, and German (mainly because top-down Westernization had to borrow its language from the West). I suspect you'd find literary vocabulary a lot easier than you think.
posted by nasreddin at 11:44 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

The New York Public Library has Colloquial Slovene (on cassette! yikes) plus the book that goes with it, along with two other books under "Slovenian languge -- self instruction". Oh, but much better: they have an interactive CD-ROM, Talk now! Learn Slovenian.

On the other hand, they have 24 CDs for learning Russian.
posted by kristi at 9:46 AM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

There's also a lot of free Russian audio material in iTunes U (via the iTunes Store).
posted by mnemonic at 10:53 PM on April 29, 2011

I'm late to the game here, but one extra comment: I learned Serbo-Croatian and spent time in both Bosnia and Serbia. It's a beautiful part of the world, and I don't regret learning the language at all, but I was shocked at how prevalent English was. Because the television shows aren't dubbed, it felt like everyone under the age of thirty spoke English. And not a little English. Like Scandinavian level competency.

The upside is that the language feels beautiful, is relatively easy (compared to Russian), and the people are wonderful.

I've also done some Russian and spent time in Russia. If you're young, I'd probably recommend going this route. There's less English spoken there. The literature and history is much thicker. The language might have some practical application. And the country's still going through major, important changes that you could follow intimately. Plus it's just sexy. Hope you see this...
posted by vecchio at 7:56 PM on May 13, 2011

Response by poster: Yeah, actually having visited Slovenia - English seems to be the lingua franca for people under 30. It's also widely used on signage, restaurant menus, and the like.

Absolutely nothing about this quest to learn a Slavic language is practical in nature. It's all for the nerd lulz. Nerd Lulz of the day: I'm learning the Cyrillic alphabet and it's actually sticking! I can read the Russian subway ads for ESL schools!
posted by Sara C. at 10:07 PM on May 13, 2011

I hear you. I still remember my first Russian sentence. ("Lift rabotet?") Check out Radio Moscow. It's essentially the last progressive radio station on the air in Russia. More importantly, sometimes at night a man with a soft voice reads stories in front what sounds like a crackling fire. (Not that I could understand him. But great for a Russian jones on a snowy night.)

posted by vecchio at 6:02 PM on June 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

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