Why learn Russian (or German, or Japanese, or Italian...)?
January 6, 2016 9:55 AM   Subscribe

Thanks to the glory of Duolingo and printable alphabet worksheets, I've started to dabble in Russian language learning. I don't intend to ever visit Russia. Why should I keep learning the language?

It's all fun for now, but I know that after the novelty wears off, I'll lose interest. But I don't want to lose interest! But I also need a good reason to continue. What are some practical applications for learning new languages and alphabets? Potential upsides I've considered: boosting cognitive function, attending a Russian Orthodox church service just for kicks, negotiating with terrorists/captors (??) at some point in the future if we're in a WWIII situation.

I know I'm capable of learning new languages; Spanish is ubiquitous where I am, and I drilled down hard on French language when I was in college--but I was preparing to go live there for a year and also I had nerdy aspirations for literary translation, so motivation wasn't a question. I consider myself somewhat talented, linguistically. I just need motivation for now, in my adult working life.

Why does one learn a language for a country they're unlikely to visit anytime soon? Have you ever taken the time to learn a language you don't speak regularly, or at all?
posted by witchen to Society & Culture (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I learned to speak modern Greek a little while I was out there, eight years later looking for something to do I took some evening classes at the local Orthodox church. I really enjoyed it! Like yourself, I didn't stick with it, but our teacher often told us how he was listed as a volunteer translator for local charities, something that I had never considered when it came to learning another language.

Alongside this, you could always aim to get the ability to read Russian literature in the original, rather than a translation. Also, I still enjoy listening to Greek radio stations online, as well as being able to (just about) follow the news when there's something happening over there.

Learning about the culture and history of a country is a lot more immersive when you speak the language too. And don't forget that Russian is still widely spoken around ex-Soviet states; my very basic Russian got me by in Republic of Georgia for a few weeks this summer.
posted by sarahdal at 10:04 AM on January 6, 2016

To read in that language?

I'm currently reading both Italian and Brazilian Portuguese mysteries. They are great and they are mostly untranslated.
I'm learning Japanese for the same reason. Sure, I may visit Japan but I'm mainly interested in reading Japanese novels.

Reading newspapers and magazines from that country as well.
posted by vacapinta at 10:06 AM on January 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

To read Anna Karenina or War and Peace in the original! (super bonus, the original is much shorter than the translations)
posted by sammyo at 10:11 AM on January 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

Most of my coworkers are fluent in two or three languages, but don't speak the language of the country where we live. While our company officially does its business in English, having people around to jump in on a sales call, remote demo, or support session and communicate with users in their own language comes in handy. We sell fairly technical products, and some people are more comfortable talking about complicated topics in their own language.
posted by neushoorn at 10:26 AM on January 6, 2016

Why does one learn a language for a country they're unlikely to visit anytime soon?

In general I think that foreign languages go under the "all knowledge is worth having" category, and even if you never go to that country it doesn't mean that you will never encounter native speakers of whatever language you choose to learn. More specifically, russian is a very satisfyingly rich language with a wonderful mouthfeel.
posted by poffin boffin at 10:27 AM on January 6, 2016 [5 favorites]

The more languages you know, the more you learn about languages in general and the easier it becomes to pick up yet other languages. Maybe you want to become a person who is good at languages?

Russian specifically: six cases! You won't have come across that in Spanish or French.
posted by the_blizz at 10:31 AM on January 6, 2016

Films and media. I like foreign films and tv shows so much, but the subtleties are lost in translation (either dubbed or subs). Being fluent in French enhanced my enjoyment of Amelie and other French films immensely. I get a thrill when I can understand any of what's being said in Japanese, German or Spanish, and I always learn a few new words or get a better understanding of how the phrasing structure works.

As a suggestion to you, I really liked the Russian fantasy series Nochnoy Dozor and the two films are among my all-time favorites. Half of any of the Russian I know came from watching them. The other half came from a brief romance with a visiting Russian colleague... there's another reason right there ;)
posted by lizbunny at 10:42 AM on January 6, 2016

For most people in most situations, unless you're being signed up for language learning by your work, learning a foreign language is never going to be "useful". I did Duolingo in Italian last year to prepare for two months traveling in Italy. My Italian definitely improved and I was able to get some use out of it on my trip. However:

A) I didn't become fluent or anything, so it was only useful up to a point. I'd say it was a help, but not life changing or anything. The trip would have gone approximately as smoothly if I had not done Duolingo.

B) I was in Italy for two months, and while I've been to Italy multiple times, and it wouldn't surprise me to eventually go back, or to eventually be able to factor my experience and interest in Italy into my career, it's not like I will ever actually NEED to speak Italian conversationally in a permanent context. Duolingo isn't "practical" in a lifetime sense.

All of the above said, as a casual learner of a few different languages (years of ambitious Spanish study in high school, French in college and as a "heritage" language as I'm Cajun, some dabbling in Hindi, Greek, and Italian for travels), I do think there's value in doing it. For one thing, if you live in an ethnically diverse part of the US, it's great to know a little of the languages spoken by nearby immigrants. I live in East Los Angeles, which is predominantly Mexican-American, and certain things go a little more smoothly for me because I can read and understand Spanish well (I'm almost never called on to actually speak Spanish). Before I moved to California I lived in a Brooklyn neighborhood with a lot of Russian immigrants, and I often wished I could read the Cyrillic alphabet simply to be able to shop in ethnic groceries more efficiently, read signs, and the like. I generally haven't been called on to talk to people in their native language, but again, it's just the general osmosis of moving through a world where you can read things and understand what people are saying a little better.
posted by Sara C. at 10:45 AM on January 6, 2016

I also just started learning Russian through Duolingo, even though I have zero desire to ever speak Russian to another living human (I have a friend from college who's from Moscow and I'm terrified he'll find out).

The language-learning culture in my city (big tech sector, world-class university) is very much about young international people meeting up and doing social stuff and talking to each other in languages they're learrning and being wholesome and happy and making new friends and correcting one another freely and without shame when they make mistakes.

And that is my idea of hell. I'm uptight, I have crippling social anxiety and my self-esteem is so fragile that I cannot tolerate even well-meant, productive criticism - being told I've done something imperfectly makes my want to bash my skull against solid objects until it splits. These are issues that I'm working on, but right now they make learning a language in a mainstream/group setting for the reasons that people usually learn languages Very Much Not For Me.

After vowing last year (not a good year) that I would never learn another language (or write again, another sad-angry vow I've since reneged on), I'm trying Russian for a bunch of reasons: I've always wanted to be able to read Cyrillic, I'm interested in the Cold War and Russian history (including enjoyment of some of the words involved - perestroika!), and I'm a big etymology nerd and enjoy seeing how words and roots have travelled around between different countries. Being able to read letters well enough after a couple of days to figure out that велосипед was coming from a "velocipede" place rather than a "bicycle" place and then thinking about the French influence on Russian culture and wondering if it was a loanword gave me a huge rush - I really love making those kinds of connections in language.

The other thing that's making me feel okay about trying Russian for the time being is that I've set myself lowball goals - if I can read Cyrillic half-decently (which seems doable after a few days), I'll be happy and won't feel like I've failed if I choose to quit for laziness/confidence reasons or have to quit for health reasons (none of which are unlikely). In the past, I'd have felt like I'd failed if I didn't become fluent and added it to the arsenal of rods I use to beat myself with.

In summary, I'm learning Russian because I am a huge antisocial nerd. The eureka moment was realising that I never had to speak Russian to anyone ever if I didn't want to. When I learnt languages at school, speaking/communication was such a huge focus that it just didn't occur to me I could do it on my own, interfacing only with a machine. As I prefer to do most activities.
posted by terretu at 11:08 AM on January 6, 2016 [6 favorites]

I can read Russian at the intermediate level and it comes in handy in lots of ways. It can be unexpectedly relevant on job applications. It impresses people when you can read and translate Cyrillic. You understand the speech hurdles of ESL Russian people better. You can pronounce names correctly on the first try. You can eventually read great literature in Russian (Pushkin is a frequent first). You can understand various spies, soldiers, and bad guys in action movies/TV shows, when there are no subtitles. You will understand declension better, if you ever decide to learn another language with noun cases. You can make new friends by joining Russian language speaking/learning groups. It's a critical language as defined by the U.S. government, so it could help you get a job there or a scholarship to study in another country. You could travel to a Russian-speaking country without too much intimidation. You can watch Tarkovsky's films in the original. You can automatically read signs in Russian which feature cognates or obvious beginner words, making it easier to shop or navigate.

Throughout my formal and informal language studies I've met a lot of people who make fun of themselves for having no real reason to study the language they're studying... but you really don't need a reason. More important than having a reason is sticking with it. There are plenty of people with a good reason to learn a language who don't, and people without one who do. Many societies prioritize the learning of several languages other than one's native language(s).
posted by easter queen at 11:42 AM on January 6, 2016 [5 favorites]

I'm learning Russian on Duolingo so I can better enjoy ASMR videos by GentleWhispering and occasionally pretend I am Mila Kunis. So far all I can pronounce consistently is щека (shcheka) which means cheek but I like how it sounds so shcheka.
posted by Hermione Granger at 11:48 AM on January 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Why does one learn a language for a country they're unlikely to visit anytime soon?

So you can visit their internet. If you have half an interest in current affairs or even pop culture, you'd be able to read what people in other countries are thinking instead of relying on US media reports.
posted by peripathetic at 11:59 AM on January 6, 2016 [4 favorites]

I have really poor skills in a few different languages but am not fluent in anything except my native English. It's really fun to be able to pick out what people in the media are saying, either to compare what I hear to the subtitles, or to make a guess at what non-translated characters are saying, or to listen to what man-on-the-street BBC interviews are like before the translator overdub kicks in.
posted by aimedwander at 1:23 PM on January 6, 2016

Honestly? I took Russian in college, and while I've forgotten most of it, I use it all the time to take secret notes in a funky alphabet. I can never remember all the passwords I need at work, so I scribble them in Cyrillic and stick them under my mousepad. Wanna make a note about something in a meeting, but don't want your colleagues to know what you're writing? Use Cyrillic!

(Now, I have had someone walk into my office and ask why I had "my password is _____" scribbled in Russian on my notepad. So, still not super secure. But fun code alphabet!)
posted by JannaK at 2:34 PM on January 6, 2016 [4 favorites]

Nothing wrong with doing it just for the fun of it. I dabble with Japanese and Chinese sometimes for the same reason I listen to law school classes on podcast in my car while not intending to ever be a lawyer. It's a pastime that keeps me interested, like doing crossword puzzles only with the bonus that once in a great while I surprise myself by unexpectedly understanding something I have no normal reason to. I don't expect to ever speak them to a real live person, it's just fun to use my brain for that.
posted by ctmf at 7:06 PM on January 6, 2016

I read something recently that talked about how bilingual people were less likely to have a stroke.
posted by aniola at 9:38 PM on January 6, 2016

I look at it as opening up a new language group to you. For instance, knowing some Spanish or French makes Portuguese less intimidating. Same with German and Danish or Swedish. You are getting sort of a package deal, especially for the first language you learn in a new family of languages. I only studied Russian for one year in college, and don't really plan to go there. But guess what, it was sure handy in Czech, Poland, Ukraine, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, and Bulgaria. It's another tool in the toolbelt.
posted by starfishprime at 11:32 PM on January 6, 2016

This is maybe sort of dumb, but one of the biggest advantages to my not-nearly-fluent grasp of a couple languages is that I can now follow recipes from non-English food blogs. Like, it turns out that the German food blogging scene is super, super into sourdough bread? And it's delicious and I read just enough German, at this point, that I can usually more or less follow the recipe without having to look anything up. Or last month, when I made sucre à la crème à l’érable, and didn't have to flip between tabs to translate the recipe as I went.

Not a food blog, but my local butcher is Brazilian, and he has almost no English and I have almost no Portuguese, but we both have enough Spanish to muddle through--sometimes having even rudimentary skills in a second language will open up communication with someone who speaks a third language.
posted by MeghanC at 1:59 AM on January 7, 2016

I picked up Russian in college to try to win back an ex that was fascinated and could speak fluently. After my mission was clearly not going to work, I kept on because I found it was fun. I've forgotten most of what I've picked up. But the look of surprise on the faces of native Russians when I suddenly pronounce or read something in the correct inflection gives me a sense of satisfaction. I like knowing that I'm smart enough to at least know what's being said and sometimes reply.
posted by arishaun at 5:35 AM on January 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

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