bottleneck analysis

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The Challenge of Languages

Giarre, Italy

This post was clearly inspired by the blog series by Calvin, an American friend of mine, whose first goal is to deconstruct, analyze, and confront challenges for twenty-somethings in particular era we are living these days. His series has been going on for quite some time now (it all started on January 9, 2012) and I’m sure it’s becoming a challenge in itself.

There are many challenges life has put before me in the past years of being a “twenty-something”. Love, houses, exams and graduations, travels, money, friendship, family matters, jobs… the internet! … are only the major among many tough issues I’ve had to cope with. The feeling of being an unsettled individual is one of the most pleasant challenges I face every day.

However, as I approach a new academic experience that will bring me to study in the Post-Soviet area, I have to greet, once again, the challenge of languages. The reason I use the “Post-Soviet” term to refer to Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan – the countries where I will end up living – is because they share a basic knowledge of the Russian language, which was the Soviet language for nearly sixty years. Stalin’s program of “carpet” Russification in the non-Russian Soviet Republics was felt, of course, as an imposition from abroad. The colonial attitude by Moscow towards its fellow Soviet neighbors during the Cold War helped the development of anti-Russian sentiments in the periphery.  In the last days of 1991, the Soviet Republics all of a sudden realized they were independent. Interestingly, their leadership still remained very “Soviet” inside.

Despite regrets, arguments, clashes with drunken Yeltsin, and confusion over what to do, “former Soviet” leaders transformed themselves into “newly independent” leaders. Most of them were seasoned politicians and they could seize the opportunity given by the political and socio-economic uncertainty to use their chamaleon powers and root their legitimacy in  a nationalistic rhetoric. The countries I will be visiting have been the most stable, US-friendly, and economically growing among the Post-Soviet subjects. The Aliyevs in Azerbaijan have established a quasi-hereditary monarchy (even though they like to be called “President”) and Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan enjoys the same popularity as the Pope among Catholics. In both countries, since the last days of the USSR, the nationalistic trend has gone back to the Turkic tradition. On the one hand, they strive to appear as Western as possible in order to attract foreign investments, but on the other hand, the ancient tradition is recovered by laws and day-to-day social(-ly imposed) changes.

The major reflection of these nationalistic changes is evident in the language. Russian has been downgraded as the “accompanying language” to the official one, which, in many cases is just one variety of the many dialects that the inhabitants spoke before the Tsarist and Soviet invasions. This long historical context serves as a background for my personal challenge with languages for the next few years. Here, you might find handy another set of background information.

I learned to master the Spanish language through my year in Granada as an exchange student. Then I turned my eyes to Russian, which I needed for my studies. However, having lived in Russia for less than a full week, I could never get beyond the elementary-to-intermediate swing. Then came my journey to the United States, where I did take Russian, but I started writing and speaking everything that was processed in my brain through English words. While good on the English-language side, my Russian bent spoiled. What’s to be done now? I will investigate more and more Russian-language documents as my research will still be centered on energy issues in the Caspian, but at the same time I will be living in countries where the usage of Russian is withering away.

My experience in Washington has taught me that Kazakhs are still reliant on Russian, especially for their diplomatic and political speeches and jokes. Yet, again, nationalism is kicking in: one very nice Kazakh diplomat invited me to their embassy on 16th Street, kindly answered to my questions in English, and then showed me the room with the display of traditional garment and weaponry used by Kazakh tribes “back then”, as he uttered walking me to the door. Nevertheless, I think my research experience is going to be smooth if I get back on the books and prepare myself in the Russian language.

The real challenge comes with the language for my daily interactions. I want to be able to live in these countries, even though my experience will surely be restricted to a few months, because of the structure of the program. For this reason, today I browsed a few YouTube videos with introductory courses for the Kazakh language. I will dedicate a few hours per week to a serious study of this language, which draws from many different linguistic roots (Arabic, Mongol, Greek…) and developed from many different dialects, all of which were hybernated during Stalin’s imposition of Russian. I’m sure I won’t be able to deal with the Azeri idiom as well, but my journey to Baku is still uncertain and will surely be shorter than my stay in Almaty.

Yet, as an unsettled being, I maintain a feeling of uncertainty about learning languages I might stop using sooner than expected. The challenge will therefore be to “enjoy it while it lasts”. Like many challenges faced by erratic twenty-somethings.

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3 responses to “The Challenge of Languages

  1. calvinaftercal March 28, 2012 at 7:32 pm

    Hey Paolo, thanks for the shout-out! I’d imagine that the transition from speaking Italian to learning to speak Spanish was relatively easier because of their commonalities. How much do you find is lost when you read Russian documents that have been translated into English? From my own explorations, which are normally novels and fiction that are translated from foreign languages, there is always a bit of a barrier that causes the new form to lose some of its luster. Is this as common in academic texts?

    • bottleneckanalysis March 28, 2012 at 7:45 pm

      Hey Calvin, it’s been my pleasure to read your posts about our current challenges!!
      On Italian and Spanish, once you learn both, you understand better where Latin-based languages have melted and diverged. Now I prefer to avoid Italian translations. On Russian (mind that English will always be my second language), I love to read fictions and novels with the Russian text on the side. I get it done much slower, but I get to appreciate the whole narrative and artistic mastery. In academic texts, alas, there’s little space for interesting metaphors or hyperbolic vocabulary. However, when native Russians write in English about politics, they tend to include colloquial terms that throw you back to Bulgakov’s Moscow or Pasternak’s Petersburg. I have to say, it’s a nice and relieving breath you can take while studying. Next step, Kazakh! As they say, “sau bolynyz” (goodbye + be well, all in one!)

  2. Pingback: Education in Motion « bottleneck analysis

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