Archive for the ‘Russian Language and Culture’ Category

Goodbye, chronically sullen Indian boy.

As harsh as I was in a former post about Rosetta Stone Language Learning, I have to say I will miss it when I’m done. Even with all its problems, it is one of very few programs that you can study consistently for long periods of time, working a little each day. Over the last semester, I’ve kind of bonded with the Rosetta Stone “cast”—although there are thousands of images (most of which resemble stock photos from an absurdly tidy American neighborhood), there are only about 100-200 “characters.”

Some individuals are one-time “cameos” (like the hot Mediterranean-looking guy who, unfortunately, only bids “До свидания” with a rakish tip of his hat), but others pop up more or less consistently. Consistently enough that, when I got bored, I would come up with little stories about the dysfunctionalities teeming just below the surface. My favorite was the overbearing Asian mother, standing over her daughters and giving them the third degree about what subjects they’re studying at school this week. Or the skanky young stepmom, trying to get into the stepkids’ good graces by shamelessly buying them chocolate left and right.

Don't worry, desperate single girl. Someday someone will think you're worth a bunch of red flowers, too.

Apparently, Rosetta Stone’s famous Farm Boy ad spawned a truly bizarre official fanfic page on their site. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that Rosetta Stone soon branches out into polyglot soap operas. Because God knows TV series can only get better from here.


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Both out of respect for my host country and for my own personal safety, I chose to study Russian independently all last semester (and now over winter break) in order to arrive in St. Petersburg with at least a basic grasp on the language. I used books and online resources, as well as three well-known language-learning programs: Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, and Mango Languages. These programs all offer various levels of given languages, with the most material dedicated to commonly-studied languages like Spanish, Italian, Arabic, French, Chinese, etc. Each program also offers courses (often only to the beginner level) for less frequently used languages like Tagalog, Hawaiian, Swahili, etc. Fortunately, all the software I used offered expansive Russian programs. For those interested in learning Russian, or interested in learning a language using any of these programs, here are my thoughts on each program:

Rosetta Stone Russian:

Rosetta Stone uses a unique method that involves zero translation, just as if you were “immersed” in the target language. Aside from the user interface/navigation, everything is in the language you wish to study. Go here for a demo to see how it works—essentially, you match Russian words and phrases to images, instead of to their English counterparts. In theory, this eliminates the extra step of connecting a Russian word to an English translation in order to understand it. This concept feeds into Rosetta Stone’s main pitch, that you “learn the way a child does.”

In my experience (using Rosetta Stone Italian Level 1 and 2 in freshman year, and now Russian 1-3), there are some logistical drawbacks to this method: 1. Software cannot simulate the childhood experience of language learning, because that phase of astronomical brain development associated with native language acquisition has biologically ended. 2. The program takes it for granted that children learn their first language quickly and easily (anyone who went to public school knows this is inherently false). Children aren’t usually even “fluent” until kindergarten or older, and that’s with full immersion from birth and live-in tutors, ie family members. 3. As an adult, I don’t want or need to waste time guessing and making mistakes like a child, when difficult grammar points can just be explained to me. Unlike a toddler, I can grasp concepts like conjugation, word order, and case. So it makes no sense to use hours of trial-and-error to accomplish what could be reasonably explained in minutes.

You can't put childhood brain function in a yellow box and sell it in an airport for $159.99 plus tax.

There are several other oft-cited issues with Rosetta Stone that I ran into. At the top of the list is the fact that the program does not teach you what you need to know in order to have basic conversations with people—or at least, not until far into the program. Some of the phrases were so nonsensically useless, they were counterproductive in teaching me the given meaning, ex.) “the cat cannot read” “the girl is behind the bedsheet.” Most of the material is given out of context (it does not appear as part of a conversation) so in the real world, you are left with little idea as to how to apply given words or phrases were a native speaker to prompt you.

The image-based format also occasionally caused problems for me, and I’ve heard that complaint from other users. Pictures can actually be confusing in cases where there is too much detail for it to be immediately apparent what the given word/phrase is referring to, or when the pictures are too vague to draw conclusions. A memorable example of that was in Level 1 when there was a unit including height. The picture representing “tall” simply showed a man standing in a driveway—there was nothing else in the picture to provide enough scale to indicate that he was particularly tall, so I was really confused about what the new vocabulary could be referring to. Pictures also allow you to “cheat.” If you are given a phrase that says “the yellow bus leaves the station at 3:30,” and all you know is the word for bus, you can still technically get the question correct by finding the matching picture with the bus in it. You will have ignored, however, the words for yellow, to leave, station, and 3:30.

As you progress through the lessons, the vocabulary doesn’t really “build” as much as you’d hope, either. Throughout the entire program, Rosetta Stone basically sticks to “man, woman, boy, girl, child” as mainstay sentence subjects. Place and thing nouns recur rarely outside the first lesson or two in which they are introduced, which makes it difficult to remember useful words you’ve already supposedly learned in the beginning, like rooms in a house, articles of clothing, or types of store. For me, Rosetta Stone really started to fall apart in Level 2, when they stopped pulling out each word and defining it. By the end of 2.1 I was so confused by the grammar, I was pretty much just continuing the lessons for exposure to new vocabulary and for the overall practice of seeing and hearing the language. In all, I think I absorbed comparatively little past Level 1.

The final problem I have with Rosetta Stone Russian, and with the program in general, is the complete lack of cultural context. Ostensibly to save money, every Rosetta Stone program is more or less identical. Regardless of the target language, the same photos and phrases are learned (I experienced regular deja vu using the Russian program two years after using the Italian one) , and the material is presented in the same order. The problem is that not all languages are identical, and a language divorced from its cultural context isn’t very meaningful. The pictures used for each Rosetta Stone program overwhelmingly revolve around the scenarios encountered by upper-middle class Westerners, which may not be applicable or appropriate at all for a given target language. Vocabulary that would be really helpful for me next semester, like the names of major Russian cities, regions, historical figures, etc. are not included. Language learning is not a Snuggie. One size definitely does not fit all.

In spite of its shortcomings, the main benefit of Rosetta Stone in my case was its ability to teach literacy in Cyrillic. Other programs neglect reading and writing in favor of conversational skills, which is only helpful in the short term. The problem with Rosetta Stone Russian is that Russian handwriting is much different from Russian typing (which is all the program, being computer-based, can support), so the “writing” exercises are kind of irrelevant. As a result I can only read typewritten or printed texts, and have to rely on workbooks to truly learn writing.

Rosetta Stone is useful because it features a regimented curriculum you can work at a little bit each day. Ultimately, however, the concept behind the method is flawed, leading to problems that accumulate the further into the program you progress. In my opinion, it does not accomplish what it promises and is definitely not worth the hundreds of dollars they charge per Level. If you can get it, er, discounted in some way, then it’s worth a try.

Strengths: literacy, variety of vocabulary, audio clips from native speakers

Weaknesses: not useful for real life conversations, confusing/time-consuming format, no cultural context

Cost: +/- $150 per Level

Pimsleur Russian:

Pimsleur is an audio-only course that focuses on introductory conversational skills as opposed to Rosetta Stone’s broad understanding of grammar. Also unlike Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur directly translates all new material into English (there are male and female Russian voices in addition to an English language narrator), which clarifies any confusion about vocabulary. By placing all the emphasis on verbal language skills, Pimsleur removes all the “distractions” that come from worrying about spelling or learning a new alphabet. The obvious drawback, however, is that you do not develop literacy in your target language.

Each lesson begins with a sample beginner conversation in the target language, and each phrase in that conversation is then broken down for you to understand and practice. Unlike in Rosetta Stone, where the material fits into a broad topic but not necessarily a specific scenario, Pimsleur’s words and phrases result in a mini-story (asking directions at a café, seeing people you know at the store, etc), which is more memorable and useful in real life.

The fact that the program constantly asks you to recall old material at random intervals (“Gradual Interval Recall”) really makes you focus and try hard to remember everything. This made learning slightly more interactive, as opposed to just passive listening. One interesting technique the program uses with long words is that it breaks them down by syllable, but has you practice pronouncing the syllables back-to-front. I found it helpful in really isolating difficult sounds instead of worrying about how they all fit together.

Pimsleur does have other shortcomings aside from lack of reading and writing, however. It is subject to issues common to audio programs in general, particularly the lack of context—it is difficult to remember phrases you learned by just repeating them without any idea of when or where you would say them in real life. Pimsleur often suggests a context (“imagine you are at a market and run into your classmate,” etc), but it is not always very strong. Many of the prompts are also in English. For example, instead of a Russian speaker simply asking you “where is the bakery?” the English narrator will ask “how do you say ‘the bakery is over there’?” As a result, you aren’t always learning to respond to Russian questions, which should be the goal. Even when the narrator slowly transitions to Russian commands (around Lesson 11), he is still usually saying “listen and repeat” instead of using conversational questions to prompt answers.

Another weakness, at least for me and probably for other younger people, is that Pimsleur was developed for the public in the 1970s, when businessmen were probably the only people who could really afford international travel. With approximately 10% of the population holding passports at the time, businessmen were the only group that would have needed to become conversant in a foreign language on short notice. The material featured in the course reflects Pimsleur’s roots, and as an undergrad, some of the context is irrelevant for me—I don’t need to talk about my husband/kids, and I don’t need as much focus on the formal “you” forms.

Strengths: useful beginner conversational skills, explains grammar, emphasis on pronunciation

Weaknesses: does not teach reading and writing, no way to “skip over” irrelevant material, can be tedious

Cost: $20 for the introductory course (8 lessons); +/- $60 for advanced levels (30 lessons each)

Mango Languages:

This language learning database is free if you are a member of an affiliated library or other institution. Mango covers quite a lot of languages, and seems to be an attempt to reconcile Rosetta and Pimsleur methods (to mixed success). The overall method and focus on basic conversations (introductions, asking where/when things are, etc.) is very similar to Pimsleur, but instead of audio files alone, the words and phrases also appear on “flashcards” so you can see the Cyrillic and work on spelling. There are no pictures as in Rosetta Stone, however.

Like Pimsleur, Mango also relies perhaps a bit too much on English-language instructions, which is an obstacle to practicing real conversational Russian. Fortunately, there is an option to turn the spastically cheery narrator off, which makes it easier to focus on the phrases. Also like Pimsleur, this program emphasizes repetition so you don’t forget old vocabulary.

While otherwise unremarkable, what sets the program apart for me is that it clarifies grammar points and provides cultural notes. In Rosetta Stone, where it took me forever to figure out patterns of gender agreement by trial and error, Mango pulled up an explanatory flashcard and the narrator told me the basics of how gender works in Russian words. The clear, concise explanation left me feeling much more confident about what I was doing. Mango, like Pimsleur, does cater to a “target audience” of tourists and study abroad students, so words like “ruble/kopeck,” “nesting doll,” and “fur hat” crop up periodically.

Strengths: good pronunciation practice, useful beginner phrases, explains grammar and some cultural context

Weaknesses: does not teach writing, not enough real dialogue

Cost: $79; or free with institutional affiliation

In conclusion, the best way to learn a language is through immersion. No, not this bullcrap. When immersion is not available to you, the next best thing is to use as many sources as possible, as consistently as possible. If one source begins to confuse you or you hit a roadblock, another source may offer insight. Make sure that you know what your priorities are from the outset, so you know how to allocate your time. Based on your personal needs, is it more important to be conversational, or should you focus on reading and writing? The most difficult lesson to learn, at least for me, is not to be shy around native speakers. We’ll see how that goes in a few недели…

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Really, Russia? Come on, get it together…

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This square in the Republic of Georgia is a solid representation of how the manipulation of public space can express political and psychological control, something that Russian rulers throughout history knew well. Here we see the evolution from 19th century Yerevan Square (when an Armenian majority and socioeconomic elite dominated Tbilisi), to 20th century Lenin Square (changed after Bolshevik annexation), to 21st century Freedom Square (a symbol of the new administration that seeks to distance itself from Russian authoritarianism and integrate with the democratic West).

Yerevan-Lenin-Freedom Evolution

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Is it sad that my first real-world application of Russian was to find streaming episodes of “Daria”?


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Considering the Republic of Georgia has been my minor obsession and travel destination of choice since 2009, many people are confused by my decision to study abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia in spring semester 2011 (by which I mean, those people who aren’t already part of the many confused by my decision to study Georgia in the first place). To answer this will involve playing the historic preservationist’s ace-in-the-hole: the concept of “context.”


Context (n) the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood or assessed.


At the height of their power, both 19th century imperial Russia and the 20th century Soviet Union controlled a landmass over twice the size of the United States, spanning two continents and hundreds of ethnic groups. Several of those ethnic groups are today known as Georgians, residents of the comparatively tiny yet diverse country separated from Russia by the Greater Caucasus Mountains, on which I have chosen to focus my more or less healthy degree of attention. This was a frontier land of great natural beauty romanticized by Russian artists like Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Rachmaninoff, in a way not entirely dissimilar to the idealization of the American “Old West.” Although Georgia’s troubled relationship with Russia did not properly begin until the 18th century, today it is primarily recognized by and discussed in terms of its relationship with Soviet Russia.Contemporary Georgia is carving out an increasingly pro-Western, anti-Russian identity that was exacerbated by the 2008 Russo-Georgian war.


The Soviet past has largely been rejected by the post-independence generation. Today’s Georgians often seek to define their identity by means of opposition to the socialist ideals imposed by Russian Bolsheviks nearly a century ago. During my first visit to Georgia exactly two years after the war, I encountered significant local hostility against Russians—occasionally directed at me, for my “Slavic” appearance.

These experiences made me curious about how the Russians themselves feel about the social and political legacy of the Soviet regime, which was a product of their own country’s autocratic heritage. Georgians feel comfortable in rejecting Soviet culture because they see it as a hegemonic institution imposed on them by an alien force. Do Russians too feel that they can reject a set of values when it actually originated in their own homeland? I came to the conclusion that studying abroad in Russia would probably be more useful in answering my questions than hours in the library. A country so physically and historically vast needs to be experienced in person.


The AIFS program in St. Petersburgwas an ideal choice for both my short-term questions and long-term career goals. St. Petersburg (formerly Petrograd and Leningrad) was designed to be Russia’s “window to the West,” and as such, its historically liberal atmosphere was conducive to its role as the site of the Socialist Revolution’s origins. In order to continue my studies of Eastern Europe on a professional level, an understanding of Russia’s undeniable political, cultural, social, and economic influences is necessary to provide context for the current state of affairs in the entire region. Knowledge of Russian language will also open up significant bodies of scholarly research, as most former members of the USSR (spanning Central Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe) continue to publish in Russian. I hope that my experience abroad will enable me to enrich my research with new perspectives, and articulately combat prejudices and clarify misconceptions about Russian culture and society.


AIFS mostly sold me on its“excursions”. While I think it’s important for study abroad students to stay in one place and come to terms with day-to-day life in another country (unlike Semester at Sea, which basically trains students to be future cruise ship tourists, isolated from local communities and deep learning experiences), it’s undeniably beneficial to visit more than just one place. I don’t think I could understand the plurality of Russian society based on St. Petersburg alone any more than I could expect a foreigner to understand America based on just one major city.


I am also looking forward to the potential of a homestay, although AIFS goes to great lengths to make it clear that these are in limited supply and many students will be placed in an “international dorm.” As fun as the weird, postmodern hippie-trail culture based on transience and shared resources that grows up around hostels and dorms is, I’m not convinced that it’s the best way to 1.) meet locals of different age groups and backgrounds or 2.) experience daily life in an actual Russian household. The level of freedom, privacy, and access to utilities may be different from that of a dorm-style arrangement, but living with my Georgian friend’s family a few years ago instead of a more convenient downtown hostel enabled me to witness three generations (each one raised with different norms and education) negotiating daily life in a rapidly-changing, newly-independent country. Curiously, however, AIFS”students are usually placed with a single woman, often a widow without family at home or a divorced mother with one or more children,” which will kind of skew the perspective a bit. But as they say in Soviet Russia, or at least Mel Brooks movies about Soviet Russia “hope for the best, expect the worst.”


Based on my previous experiences though, I can’t overemphasize getting to know people of different ages, social classes, and ethnicities abroad, and I want that for myself next semester. The image a country would like to present to the world is never representative of the complexities on the ground. Not only is Georgia unique from Russia (which only ruled Georgia for a comparatively short period in its long history), but “Georgia” encompasses many culturally distinct regions and groups, from Svan mountain shepherds to urban gypsies. By living with a family and being attentive to local diversity when I go to Russia, I think I’ll get a richer understanding of the complexities of at least St. Petersburg.


Blogs are delightfully pretentious, and I hope mine serves the following three purposes well: 1.) assuring concerned friends and relatives that I am not working on a gulag in Siberia, 2.) showing people how clever I am by making pithy observations about life abroad, and most importantly 3.) letting readers come away knowing a bit more about St. Petersburg than when they first opened this page.


Until then: time to work on thesis, harass the registrar, and pay a seemingly endless list of fees…

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