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Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Impending Language Barrier

When Scott and I tell people we're moving to Kazakhstan for work, people often ask about the language there.  They ask which language is spoken, whether either of us currently speaks it, and how we plan to work over there without speaking it.

Kazakh and Russian are both spoken in Kazakhstan.  It is unclear to us right now which one is more useful.  We don't speak either of those languages.  We have started trying to learn some Russian (largely because there seem to be more materials available to learn Russian than Kazakh).  We don't actually need to speak either Russian or Kazakh for work because we will be working in an English-speaking environment.

I like foreign languages.  I spent years studying Arabic and Spanish, and Arabic has become the cornerstone of my professional life.  I also briefly studied Portuguese and Hebrew.  That being said, however, I never expected to study another foreign language at this point in my life, particularly one that is so different from English.  I don't think one can ever learn all there is to know about one's own native language, much less a language one has learned as an adult.  Maintaining and learning new things about Arabic takes up a good portion of my mental energy already.  I also never had any particular interest in learning either Russian or Kazakh before this job opportunity arose.

But...we don't want to be those Americans who go overseas and rely exclusively on English.  And even if we didn't mind living up the negative stereotype, there are times when you really do need to know at least a little of the local language to get from point A to point B.

So, we purchased Russian Rosetta Stone a few months ago.  It was expensive--for us, at least--but we were under the impression that it would be good.  Maybe it gets better, but I can't say I'm impressed so far. The premise of the program is that it shows you pictures and plays audio of words of phrases.  It does this without providing any explanations, and I guess we're supposed to just intuit the grammar involved.  So, we've learned how to say really useful phrases, like "red fish," and "He's buying a hat".  The worst part was when we learned how to say "I'm a man," and "I'm a woman".  There are only a handful of scenarios in which I can imagine needing to explain to someone that I'm a woman, and none of them are good.  All of them are ones I plan to avoid.

We've decided that next time we sit down for a Russian lesson, we'll try the CD that came with our
"Russian for Dummies" book, in the hope that it will teach us immediately useful phrases like, "thank you," and "where's the bathroom?".  We also have a textbook that a Russian-speaking friend recommended, but it looks like it may a little too advanced to be useful right away.  We'll probably try that out once we have some of the basics down.  In the short term, I'm bracing myself for moments of complete confusion as we try to understand what is being said around us.


  1. udacha! Good luck! I'm jealous of your opportunity to learn two languages in one place. Not sure I'm jealous of the location, but maybe. I hope you have a spare room for our impending visit!

    1. Yay for the comment and the impending visit! We still haven't heard much about our future apartment, but we should know about the room situation once we get there, if not before. :)

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