Saturday, December 21, 2013

Ukrainian is NOT Russian -- but it's more similar than English

Suddenly I (Kevin) find myself needing to speak and understand Russian. It's no small thing as I've read (and my experience confirms) that less than 5% of the Kazakhstan population speaks English well. Some of the most basic tasks have become remarkably challenging without verbal communication. For example, try to tell the landlady that the new dishwasher has been foolishly connected to the cold rather than hot water line. (She ended up calling an electrician instead of a plumber.)

To avoid just this situation, I've gathered a number of materials to study Russian before leaving the US. Russian -- that's the obvious choice by the way. While Kazakh is the official language of Kazakhstan, only about 60% of the population speaks it. Russian is almost universally spoken, especially in the capital city Astana and it is considered a semi-official language by the government. The country's ties to the former Soviet Union die hard and there is apparently concern that a Kazakh-only Kazakhstan will result in the loss of the ethnic Russian population that includes a disproportionate number of the country's technical talent.

Now I just need to spend more time reading, memorizing and practicing some fundamental words and phrases. Robyn is convinced that I have a natural talent for this stuff, but I'm not so sure. Firstly, I have enough Mandarin crammed in my brain that I reflexively want to spit out Chinese when I'm surrounded by Asians that don't speak English. (That only worked once here when we had dinner at a Chinese restaurant.) And honestly, so far I haven't tried very hard.

All four of my grandparents grew up speaking Ukrainian, a language the linguists consider a close relative of Russian, and both my mom and dad spoke or heard enough of it as children to speak it with their parents or at home when they didn't want me or my siblings to know what they were talking about. When I was young, probably six years old, my grandmother started taking me to a Saturday Ukrainian school, perhaps with the idea that I would be fluent in no time. Well things didn't go quite as planned. I found myself stuck for hours with kids that spoke Ukrainian fluently and didn't want anything to do with the kid that only spoke English. I complained often and loud enough that my grandmother finally stopped taking me. The point is that while I don't speak Ukrainian, over my lifetime I've seen more than the average American does of the Cyrillic alphabet and heard the shch, rolled r's and guttural h sounds common to both of these Eastern Slavonic languages. And is that a blessing or a curse? Perhaps a little of each. I've found myself using the occasional Ukrainian word here because it was more likely to work than English and sometimes it has -- especially at the deli counter. ;-P  Other times the different pronunciation or stress in Russian for even similar words leaves me looking at blank stares. And of course, most of the time I just can't say anything.

That's my welcome to Kazakhstan. Robyn, let's start learning Russian.

Any advice from the Russian speakers out there? 

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