Tuesday, January 25, 2011


While I procrastinate some more and avoid translating next week's text for my Russian translation class (I'll do that tomorrow anyway) and also avoid lying down on the couch to continue reading Amy Chua's World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability (not because it isn't interesting, it's very interesting, but I am afraid of falling asleep at this time of the day) I thought I'd write a little bit more about studying languages at university.

Visit any language forum and people will be telling you that there's no point in wasting your time at university; you can learn a language much faster by yourself. And I completely agree. For those lucky few who have some self-discipline and some motivation, languages are best learned outside the dusty walls of academia. For those lacking self-discipline, a university may be helpful, but if you also lack motivation, I think we can safely say that you will never be fluent anyway. This is not always the issue though. If you somehow want to use your language professionally, you are most likely going to need a degree of some sort in order to "prove" that you actually know the language in question. This makes things even more funny since anyone who has studied a language at university should know that, for example, a bachelor's degree in Russian doesn't mean crap. Especially if you study at the University of Oslo. I can very safely say that no one without prior knowledge of Russian can show up at the university one day and graduate three years later with 80 Norwegian credits in Russian - and claim to be fluent. Certainly they will have knowledge of Russian, but at the present time I even doubt you could say those people would be able to read a book in Russian. Now, here it is very important to note that you don't spend all those three years studying Russian. Actual Russian studies only make up half that time. And who, besides some remarkable exceptions, ever learned Russian to fluency in 1 1/2 year?

Now, we don't have to demand fluency from these kind of studies. Perhaps we can hope that something resembling fluency will show up after a Masters degree, but after a Bachelor's degree you would think students would be able to at least feel a bit comfortable using the language. Right? There's no point in comparing these kind of language studies with those that are preceded by high school language classes (usually French, Spanish, Italian, German), since a person with the same amount of credits in any of those languages should actually be able to call himself or herself rather fluent. But those are easy languages, and students usually have more experience with them, no matter how useless high school language learning is. The question is then - how do you get comfortable with a language you never use?

In between beers the other night at a student pub, a fellow student of Russian said that the grammar class we are now taking is actually mostly a class that enables us to study more. More than anything else, it's a preparation for Master studies. Is that what language studies at university should be all about? Study in order to study more? Personally, I'm not against it since my interest in Russian is rather academic and I am going to pursue my studies at higher and higher levels, but I don't think the solution is optimal for the majority of students. Several students in our group (the same group that went to St. Petersburg, so we all know each other) have pointed out that the Russian classes this semester are more or less suited for me and another student in the group, who is very interested in grammar. That's 2 out of 15. The students who want to learn to speak Russian are not thrilled (one friend simply changed major to area studies instead). Certainly, all sorts of grammar study is somehow useful, and this semester we are going to write academic papers on smaller grammatical features of the Russian language. I get the feeling we mostly do this in order to learn to write about grammar; how to use the correct methodology and the correct tools. For academics it's brilliant, but how practical is it? When you go to a university to study a language, you do expect to learn that language. The "dry" grammar nerdery is balanced with a heavy dose of translation exercises, and that, combined with the fact that our translation teacher is actually Russian and speaks Russian to us helps a lot - especially since we have no oral part. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the other Russian class of the semester is a class on Slavic language history. Perhaps I should repeat, just for emphasis, that the University of Oslo offers no actual Russian speaking classes. Ever. (I think). You get one in St Petersburg, but that's it, 3 months.

Let's compare the 2nd semester Russian classes of some universities (without preparation classes, so 3rd semester at Uni of Oslo). One semester is 30p.
Uni. of Oslo (St Petersburg semester) - Theoretical Russian grammar - 10p, Russian translation & Spoken Russian - 10p, Practical Russian Grammar - 10p (or Russian politics 10p)
Uni. of Oslo (in Oslo) - Russian grammar II - 10p, Russian translation and language use - 10p
Uni. of Umeå - Russian grammar 8p, Russian text 8p, Oral and written Russian 6p, Russian literature 6p, Russian society 4p
Uni. of Stockholm - Syntax and written Russian (incl. translation) 6p, Oral Russian 3p, Russian history of literature and literature 3p (this includes reading 5 books in Swedish and extracts in Russian), "Lecture" - on research and debate on the subject (doesn't count in points), Fiction and Non-Fiction and individual task, including translation and oral presentation 8p

Somehow I feel that Oslo's version is not really optimal (Stockholm's and Umeå's kind of make me want to change country again though). Shouldn't there be some sort of option for those who want to develop more practical skills, versus those who plan on staying at university and who need to be more... academically competent? You can speak perfectly fine Russian without being able to write dissertations on aspect and without being able to write three pages on the formation of the imperative. Conversely, you can be able to write those fancy papers without actually being able to hold a normal conversation in Russian. The idea is most likely that you are supposed to acquire those practical skills after you have perfected the theoretical part, but that forces people to stay ages at university. You could perhaps think that the solution is to go to Russia. But nah. You only get to go to Russia at the Master's level if you study Russian area studies, not if you study language. And you have to pay some serious tuition fees.

Well, that being said, I am applying for the Masters program in the fall, and I think this spring's classes will be the most interesting ever, but then I am not really the average Russian student either. Now I have some books to read, some (absolutely perfect) biscotti to put in jars and an apartment to clean, before I go to this semester's first class on Russian literature.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Polyphasic sleep.

Now, this is not something I would try myself. First of all, I am way too fond of sleeping and you have to have very much control over your daily routine in order to be able to follow an unconventional sleep pattern. But it's very interesting to read about other people who try it and I'm very much looking forward to seeing what happens when more time has passed. Read more about it on these two blogs:

Judith's language learning blog

Language fixation

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Carrying a Secret in My Heart.

I just finished reading Carrying a Secret in My Heart, and thought I should post some quotes here. I always enjoy saving quotes, because reading them one year later is always a fun reminder of what I liked about a certain book. However, I have realized that when I write down quotes on old-fashioned pieces of paper I just lose them ;)

I chose a couple of quotes from the chapter dealing with the 1956 revolutionaries' children's opinions of their father's actions and of the return from prison. All of the interviewed children have fathers that were either thrown in prison as a consequence of their participation in the events or by being there by accident, or who were executed. The women who participated were either too young to have children or too old, and very few were executed.

"I cannot feed proud about it because such pride involves spending 10 or 15 years in prison for the ideal of 1956 and getting away with it. But what can I say? I lost my father, and my mother had to suffer twice as much as other women. That's really something to be proud of!" (Ferenc Z.)

"After I learned that my father had been executed I was really ashamed. If he had been executed he must have committed some horrendous crime. If someone is given a sentence like that, he must be guilty or something terrible. Even later on I didn't see him as a hero or as someone who had changed history, but as someone who had abandoned his family." (Katalin Földesi)

"There was a photograph of my father on the desk, but it only showed his face. And when my grandmother said that if daddy came home he would teach me to ride a bicycle and to swim I suddenly burst out crying: 'How will he play with me when he hasn't got any legs?'" (Krisztina Lukách)

"When we went on holiday I spent the whole time sitting on a tree waiting for my father. I became a past master at waiting. But no one could tell me when he would come back. Nor did they realize that they should have told me that we would be informed in advance when he was coming back. They should have said something at least to stop me being permanently on the lookout for him." (Zsuzsa Mérei)

"I remember being afraid when we talked about him coming home. I was apprehensive, partly because we got along so well at home and partly because I have come across many bad fathers. Another reason was that in the end I had no idea what kind of person daddy was. Of course, mom always loved talking about him and it was clear that she loved him a great deal and wanted him home. But in reality I still didn't know what kind of man he was. I was afraid that someone would somehow upset my world. Mom, for example, never smacked me. As far as I knew fathers smacked their children. I was afraid that a man would come who would start hitting me. But it soon turned out that he was a really nice bloke." (Péter Zsámboki)

"My mom's nerves gave out completely. She cried all the time and it was very hard for us. Then she got all kinds of illnesses and had some serious operations. The doctor said it was all due to her nerves. She suffered a great deal. She was always afraid and always sick and we were always having to run to the phone to call the doctor. On many occasions when mom was in hospital we three children were left alone and I had to look after the little ones. Then I got an ulcer and I was taken to hospital several times." (Jószef Andi)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Guilty pleasures.

So, yesterday I rendered myself even more of an invalid than I already was to begin with when I smashed my elbow in the stairs. Rather dramatic actually, and since I am now extremely reduced as to what I can do around the house (no making of the bed, no cooking, no vacuuming, no nothing really), I have much more time for reading. Possible fracture. My first ever! I'm so proud. And I'm very happy I have got Dragon NaturallySpeaking :-)

But anyway, this is an excellent excuse to indulge in guilty pleasures. I love guilty pleasures, and I love people who can fess up to them. My guilty pleasure when it comes to TV series is Bones. I don't actually think the series is any good, but it's amusing to watch and I like the main character. For music, I like German techno. For books, and I rarely indulge in guilty pleasure books I must say since I always have so many other things to read, I've got the True Blood series.

I'm not really sure what the adequate English term for this kind of literature is, but the friend who lent me the books (asserting that they were much more dirty than the TV series) appropriately named them "housewife porn", the Norwegian term for this kind of books. And that's exactly what it is. The style of the books is rather annoying, and just like American TV series the author constantly repeats the same things, as if the reader would have forgotten them after already having read them five times... There are also some annoying comments about Americans and American character, and some stuff that is just plain stupid. But reading the books is fun. The TV series is actually a bit boring in comparison - you could say it's the kid version, where the main character is much more virtuous and gullible. She gets saved a lot in the TV series. In the books, she saves herself.

Guilty pleasure books are excellent for language learning, and I really regret not having these books in either Russian or Hungarian.

But without further ado, I will continue on book 5.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Sofi Oksanen.

It's week number three and I have finished book number three. I'm pleased to say that it's another good one! My expectations were rather high, and I did actually think that it would be more of the kind of book you can't put down (my mother said something of the kind, but that just shows that I'm harder to please than her) so from that point of view I was a bit disappointed, but the book is so skillfully written that it makes up for it.

The story in this book takes place in the 1940s and 50s in Estonia, as well as in 1992. You follow the Estonian girl Aliide and her sister Ingel (who is the beautiful one, the successful one, the desirable one) when the Germans and then the Communists arrive, and at the same time, interlaced with the story of Aliide's sad youth, you follow Zara, a victim of trafficking and prostitution who, bruised and afraid, ends up on Aliide's lawn in 1992, after escaping from her pimp. It's a rater complex story. Zara is, as a matter of fact, Aliide's sister's granddaughter, who has grown up in Russia. It's not a coincidence that she ends up in Aliide's village, but she didn't exactly get there the way she planned. Aliide's relation to her own sister is not what it should be though, and Zara, in dire need of help, is not really certain if it's a good idea to actually enlighten Aliide on her identity. For some reason, Aliide has no sister, and Zara's mother has no aunt... But she knows that she has little time, that soon she will be found and there will be no more escape.

Aliide is a fascinating character. It's hard to dislike her, even though she is not at all sympathetic. She's obsessive and she smells of onions. She is oddly hard, certainly not afraid of the young men who come to throw rocks at her windows and who she is certain will one day burn down her house. She is the victim of rape and abuse at the hands of the Communists, but she looks down on other women in her own situation and cannot bear the idea that her shame should be made known, so she becomes one of them - the Communists. Her own jealousy towards her sister has driven her to commit acts that should really trouble someone's conscience for the rest of their life, but she seems oddly untouched by it. And she has the impulse to beat people rather often. If I'm not mistaken she imagines beating one man until his intestines are all mush.

In a way you could say that this is a book about betrayal and lack of love that slowly breaks down people and turns them into something they were not originally meant to be.

Rekindling dead interest.

What are you supposed to do when you fall off the motivational wagon? Or when you just get out of the habit of doing something? Up until now, this hadn't happened to me in a very long time because I have always had rather strict habits, but three months of breaking those habits had certain effects. So what to do?

The other day I had a friend over for a visit. She is very interested in things connected to politics and knows more than the average person about many odd countries, so I asked her how she goes about to acquire this knowledge. It's not really obvious (besides Wikipedia) to know where to start when you all of a sudden want to read up on... Turkmenistan. She said that along with factual texts and books, she also explores literary productions from the country in question in order to get more of a feel for things. Of course, this is a person who probably reads faster than anyone I know, and when you do that, this approach is not that time-consuming, but as long as you have free time what's the problem?

It is not the first time this idea strikes me, but it kind of felt like a revelation to be reminded of it. Novels are an excellent way to get loosely acquainted with history and this is one of those instances when I think you should not underestimate the use of literature (you know all those people who ask what good literature can do?). When you read a fictional book about something it usually gets an emotional hold on you, more than any nonfictional book ever could, and when you combine it with hard facts from other sources, I think your chances of remembering things increases dramatically.

Now, I belong to that group of people who learn languages and who also want to learn things about the country the language is spoken in and its culture. For a long time, I have been wanting to read up on Hungarian history. Now that I can't really make myself study Hungarian, I thought that perhaps by reading about Hungary I could trigger the spark of motivation. At the same time, I'm studying democracy at University, so why not combine all three? Yesterday I found the book Carrying a Secret in My Heart, dealing with recollections from the children of the revolutionaries of 1956 in Hungary. If all goes according to plan, I'm going to follow this book up with another one on the development of democracy in Poland and Hungary, entitled From Elections to Democracy: Building Accountable Government in Hungary and Poland. Hungary is an extremely interesting country at the moment, but sadly I have extremely poor knowledge of what is actually going on there and the historical explanations to it. But it's not like you have to go to school to get educated! At University you get a diploma, study you can do at home ;)

Thursday, January 13, 2011

And it goes on.

It's time for a new semester at the University, and I think it is going to be a very interesting one. I have kind of agreed to try to read 52 books in 52 weeks this year, and so far I'm doing good since I have read two books, and I guess everything would have been good for the coming semester if I had only stuck to the plan of my program.

Now, in my opinion, this is probably the most interesting semester so far when it comes to Russian. Just have a look at these classes:

1. Introduction to Slavic and Russian language history
*DROOL* I know!
Reading material: a stapled book by the same name and a stapled book called "older Slavic texts", both written by the professor holding the class. In addition to this, some reading material and so on will be handed out during lectures. The University of Oslo presents a lot of its reading material in the form of stapled booklets (sometimes very big, but these two booklets are surprisingly slim), since this is cheaper than printing real books (you simply pay 1,34NOK or something like that per page). You end up with lots of ugly "books", but it's cheaper in a country where everything is extremely expensive anyway. So we can safely say that this course has not ruined me!

2. Russian grammar and translation III
Not all that exciting, I know... But this year, we actually hand in our translations and get them corrected! For me, this is sensational! Sure, we did that in Russia, but there we paid for our classes.
The reading material for this class is a horribly expensive (€96) grammar book that we bought last year and another slim booklet entitled "Russian syntax, the complex sentence". This class includes writing what corresponds to a bachelor essay on grammar.

3. Russian literature I
Everyone tells me this class is ridiculously easy and that the professor really does not want to be there. It's very basic since you can actually take it without having studied more than one semester of Russian, and you do the reading in Russian, so you go figure how much reading we will have to do... And of course, since we're talking of (mostly classic) Russian literature, anyone with any sort of connection to Russian things know that you don't go out and buy those texts. Actually, the University even provides us with links to the online texts. We're reading Pelevin as well! No books of course, just a short story.

So you see, my academic semester would have been extremely cheap and rather relaxed. That is, if I had stopped there. Since I am working towards double bachelors, I need more classes, so first I added this one:

4. Democracy, Human Rights, and Gender – Global Perspectives in Education
This is a distance class in English, and sure as hell the reading list includes like 10 books. The University of Umeå is excellent at including tons of books in small classes, but at least those books tend to be normally priced ones, as opposed to the horribly expensive ones the University of Oslo always use. Still, in my current economic situation I can't buy all those books and for the first time ever I have actually gone and borrowed them at the Library. The ones that I could find at least. I don't like doing this since I always underline and take notes in my books, but meh, what can you do. This class seems to demand a lot of work, and to be honest I'm a bit scared of it. The books do seem interesting though, and I'm going to read the first one over the weekend, Robert Dahl's "On Democracy".

Obviously that's not all. Yesterday a (fellow language enthusiast) friend came to visit to have a look at our new apartment and our new cat, and he told me that the University of Oslo offers an Icelandic introduction class this spring, so of course I'm signing up for that one with him!

I'm not signed up yet, and perhaps there will be some sort of problem with me taking the class, but I'm at least going to try to sign up for.

5. Icelandic I, introduction to modern Icelandic
Books - probably of the expensive kind :(

I am probably underestimating it, thinking it will be a breeze, but it doesn't really matter since I can always drop out of it if I have too little time. I won't be cut off from any student funding (which is already so tiny that it hardly matters) anyway since I am way beyond a full-time student. A couple of summers ago I had a fling with Icelandic for two or three months, but then I stopped, and it will be fun picking it up again. Speaking of languages I have to pick up, Hungarian and German can be found in death throes on the floor...