s Thoughts from the Physics Chick: French or Russian?

Friday, April 14, 2006

French or Russian?

Or German or Welsh? (Or Chinese?)

I’d like to be working on a foreign language right now. Actually, I’d like to work on a lot of things, but improving my linguistic skills would be useful both from the perspective of intellectual satisfaction and of professional development. I’m at a point in several languages (German, Russian and Welsh) where I’ve got a good handle on the basic grammar, and what I really need to do is to expand my vocabulary and improve my reading comprehension. My French vocabulary is good enough that I can read comfortably, but I could still stand to improve it, and there’s plenty of good French literature out there I haven’t even touched (which is particularly embarrassing for someone with a degree in French literature). My Chinese comprehension is well behind my comprehension in other languages, but the nature of Chinese is such that even looking up a character in the dictionary can be a great linguistic adventure, and I could definitely stand some practice in looking up radicals and taking characters apart. (And then I could further said adventures by going to zhongwen.com and looking up related and root characters!)

My point, in all of this, is that I’m in a position in each of these languages to significantly improve my abilities by doing some daily reading and studying. The question is: which one?

I have to point out, before I get any further, that this is not just a pipe dream and I actually have done this in the past. Eighteen months ago, I spent over a month plugging diligently away on a Russian article, working on it for at least an hour a day. (The fact that I was doing on-site work at a library in Alabama and had nothing to do with my evenings in my hotel may have had something to do with this.) Before that, I spent the summer between Russian 102 and 201 going over case endings and verb conjugations every day. (A miserable second year of German had taught me that I really did need to put the grammar memorization time in, and not just try to fly by the seat of my pants.) However, my most recent attempt (last semester) was a bit less successful. Last semester I was supposed to work on Chinese. I got as far as half of one sentence of the Chinese version of an iconic English book (“Hali Pota”).

So, here are the candidates for a semester or a summer of free-time language study (such as that may turn out to be):

Chinese: There are a number of Chinese students in my program, so I encounter the language a lot and often wish I could understand more than I can. Plus, this is my newest language, so (fickle polyglot that I am) it’s the one that I’m still the most excited about. (Plus, how cool would it be to watch Chinese martial arts movies without the subtitles?)

French: I have a very nice copy of Les Misérables on my bookshelf that I’ve never gotten all the way through. Not that it’s so hard (Hugo is surprisingly accessible), but there’s just a lot of it, and the 19th century vocabulary got in the way of my reading comprehension. But there are plenty of French writers that I love and whose work I feel I should read more of: Balzac, Hugo, Camus, Sartre, Tocqueville . . .

German: This is the language about which I am currently most apathetic. It’s also the language I encounter the most in my daily activity, because about a third of the books I’m cataloging are in German and I attend a biweekly librarian lunch where we speak German, so I have the opportunity to humiliate myself in the language twice a month. (I have a feeble desire to convince the others that really, I could speak much better if I cared at all.) Adding to my great apathy is the fact that I don’t really like any German writers, except maybe Hesse and sort of Brecht.

Russian: This is the language I most want to study, in part because of the literature (there’s still Tolstoy and Pushkin, even if it turns out I don’t like Dostoyevsky), and in part because I have a sneaking suspicion that Melyngoch will be called to serve a Russian-speaking mission, and I’m not going to let her get better than me if I can help it! (That’s a very mature attitude, right?)

Welsh: This is probably the coolest language I’ve ever studied. Not that it holds a candle to Russian or Chinese in terms of difficulty, but it’s just so random. Plus, I could translate Wikipedia articles into Welsh, which seems vaguely like it would amount to an actual contribution to society.

Opinions? Votes?


At April 14, 2006 6:28 PM, Blogger bawb said...

I vote Chinese. Mostly because I'd enjoy "Guess what? The fifth radical in this random chinese character means THIS! Hah!" blog entries.

At April 14, 2006 6:47 PM, Blogger Katya said...

Oh, and I also forgot that Chinese lets you read random people's tattoos.

At April 14, 2006 8:33 PM, Blogger Master Fob said...

French because it's the only one on your list that I sort of once knew.

At April 14, 2006 10:14 PM, Blogger Logan said...

This dialogue was brought to mind:

Andie MacDowell: ... believe it or not I studied nineteenth-century French poetry.

Bill Murray: *snort/laugh* What a waste of time! ... uh, I mean, for anyone else it would be an incredible waste of time ... it's so bold of you that you'd pick that ...

Yeah, I'm a jerk for automatically thinking such things about French. Seriously though, Chinese is the coolest. Although I thought most of the classic martial arts movies were in Cantonese, and aren't you studying Mandarin?

My ranking is Chinese, Russian, Welsh, German, French.

At April 14, 2006 10:22 PM, Blogger Th. said...


The only ones I've studies are French and Chinese and I have to say that I still love looking up things in my Chinese dictionary more than just about any other reference book I own, it's just so....foreign

At April 15, 2006 11:44 AM, Anonymous Ben Crowder said...

I vote for Russian or Welsh. Russian because of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, basically. No experience there, but it'd be pretty sweet to read War and Peace in the original.

Welsh is quite cool, and there are shelves upon shelves of Welsh books on the fifth floor of the library. And fewer people know it, so you get more "Wow, you're the first person I've met who knows that language" comments. :)

At April 15, 2006 11:50 AM, Blogger Katya said...

Logan -

"La fille que j'aimera
Sera comme bon vin
Qui se bonifiera
Un peux chaque matin"

(The poem that Bill Murray ends up quoting.)

You're probably right about the classic martial arts movies. I was thinking more along the lines of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Hero and House of Flying Daggers. I don't know that I want to try and do Chinese again this semester, though. I think I need a break from insanely hard logographic languages.

At April 15, 2006 6:31 PM, Anonymous Squirrel Boy said...

The world needs more Welsh speakers.

At April 17, 2006 2:37 AM, Blogger la bamba said...

Chinese...only because you mentioned that bit about martial arts movies and I happen to be learning a language because of movies as well. Tee hee.

At April 17, 2006 9:50 AM, Blogger Saule Cogneur said...

As you know, I have a love for all things francaises. However, the only one of those languages that anyone cares about now is Chinese. Knowing an Asian language gives you a serious advantages in many different employmnts. It can get you more government jobs than any other language but maybe Arabic.

Why work for the government? A good question for another blog entry.

At April 17, 2006 10:40 AM, Blogger Melyngoch said...

Well, Russian, obviously, but I'm confused. I'll be studying Latin this summer, but I don't see it on your list.

At April 17, 2006 9:06 PM, Blogger ambrosia ananas said...

Welsh for its coolness factor. Though SC makes a good point.

At April 18, 2006 11:15 AM, Blogger Optimistic. said...

Chinese would be cool, but mostly so you could show off your knowledge of the characters to everyone. The only trick with that is that it would take forever to be able to learn enough characters to be impressive. Trust me - I've spent years studying Japanese, and I'm only just now getting to the point where my kanji knowledge looks cool.

I'm still all about Russian, but that's because we could be Russian buddies. (fist pump)


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