One of the great things about learning languages is that it’s a way of discovering the world. Of course, we create our own language worlds and we do that by finding things of interest, at least I do, whether it be in libraries on the internet or elsewhere. Through our own language world we discover things about the wider world. When I wrote my book on language learning, I referenced Zhuangzi and Taoist philosophy, and it was Laozi who said: ‘Without stirring abroad, One can know the whole world; Without looking out of the window, One can see the way of heaven.” We have this tremendous ability to learn about so many things today without going very far.
Another thing that I firmly believe is that culture or language is not in any way associated with our genes or DNA, so language doesn’t equal some kind of ethnic division necessarily. Often it matches, but it doesn’t have to match.
If we look at a map of the world we see this area north of the Black Sea, this vast area of steppe land where the Proto-Slavic people apparently originated from. Today, we have a variety of Slavic languages and they differ from each other because of the different historical influences that affected their development.
The most popularly spoken Slavic languages are Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian in the east, Polish, Czech and Slovakian in the west and then the the languages of the former Yugoslavia in the south: Serbo-Croat, Slovenian, Macedonian, and also Bulgarian.
I studied Russian first and I would recommend that because Slavic language speakers are a large group of people, and the Russian speakers are the largest group. Geographically, they inhabit most of Russia, and it’s not just the ethnic Russians who are Russian speakers. Russian is sort of a lingua franca in Central Asia and other countries of the former Tsarist Empire or the Soviet Union. So it covers all of that area and even right into Eastern Europe.
I started learning Russian 10 years ago because that was the most popular of the Slavic languages. I had also been exposed to Russian literature as a teenager and wanted to read those books in the original language. Then with the development of the Ukrainian crisis, I started watching Ukrainian television and couldn’t understand what the Ukrainians were saying, only what the Russians were saying. Yet, it sounded so similar I felt as if I should understand it. There were words there that were similar, but I just didn’t quite get the gist of what they were saying.
This gets back to this idea that you can’t just have a few words. Some people say if you have a thousand words you understand 70% of any context. But, in fact, that is never true. Very often the key words are just those words that you don’t understand, so I started learning Ukrainian. I actually learned Czech before Ukrainian because my parents were born in what became Czechoslovakia. I never understood any of it and I figured with Russian it would be easier. Well, it is easier. In fact the grammar of the Slavic languages that I have studied is remarkably similar.
There are minor differences between Polish, Russian, Ukrainian and so forth, but they are remarkably similar in terms of grammar. Their grammars are at least as similar as the grammars of French, Spanish and Italian. So they’re grammatically very similar; however, quite different when it comes to vocabulary; more different than Spanish is from Italian or from French. In a way, in terms of vocabulary, the sort of outlier, the one with the largest lexical difference or distance seems to be Russian. In other words, I found that Czech, Polish and Ukrainian in terms of their vocabulary were closer together. Although perhaps grammatically Ukrainian is closer to Russian, and certainly in the writing system they use. It is, in fact, a form of Cyrillic.
The reasons for this, of course, are all historical. There was nothing that said over a thousand years ago when the early Slavs were breaking up wherever they were that there would be these divisions that we have today. There were influences like the Orthodox Church and Church Slavonic. There was the impact of the Mongol invasions, which meant that the original eastern Slavic nation built around Kiev, Kievan Rus’, split up and so you had Muscovy up north. Then the southern part of the Kievan Rus’ was increasingly under the influence of Poland or the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, and so they developed more as part of that political entity. In fact, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had a lot more Ukrainians and Belarusians in it than Lithuanians. The Lithuanians were not numerous and the Lithuanian leadership gradually spoke more and more Polish as it became the dominant language.
The Poles, as is often the case with societies where you have more than one language group, became quite intolerant in their approach to the Orthodox Ukrainians. That’s why at some point a portion of the Ukrainian Cossacks under the leadership of Khmelnitsky, I believe, broke away and went off to seek help from the Russians.
Over time, as part of the Ukraine came under Russian control, of course, now the Russians were less tolerant of the Ukrainians so they tried to suppress the Ukrainian language. Similarly, between the Czechs and the Poles there were a lot of kings that were common to Poland, Czech Lands and Moravia. In fact, going back a thousand years there was even a greater Moravia. Then in those lands you had the German immigrants. So lots of different influences, including the influence of the Catholic Church as the Poles and the Czechs became part of the Catholic world.
All of these things influenced the language. However, as a learner, if I were to learn those languages I would go in the following order: I would learn Russian first because it’s the biggest, biggest in terms of number of speakers, biggest in terms of, rightly or wrongly, the extent to which their writers are celebrated around the world. They’re more famous than Polish, Czech or Ukrainian writers. This might be a prejudice on my part, but I would start with Russian. With that, you’ll get the basics of how the grammar works. Although, certain minor things are different and, of course, the endings are completely different, but the principles under which these languages operate are more or less the same. Then with each language you have to learn the vocabulary of that language.
Fortunately, for each one of those four languages I have found ample resources via the internet, whether it be audiobooks and eBooks for Russian. There’s an abundance of books that you can download and import into LingQ. As I’ve said many times, I’ve found Ekho Moskvy a phenomenal resource because every day there are interviews with transcripts put up. With Czech I’ve found this history series Toulky českou minulostí and the political podcast Jak to vidí. Unfortunately, they no longer publish the transcripts for that, but that was very helpful to me. You can find eBooks and audiobooks for Czech. Similarly, with Polish I was able to find eBooks and audiobooks.
I haven’t had the same success with finding Ukrainian eBooks and audiobooks because wherever you search it’s all basically this is free, that is free. I’m not that interested in free, I’m happy to pay for a decent eBook or audiobook. So with Ukrainian I rely largely on Hromadske Radio, which is a very interesting source of podcasts daily on events in Ukraine, both in Russian and Ukrainian, and Radio Svoboda where often they will have texts with audio.
So there are resources on the internet for those languages, and as you discover them you discover this Slavic world and there are certain characteristics in common. I was asked whether I found that there were these similarities between Slavic peoples and I must say that I find that there are some, but more than that it depends on individual people. There are the sort of intellectuals who are more worldly. There are those that are more stridently “we are the best”. There’s a whole range and I think that’s probably true for most cultures.
So I am very happy that I went after four languages within the Slavic collection of languages and I may go after Serbo-Croatian, particularly if I decide to go there on holiday. Similarly, I have my group of romance languages and it’s fun to explore the differences between Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French and so forth. Of course Romanian as a bit of an outlier. The Germanic languages, between my Swedish, my English, my German and from the little bit of Dutch that I’ve looked at I don’t think it would be difficult to learn.
All I can say is it’s fun to explore these different language families. Over the course of history, different people who spoke one language were converted into speakers of another language. So there’s really no connection between genetics, genetic code or anything in language. It’s more a matter of circumstance in history, and exploring these languages is a great way to explore what we are as human beings.
I should say, also, on my Asian-language side obviously Chinese, or Mandarin, was a good base for Japanese and Korean, even though those languages – though they borrowed a lot of vocabulary from Chinese – are part of a different language family.