So to speak

The Baltimore Sun

Russians want Russian to make a comeback. They're tired of Americans who speak only English, and they're offended by Poles and Estonians who choose not to speak Russian. They want their language to get some respect, and the government has gone so far as to make 2007 the official Year of the Russian Language (the news of which has only just now reached our offices).

Boy oh boy. Russian is a beautiful and nuanced and devilish language. It sometimes bears a passing resemblance to headlinese, because it dispenses with articles (the and a) and the present tense of to be - thus, Mayor annoyed could be a precise translation of a perfectly correct Russian sentence. But foreigners who try to learn it soon discover grammatical constructions they never would have thought possible. The sounds aren't so hard, once you've gotten your tongue around a soft L as opposed to a hard L (don't ask), but the mind-bending is relentless and exhausting. Little two-letter antecedents, so easily skipped over, can color a whole sentence, if not a whole novel. Yet breakthroughs, when they come, are exhilarating.

There was a time when well-bred Russians didn't care for their own language, and taught their children French instead. Nicholas II, the last czar, generally wrote notes to his wife Alexandra in English. "My head speaks English, my heart speaks Russian and my ear speaks French," said the writer Vladimir Nabokov, born in St. Petersburg.

The Soviets put a stop to that sort of nonsense. Then they made Russian the lingua franca for an entire, if not entirely voluntary, bloc of nations. Now the bloc is gone, but the nostalgists of the resurgent Kremlin would like to restore Russian to its old place as a language that other people have to learn.

Americans, whose universities dropped Russian programs as fast as they possibly could after the fall of communism, should take them up on the suggestion - not because it's good for Russia but because it's good for those doing the learning. New languages open mental doors. And a Canadian study, cited by the American Council of Teachers of Russian, suggests that multilingual people are less susceptible to dementia as they age. So there you have it:

Learn Russian. Live longer.

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