“Do you speak Russian?”
“You don’t speak Russian?”
“What do you mean you don’t speak Russian?”
This is how the conversation goes if showing up in the former Soviet sphere without a knowledge of its bridge language. It’s just expected that you speak Russian here. From the Kamchatka Peninsula in the east to the Baltic Sea in the west, from Kazakhstan out past the Caspian to the borders of the EU, Russian is the default language. When you don’t speak this language the people here seem to have a difficult time comprehending such a reality — like someone not speaking English in the United States:
“How can you not speak Russian!?!”
Being able to communicate in English, Mandarin Chinese, and Spanish I no longer really think about language when traveling. These are the top three most spoken languages on the planet, and roughly half the people in the world can speak at least one of them. As I’ve traveled, I’ve found that this language set works to an acceptable degree of effectiveness in most places, and the times that I’ve found myself linguistically hamstrung have become few and far between. More often than not I can find someone who understands my words rather easily.
So when my friend Dmitri in Almaty commented that it must be hard for me traveling in Kazakhstan not knowing Russian I was kind of taken aback. “Yes,” I realized, “I guess it is.” I immediately became aware that my linguistic kit was not really compatible with Kazakhstan — or the rest of Central Asia for that matter. Although I knew that I could always hack it, I also knew then that it was time to begin studying Russian, and add another world language to my get up.
My next book will be on the New Silk Road, and research for it will take me coast to coast, from China to Western Europe. I have no intention of learning every language along the way, but being able to toggle through as many world languages as possible will be highly beneficial, and the middle zones of Central Asia require Russian.
While so far it has been my experience that the educated classes of researchers and professionals that I have talked with for this project tend to speak adequate English and using interpreters is part of the standard operating procedure of this profession, my books are about the people in the streets, and I would like to be able to speak with them without a formal go between as much as possible. What I’m looking for right now is not total fluency in Russian, but enough to pass through Central Asia linguistically seamlessly and to be able to make acquaintances, have conversation, and enact basic interviews to obtain the small stanzas necessary to bring life to this colossal story that’s rapidly reshaping the geopolitical structure of this era.
I’ve been studying foreign languages for the past 16 years — mostly in a live setting — and I know what I need to know, and can therefore streamline the learning process. I’ve slated a three month period for initial research and preparation for this New Silk Road book where I’ll basically be locked in a room studying, researching, writing, doing interviews, and map gazing.
I must admit that I’m also looking forward to working with a language that has an actual alphabet again . . .