Friday, February 25, 2011

Teach Yourself Russian / Ukrainian

Let's say you've planned a trip to Ukraine (or anywhere else, for that matter) and are leaving in 3 months' time. You have 1 hour a day to devote to learning a foreign language (2 if you're particularly dedicated). What do you do?

Here's what I do. First, one needs to recognize that to the following must all be acquired if you want to gain and retain for the long run a truly useful set of language skills:
  • reading skills: being able to read signs, basic instructions, etc.
  • listening comprehension: understanding much of what natives say when talking at normal speed
  • speaking skills, including decent pronunciation (even if you speak very slowly)
  • familiarity with all the basic grammar concepts
A basic, sustainable vocabulary allowing one to convey and understand most information consists of roughly 1500 words (see sample core vocabulary list for Russian). I believe it is possible to become familiar with 1500 words, how they sound, and how they are used, in 90 days while spending 1-2 hours a day. That's just 17 words a day. Here's how.

Most importantly, you'll need a high-quality language course that includes the following:
  • lessons incorporating not much less or much more than 1500 words, including the most commonly used and useful words of the language
  • explanations of all basic grammar principles of the language that don't go into excessive detail
  • at least 1 hour of audio material including complete sentences, preferably conversations and texts, spoken at near-normal speed by natives and including all vocabulary words in the course
My favorite series is the series of basic language courses for self-learners from Langenscheidt. It has all the traits mentioned and is perfectly sufficient for attaining an "advanced beginner" (without real-life speaking practice) or "lower-intermediate" (with speaking practice) level in 3 months before a trip to a foreign country. It's the standard course you want -- not the "30-day" crash course which simply doesn't contain enough vocabulary, repetition, or grammar info to provide a sustainable level of language mastery. The course has 30 lessons and comes with about 2 hours of audio exclusively in the foreign language and consisting of complete sentences and conversations or texts. There is no need to buy a dictionary or other materials along with the course.

Unfortunately, Langenscheidt's Russian course is available only in German! In Ukraine you can find many Langenscheidt course books translated into Russian or Ukrainian -- German, Spanish, French, Polish, and others. I've used a couple of these with great success and recommend them highly.

If you don't speak German, you'll need to find something similar to the Langenscheidt course with all the features I've mentioned. It shouldn't have to cost much more than $30 USD. Surely there must be some similarly structured courses out there.

How to use a language course for self-learners

If you know how to utilize courses like Langenscheidt's to your advantage, there is simply no need to pay for expensive, high-tech, newfangled language learning methodologies (I won't name names). My opinion is that such courses are for people with learning difficulties or for those who simply don't know any better. Sorry if I offended anyone!

When I use a Langenscheidt course, I start by working through the texts of the first several lessons and figuring out what they are saying. (With Russian/Ukrainian there will be the initial difficulty of learning the alphabet first, which will slow you down for a while.) I pay attention to the grammar notes and use them to help figure out the text. I don't try to memorize anything, but sometimes I make lists of conjugations or important word sets -- for instance, "I - my - mine, you - your - yours, he - his - his, she - her - hers, it - its - its, we - our - ours, you - your - yours, they - their - theirs." I basically skip the exercises till a later date when I've built up my familiarity with the sounds and the forms. Some people like exercises and are comfortable doing them from the outset.

Then, I start listening to the audio. It's important to spend at least as much time listening to the audio recordings as you do working with the textbook. Your brain needs time to digest the new sounds and learn to differentiate words from the stream of sounds. I might go through 3 lessons of the textbook, then listen to the audio for the lessons one time through without looking at the book, to see what I am able to recognize from the text. Then I might listen to the recordings a few more times while looking at the text, to see if I can pick up more of it. Finally, I'll listen to the recordings again without looking at the texts. The goal is in the end to be able to listen to all the audio for the course and understand all of it without consulting the textbook. Too often, language learners fail to focus on listening comprehension. But if you don't, you'll never get the pronunciation right and you won't understand it when people use the words that you have supposedly already learned.

The nice thing about listening is that you can do it while doing other things -- driving, jogging, walking, cleaning, etc. You don't have to understand everything for it to be useful. Generally, each time you listen to a recording you'll pick up a bit of new information whether you realize it or not.

It's important to avoid stressing while learning a foreign language (or anything else, for that matter). Stress means that much of your mental energy is being wasted as "heat" instead of being used for a useful purpose. If learning a foreign language is stressing you, there might be something more basic that you don't understand that is preventing you from understanding the new material. For this reason it is useful to study a very simple language such as Esperanto before attacking real foreign languages. Studies show that students who spent a year learning Esperanto before subsequently learning French did a lot better than those who spent the whole time learning just French (see link). Learning Esperanto first familiarized them with the basic structure of languages in general, and after that it was easier to apply what they had learned to a natural and more difficult language.

As an example of avoiding stress, I personally don't like doing exercises -- conjugating verbs, practicing declensions, translating texts, etc. So I just skip them! My focus is on learning how to say the important things I need to say. Exercises are nothing more than a tool to help achieve this, and they don't work for everyone.

Find a native -- if you can

At some point in your language learning, it can be very beneficial to meet with a native speaker to ask if you're saying things correctly and to learn some additional phrases and vocabulary that you expect to need. Language clubs -- if they exist in your city or town -- are a great way to get this added exposure.


Feel free to post questions regarding learning Russian and Ukrainian effectively on your own. Also, if anyone knows of do-it-yourself language courses like what I've described here, please post information so that others can find them.

UPDATE 2016:

I have finally decided to teach others my method for learning and mastering foreign languages at Take a look and download or order my book and/or instruction manual. My views and methods have are clearer and more evolved than what I wrote here.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Downhill Skiing in Kiev (Protasov Yar)

Did you know it was possible to go downhill skiing in Kiev? Yes, right in the middle of the city. Today I went skiing at Protasov Yar, just an 8-minute ride on trolleybus #40 from Respublikanskyy metro station.

The hill has two lifts with an elevation gain of 50 and 70 m, respectively. One is beginner-intermediate, the other intermediate-advanced. The slopes are on the north side of a hill and are fed by snow cannons and groomed daily. There is a ski rental place, snacks and restaurants, and a usable restroom. The hills use tow lifts — one single and one double tow. Snowboarders are allowed on both slopes, and snowboards can be rented on location.

Best time to go

Weekday mornings between 10:00 and 15:00 outside the holiday season. During these hours lift tickets are the cheapest (3 UAH per ascent, or $0.38 USD) and crowds are thinnest. I rarely waited more than 2 minutes in line.

The snow will be best during periods of cold weather when they can build up the snowpack using artificial snow, and following snowfalls.

If you go on the weekends or when everyone in the city is on holiday, expect big crowds.

The slopes are open every day of the week 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. except Monday (2 p.m. to 10 p.m.). There is night skiing on Saturdays.


You can rent equipment for a whole day or part day. Prices are generally around $8-15 USD. Ski tickets cost between 3 and 6 UAH depending on the date and time of day.

For more information, visit Check the events calendar on the site to make sure there won't be a competition on the day you were thinking of visiting Protasov Yar.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Using Wireless Internet (Wi-Fi) around Kiev

It is possible to get by in Kiev without installing Internet at home. This is my current preference. Here I'll share my experience that will hopefully save readers some time that they would otherwise waste running around town in search of wi-fi.

There are now quite a few places in town with wireless Internet, but still very many restaurants and cafes that do not have wi-fi. The following chains have wi-fi in practically every restaurant. You'll need to buy something to use it.

- McDonald's, which are all over the city, but the further from the center, the more likely there are to be wi-fi problems. Wi-fi always works in McD's on Kreschatyk and at Petrovka and almost always at m. Lva Tolstoho. Most other places usually work, but are far from 100% reliable, even when you ask the staff to reboot their wireless device. Beware: few outlets!
- McFoxy (a cheaper McDonald's knock-off, but with worse food). Wi-fi seems to be dependable everywhere, but is often slow. Usually there are several outlets available.
- Coffee House has many cafes around Kiev with reliable wi-fi, but too much smoke for some people. Best deals: lunch (8-12:00) and dinner (12-16:00) specials; everything else is a bit pricey. Usually there are several outlets available.
- Mafia restaurants have good wi-fi and a decent deal on breakfasts (< 12:00). The smoking section in the restaurant I was in was on the second floor and did not bother me on the first. There were two outlets available in the non-smoking section.

Other places around town where I like to use wi-fi:

- Chitay-gorod bookstore next to Minskaya metro station (has coffee shop); however, in recent months the wi-fi has stopped working for me. One outlet. Very nice atmosphere.
- Karavan mall food court on Lugovaya street (near Obolonskaya and Minskaya metro stations); however, there is only one outlet for the entire food court, so you'll have to look out for it. There are a couple unprotected connections, but all are slow. You can use the connection for free just by sitting down on a bench.
- Kaffove zerno cafe on Mezhihorska street near m. Kontraktova Ploscha. Best time to visit is 12-16:00 when they have their business lunch, which is a great deal for 29 UAH. Wi-fi works over 90% of the time, but there is only one outlet in the non-smoking area of the cafe...
- Beer Point restaurant and pub, Verkhniy Val street near m. Kontraktova Ploscha. Reliable and fairly high-speed wi-fi signal with numerous outlets. Best deal: business lunch 12-16:00, 45 UAH.

If any readers can recommend other places, please post responses to this post.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Future of English Language

As more and more of the world gets on the English language bandwagon, the average English speaker's mastery of the language continues to fall. More and more, English is being used for international business needs among non-native speakers who have learned English in school, from private teachers, and during brief trips abroad.

The language that is evolving among users of international business English is not quite "real English." Its lexicon includes phrases like "implementation," "conduct negotiations," and "according to" but lacks common English phrases such as "stuff," "get mad," or "for fun." In addition, grammar structure is increasingly simplified, with articles and complex tenses disappearing. The pronunciation is also changing. Complex sounds like the A in "last" or "bath" are being replaced with an O sound as in "lost" or "bother," or sometimes with a short E as in "lest" or "best."

The resulting language, consisting of a simplified English vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation and almost completely devoid of idioms or even phrasal verbs ("enter" instead of "get in," "surrender" instead of "give up," etc.), is rapidly becoming the dominant world language and lingua franca. Since it's derived from English and spoken among non-native English speakers, I'll call it "International Pidgin English." (For reference: a Pidgin language is a simplified language that develops as a means of communication between two or more groups that do not have a language in common. — Wikipedia)

Most Englishmen, Americans, Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders are still under the impression that their English is the world's dominant language, but this is increasingly not the case. Any Kiwi, Brit, or Yankee can travel to countries like Ukraine and meet with English speaking businesspeople and test his hypothesis. In most cases you will find that misunderstandings result when you speak your native tongue, but as soon as you switch to International Pidgin English, the difficulties disappear.

The problem is, few native English speakers concern themselves with learning International Pidgin English, failing to recognize the opportunities that it brings. Viewing their own variety of indigenous English as the "standard," they see little point in learning a "dialect" filled with a variety of systematic "errors."

What is in fact happening is that a new language is emerging that will have much in common with traditional standard English, but will be more accessible, easy to learn, and have fewer idiosyncracies. As the number of international speakers of this language comes to dwarf the number of native speakers of indigenous English, the balance of power will switch to the international community, which may at some point choose to officially incorporate into the new language the changes that are already de facto in force. Spelling may once again become phonetic. The rules governing the use of articles will be decreased to just a handful, or articles will be abolished altogether. The number of tenses will be reduced.

The English language is entering an exciting period of development. Eventually, the new language will have diverged so much from indigenous English that Americans and Brits will have to study Pidgin English in order to communicate with the rest of the world.

Let me translate that last paragraph into International Pidgin English just so you get an idea of the changes:

English language now enters phase of rapid development and slowly becomes new language. In future, this new language will differ much from original English of American and British people, and they will must study it in order to communicate effectively with people from other countries.

You see, there is hardly any thought or sentiment from indigenous English that cannot be expressed just as well in International Pidgin English!

This whole problem of inventing a new version of English out of an existing one, then codifying the changes could have been avoided if people had just had the foresight to learn Esperanto. Indeed, International Pidgin English is evolving to become more and more like Esperanto — an easy-to-learn artificial language with a simple grammatical structure and vocabulary taken from the most common roots of the dominant Indoeuropean languages.

Esperanto takes a far smaller energy investment to learn than any indigenous language. That means less GDP lost from citizens spending years of their lives trying to learn a language they will never master anyway, because they don't live where it is spoken. Switching to Esperanto would also mean depriving the global Anglo-American economic hegemony of one of its key advantages — an effortless mastery of their own language, a position of linguistic dominance in international interactions, and a worldwide obsession with all things Anglo-American, which serves to artificially increase the market value of schooling and cultural artifacts from these countries.

In addition, abandoning English in favor of Esperanto would alleviate much suffering in the world. Failing to master the baffling complexities and assimilate the staggering vocabulary of indigenous English despite years of concerted effort causes incalculable grief and loss of self-esteem to hundreds of millions of otherwise happy and successful individuals around the globe. Switch to Esperanto, and the elusive goal of fluency becomes attainable for almost everyone.

Despite having failed to adopt Esperanto in time, the global community will still "get back" eventually by overwhelming indigenous English speakers with their sheer numbers, allowing them to push their own, more robust variety of English on the few countries where English is currently spoken as a native language.

Native English teachers, beware! Your days of employability are numbered!

UPDATE 2016:

I have finally decided to teach others my method for learning and mastering foreign languages at Take a look and download or order my book and/or instruction manual. 

Monday, February 7, 2011

Are Ukrainians Incapable of Establishing Good Rules?

Anyone who's spent a significant amount of time in Ukraine is at some point struck by the mind-boggling quantity of rules governing one's behavior in public places and in all official dealings.

When you get on the bus you see a long list of rules in Ukrainian legalese taped to one of the windows with the title "Excerpt from the Terms and Conditions of Use of Means of Public Transportation" or something like it. The document continues: "Article 1. General Provisions." When you get on the subway you see another long list of rules on the window outlining passengers' duties and responsibilities. If you look for them, you'll see these lists of rules that nobody ever reads in virtually any public or commercial facility.

Also on the bus, you'll often see prominent signs saying, "Driver is obligated to give passengers a ticket stub after payment" or "Passengers, please demand a ticket stub from the driver following payment!" And yet very few drivers pass out ticket stubs, and in all my years riding buses I have never seen a passenger demand a ticket stub from a bus driver.

On occasion I actually read the rules, only to find that I have already inadvertently broken half of them! To illustrate, the other day I visited a geology museum. When I came back later and happened to see the list of rules next to the door, I saw that during my previous visit I had broken four of them. I had 1) failed to leave my outer clothing at the cloakroom downstairs, 2) failed to sign in at the register which is mandatory for all visitors, 3) carried in a backpack that was too large by museum standards, and 4) touched a couple of the exhibits, which is against the rules.

If the rules were important, I thought, why had no one made an effort to bring them to visitors' attention? Particularly the rule about not touching exhibits. All it takes is posting a sign above the open exhibits that says, "Please do not touch." Of course, given that this is Ukraine, the sign would probably say, "Touching exhibits is categorically forbidden!" But even this is lacking. That means it is up to the museum staff to personally monitor visitors. Then these staff are constantly in a bad mood because people keep breaking the rules, and the staff has to spend their time monitoring them instead of doing something more productive and interesting. And yet all it would take is to put a bit of thought into the rules, put up some more visible signs and get rid of the unnecessary rules, and everything would be okay.

The same is true in the Kiev subway (metro). I have 1) dared to sit down on the steps, 2) brought objects longer or larger than are permitted on trains, and 3) ran down the steps of the moving escalator. As it turns out, all these things are against the rules, but you see people do it all the time. And those elderly and poor people who take carts on the metro? That's also "strictly forbidden."

Have you noticed how many people work in the subway system? You have the woman behind the class box watching people pass through the turnstyles, who frequently comes out and shouts at people who aren't using them correctly or has to let people through whose social security or student status allows them to use the metro for free or at a discount. Then you have the young policeman standing nearby who makes sure everyone is on good behavior and occasionally nabs the most obviously drunk passengers. If the metro station has a long escalator, there's another worker in a booth at the bottom watching passengers on the escalator to make sure nothing goes wrong. It's actually nice to have such a human presence in the subway as opposed to, say, the completely mechanized Paris subway where half the passengers just jump over the turnstyles to avoid paying. What I find funny is that the Kiev subway workers let so many rules slide. They let through old people with carts, people carrying skis, teenagers with bikes, and turn a blind eye to people running down the escalator steps and disobedient youths who sit down on the steps. It's as if subway workers have an internal set of rules to enforce that differs quite radically from the official list.

To answer the question contained in the title of this post, I think we must answer two more specific questions: 1) Why do Ukrainians make so many rules? and 2) Why do they make rules that nobody follows?

Before I give my answers to these questions in a full-length article, I'm interested in hearing readers' opinions.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Beach Sand Needed for Geology Museum in Kiev

A geologist I know who works at the geology museum in Kiev is gathering a collection of sands from "beaches of the world" for use in a later display. If there's anyone out there who is coming to Kiev in the foreseeable future and lives near a beach (sea or ocean beach), please contact me!

Roughly 1 kg of sand is needed (2.2 lbs) from each beach on display, and it must be collected from a certain point along the waterline. Contact me for precise information if you are willing to help us out with this.