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Steve and Alex talk about Steve’s first trip to the Soviet Union, his experience learning Russian and his planned trip to Russia.
Steve: Hi Alex.
Alex: Hi there Steve.
Steve: Well, you know I’d like to talk a little bit about something that has me quite excited.
Steve: And that is the fact that I’m going to be visiting Russia.
Steve: And I’ll tell ya’, I mean, ultimately, we learn languages…I mean, I shouldn’t say we because people have different motives for learning languages.
And, as I have said many times, I think input, you know, reading, listening, is very powerful.
Beyond that it’s very easy to do, because you just get an mp3 file in your mp3 player and you’re set, right?
Or you pick up a book and you read it.
So, you’re not dependent on anyone.
You don’t have to find someone to talk to.
You don’t have to go to class.
You can just do it.
Steve: But, even though I’m so input-based and I think input is powerful, obviously, most of us eventually want to use the language.
I mean that’s the goal, right?
Steve: So I have been speaking more with our tutors at LingQ, once, twice, three times a week with my friends in St.
Petersburg, or Magnitogorsk, or Moscow, or in the Ukraine, but now, finally, I’m going to have a chance to go to Russia.
Alex: Now, is this your first time going to Russia?
Steve: No. I visited the Soviet Union…
Steve: …which Russia was a part of…
Steve: …in 1975 and I think in ’76.
Steve: Because when my family and I were living in Japan on two occasions we decided to, because we had annual leave with the company that I was working for.
We had very generous, like six weeks of leave.
Alex: Oh, okay.
Steve: So, typically, I would spend sort of two-three weeks in Europe and then two-three weeks in Canada before going back to Japan.
Alex: Oh, okay.
Steve: Therefore, I avoided the 36 degrees of summer weather in Japan.
Steve: So, we would fly, typically, from the Japan seaside, like Niigata, which is a port and an airport, you know from Niigata to Khabarovsk, which is a city in the far east of Russia.
Alex: Oh, okay.
Steve: So, we were in Khabarovsk on two occasions and then we flew from Khabarovsk to Moscow.
Steve: And then on one occasion we went from Moscow to Leningrad in those days and the other occasion we went from Moscow to Kiev.
We flew, yeah, and then we took the train from Kiev to Bucharest, Romania…
Alex: Oh, okay.
Steve: …and then on to Turkey. So, we were exploring.
Steve: But, of course, in those days (A) I didn’t speak Russian and (B) it was the Soviet Union.
Steve: Which was interesting, but I think it’s very different now…very different now.
In those days you had one airline.
Everywhere in Russia they had one brand of beer, one brand of pop and one brand of water.
I mean there wasn’t much variety and they weren’t very service-oriented, let us say, okay?
They basically told you what to do and when.
But now, for example…I should step back.
I’m going there because I have to go to Berlin and Riga on wood-related business.
Steve: So, in Riga I’m not very far from Russia and I said I’m that close to Russia, I’m going.
Steve: So, the first challenge, I hadn’t realized just how complicated it is to get a Russian visa.
You don’t just ask for a visa and get it.
You have to apply.
You can’t apply directly with the embassy or the consulate.
They have a designated company that you deal with.
You need an invitation.
You have to buy the invitation.
The invitation is issued by this designated company and they’re the only ones who issue the invitations.
It’s not like you can find a cheaper one.
Steve: Maybe there is, but in Canada there’s just the one.
Then I discovered I needed a visa that was valid for at least six months.
My visa was going to expire in two months, so then I had…
Steve: My passport, sorry, yeah.
So then I had to get a new Canadian passport.
I’m leaving next Tuesday and I’m hoping that I get my passport back from Ottawa from the Russian Embassy via this company that I had to pay a fortune here too, so a bit of a kafuffle.
Steve: However, I mean St.
Petersburg, Leningrad is going to be phenomenal.
It’s a phenomenal city.
I’ve read Dostoevsky and Anna Karenina where they go back and forth between Moscow and St.
Petersburg and stuff, so to walk around there and to take that in and to meet people.
And then I’m taking a high-speed train from St.
Petersburg to Moscow.
Alex: Oh, okay.
Steve: Yeah, it leaves at 7:00 in the morning.
I mean it’s just going to be phenomenal.
I’m really, really looking forward.
And I think that’s the ultimate reward when you learn a language is to have an opportunity to go to the country.
Steve: Not to stir up the old argument with our friend Benny, but to me to go to a country at the beginning of your language learning is almost a waste because you aren’t going to do very well.
It may stimulate you.
It may encourage you, make you totally determined to improve and whatever, but you’re not going to achieve much.
Whereas, if you’ve put in that effort over a significant period of time of listening and reading and talking to people on the Internet and learning and stuff and you finally get to go there and you now have some weapons so you can defend yourself in the language and you can use it it’s almost like a dream, like it’s unnatural.
It’s the ultimate goal and reward and I’m sure you feel the same way when you go to Korea.
Alex: Oh, exactly.
What I was going to say is the first time I went to Korea was the winter of 2007.
I had been learning Korean formally for about four months at the time, not very long.
I went there, I was there for three weeks and I relied heavily upon my friends who were there, didn’t speak very much.
I had some opportunities to speak and I must say it was quite rewarding to be able to use what I had learned to that point.
But more interesting than that, I went to a lot of the tourist sites, you know, the castles and whatever, the palaces, actually, and I found them extremely boring because I didn’t understand what it was about.
I didn’t know much about the culture at the point.
I hadn’t learned any history or anything like that.
I went there and I just got back, what, three weeks ago, two weeks ago and this time around…
Steve: Oh, for the second time.
Alex: No, this was my third time.
Steve: Third time, yeah.
Alex: The second time it was only five days, so all I did was meet with friends.
Alex: But this third time around, having over the course of those three years learned a lot more of the language, read a lot more, learned more about the politics, the news, the government and also about the history having taken courses at university on the history of Choson Dynasty and so on and so forth, it was really stimulating to be there and actually stand in these places and understand why they were significant.
It was the same places that I had visited the first time, but it had a completely new meaning to it.
I think, too, there should be more sort of learning materials that consist of simplified history books, simplified geography books, things of interest like that so that as you’re learning the language you can become more and more familiar with the history and the culture.
But, yeah, I mean I’m fascinated now by…I must say it’s the same with every language.
When I went into French I was fascinated by French civilization.
When I had my Chinese period I was fascinated.
And it is a real adventure because whether it be China for me 40 years ago or Russia which I started three or four years ago, you’re exploring something that is still relatively exotic and closed to you, unknown to you, right?
Steve: Absolutely. I mean an average person in the street, what do they know about Russia.
They know hockey.
They know Soviet Union and a few other things, right?
Steve: They don’t know much – vodka.
So, all of a sudden you sort of discover that.
That to me is what’s so wonderful in language learning; that through the language you discover this whole world and you have now an affinity.
You know I listen to my Russian it’s like natural to me.
It’s almost like, I don’t know, it’s not my second language and so then to go there and to live in the real… So far it’s only been online radio stations, discussions, debates, history, audio books, Anna Karenina or whatever it might be, now to go there is going to be… I hope I’m not going to be disappointed.
And, of course, we have a number of LingQ members who live in Russia and we’re setting up to meet with some of them there.
Either we’re going to walk around the park or chat or sit down and have a cup of tea or something to eat.
So, yeah, it’s going to be a lot of fun.
I wish I had the time to explore more of Russia, but two weeks is really… There’s not much point in going into St.
Petersburg for a day and then hitting a whole bunch of other towns.
Steve: I think it’s better to concentrate on St.
Petersburg and Moscow.
I may go up to Vyborg.
Steve: There’s a lady there who was my first tutor…
Alex: Oh, really.
Steve: …in Russian…
Alex: Oh, okay.
Steve: …at LingQ and who sent me a lot of CDs and was just tremendously helpful.
I’ve found, generally, that the Russians have been very nice, even in terms of booking a seat on the train from St.
Petersburg to Moscow.
It’s difficult to do online.
There are even companies that charge you 30 or 40% up-charge to book train tickets for you.
Alex: Really? Wow.
Steve: And we have Eugene, Eugene who is our programmer.
Steve: I mean I just said I’m having trouble booking it, can you book it?
Bingo, the next day.
Well, I had to send him my passport number.
Alex: Right, right.
Steve: It’s booked and whatever.
I mean you ask people to do stuff they’re very helpful; very, very nice, so yeah.
I mean you do hear stories that in Russia people are less inclined to smile at you if you walk around the street; whereas, in North America people are more inclined to smile at you.
But once you get beyond that to actually communicating with people, I think people are quite warm and willing to help you and so forth.
And that’s been my experience in my contact with all of them really; the people we’ve gotten to know through LingQ and stuff.
Steve: Very generous with their time, very helpful, so I’m really looking forward.
Alex: But I must say that to me is one of the really cool things about it is that you have these opportunities to communicate with people, to establish relationships with them when you’re ten thousand miles apart…
Alex: …and you finally get a chance to meet them.
You know it’s…
Steve: I know. It’s amazing.
Alex: It’s amazing. There’s no other word for it.
Steve: It’s amazing. Hence the world we live in.
That’s the world.
Steve: We always get back to this theme and that’s why I think… In fact, I did a video this morning in French about this Claude Hagege who is a French linguist in the sense of a linguistics guy who’s constantly fighting the battle against the encroachment of English on French and all this sort of stuff.
And it is true.
Like I agree that we should all learn to speak more languages; although, at the same time it us very useful to have one common language.
It needn’t be English.
It could be anything, but that there is a common language is useful.
Steve: However, for many English speakers it becomes an obstacle that prevents them from learning other languages, which is really sad.
Nowadays, I see rather than English becoming more and more dominant, I think English is there, but it can become easier to learn other languages because there’s so much available.
The content, you can make friends, you can have exchanges via Skype and so the opportunities for language learning are just exploding.
Steve: And we like to think that LingQ is a part of that.
Alex: Yeah, absolutely.
Steve: So we can all make friends all over the world and go and visit each other.
Steve: Thanks Alex.
Thank you for listening everyone, bye-bye.