Learning Tatar

Although Tatarstan is politically a part of the Russian Federation, I am constantly reminded that at the same time, it is a country and culture all its own. Beautiful mosques share the scene with Orthodox churches, Tatar delicacies such as chak-chak and mantiy are served just as often as  borsch and kasha, and most exciting for a language lover, the beautiful yet still-unintelligible sounds of Tatar can be heard alongside Russian on the street, on the radio, and (yikes) even in my classroom.

Tatarstan May Finally Get Lyrics For Its Anthem

The Flag of Tatarstan*The green represents Islam, the red, Russia, and the white line, the peace between the Muslim Tatar majority and the Russian minority.

Over half of the population did not learn Russian as their first language, but rather acquired it in their early years at school while continuing to speak Tatar at home. This bilingual balancing act, although the norm for many teachers and students I’ve talked to, has made a huge impression on me. I find it amazing to watch those at my university speed through a phone conversation in Tatar, answer someone in Russian, then address me in English. When I found out I would be living in Tatarstan for 9 months, I made it my goal to at least learn the basics of Tatar while I was here, and I’ve finally had the time to devote to the study of this difficult yet fascinating language.


To give you an idea of just how different Tatar is from English, take a look at this wonderful little tree diagram of the world’s language families. Although the Foreign Service Institute ranks Russian as of higher difficulty to learn for an English speaker than the Romance languages, what many people don’t realize is that English and Russian are actually in the same language family, Indo-European. Although there are significant linguistic differences between the two, there are actually more similarities than you might think. But Tatar, oh Tatar…Tatar isn’t even in the same language family as English. At the bottom of the diagram, you’ll see a tiny little branch reaching to the left: this represents the Altaic family, of which the most familiar language is Turkish.

Photo Credit: http://bashapedia.pbworks.com/w/page/13960889/Language%20Families

Chart Credit: http://bashapedia.pbworks.com/w/page/13960889/Language%20Families

What this means for the language learner beginning from an Indo-European frame of reference is that he has to open his mind to a extremely different way of processing language both grammatically and phonetically. A difficult task, but so far it’s been as fun as it has been frustrating.

Take out that IPA chart and get cracking!

The sounds of Tatar have been more difficult to produce than I expected, since when I first arrived and I was taught how to count to 5, I was praised on how good my accent was. This was due to a few phonemes that exist both in English and Tatar that are not found in Russian, such as [ae], the vowel sound found in “bad,” “cat,” etc. Note, this [ae] sound is written as ә, which was confusing at first.

But as I’ve analyzed the phonemic inventory more closely, it’s become clear that Tatar has sounds I’ve never attempted to make before, except perhaps in Dr. Bird’s phonetics class 🙂  The language is written in Cyrillic, but because there are sounds that do not occur in Russian, there are the added letters:

һ (close to an English h.)

ө (close to the vowel sound in the British “bird,” “word.”)

ә (a as in “back,” “cat,”)

ү (an “oo” sound pronounced further back than the English version.)

ң (ng as in “sing.”)

җ (in between j in “Johnson” and zh in “rouge.”)

These extra letters though, do not represent all of the different sounds. For example, what is written in Cyrillic as г (g) can be pronounced two different ways. Most difficult for me so far has been producing a sound that is close to the English k, but is pronounced further back. In linguistic terms, English the English k ([k])requires you to touch your velum with the back of your tongue, but in Tatar, the k, realized as [q] is often produced by touching the back of your tongue to the uvula. When I hear native speakers do it, it sounds like a k with a popping noise. And that is just one sound out of many; I won’t even get started on vowel harmony.

Let’s Agglutinate!

Although the phonetics of Tatar are difficult, the core of the difficulty for a speaker of an Indo-European language comes in making the mental transition from an inflected grammatical system  to a system of agglutination. In college, we learned the definition of agglutinative by remembering that in these languages, grammatical components and words were glued together (And if I remember correctly, both “glue” and “agglutinative” share the same root.) Both inflected and agglutinative languages use affixes to express grammar, but agglutinative languages are different in that you take a root word and keep stacking suffixes on the end until the word is about a page long. An exaggeration, of course, but that’s what it seems like to a beginner.  Prefixes and prepositions do not exist in an agglutinative languages, but their functions are rather expressed in suffixes that must be added in a specific order. One nice thing about agglutinative languages though, is that a morpheme codes for just one meaning, rather than many, like in Russian. For example, in Tatar, the suffix -ка always denotes that a noun is the direct object, whereas the Russian  -у can denote masculine dative case, feminine accusative case, or even prepositional case.

Here’s an example of this agglutinative magic:

English: In my books

Russian: В моих книгах

Tatar: book: китап (kitap),  plural morpheme: лар (lar), possessive morpheme: ым (iym), time/locational case: да (da)

Order of agglutination: root+plural morpheme+possessive morpheme+case morpheme=

китабларымда (kitablariymda)= in my books

As you can see, what is expressed by three words in both English and Russian is expressed in Tatar in one long, complex word. The system of verbs is similarly complicated, and I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of understanding Tatar grammar. However, I am happy to say that I have learned quite a few new words and phrases to balance out the intensity of learning grammar. My strategy has been similar to it was when I started Russian, in a word: songs. When I decided I wanted to speak Russia, I printed out song lyrics, translated them, then listened to the songs and practiced them over and over. This was great for pronunciation, memorization, and was much more enjoyable than slaving over a textbook. In addition to learning some basic phrases, such as “исәнмесез” (isanmesez, hello), “рәхмәт” (rakhmat, thank you), and “әйдә” (ayda), I’ve been listening to and translating a simple song with to broaden my vocabulary and become familiar with the phraseology and grammar. It’s already working: today I found this Tatar music video and I was able to pick out the phrases: “You are my love,” and “you are my destiny.” Give it a listen if you’re curious as to how Tatar sounds. Well, that’s it for now! Сау булыгыз! (sau bulighiz, goodbye!)

*Flag of Tatarstan credit: http://kazantimes.com/politics/tatarstan-may-finally-get-lyrics-for-its-anthem/ 

Second Language

It is an uncomfortable way to live, to be able to understand yet to lack the means to be understood, to be able to receive, but not to give, to be able to perceive the inside but still be an outsider, desperately pounding on a door you’ve longed to enter for almost a decade.

It is a frustrating way to exist, to love the rich sounds of this language, your ears delighting in the dance of trilled rs and softened consonants, but to find them uncomfortable and awkward on your tongue, your mouth seemingly filled with gravel. And if your mouth is filled with gravel, your brain is like a record player that constantly skips, the possibility of beautiful music constantly mocked by jarring stops and starts. No sooner have you started a sentence then you realize that it will lead to the dead end of your native framework, a constant impediment to truly entering this second language.

You know thousands of words, but it turns out that words are not enough. Knowing how to say “blackmail” and “lisp” and “intangible phenomenon” do nothing to help you break through these invisible barriers. You know that they can be prevailed against, many before you have somehow broken through, but their secret is a mystery. These barriers are abstract and non-quantifiable, and no formulas or textbooks can explain why your heart still races when you enter a produkti, rehearsing over and over in your head the simple words that you learned years ago, “chai chorniy.” You can read Chekhov and understand the rapid speech of news anchors, yet you stand foreign and awkward when someone addresses you on the street, either silent and confused or offering a messy version of the words that you know in theory so well.

You want to know what it feels like to think in this new framework, to walk down the street and realize that your wandering thoughts were actually in the language of this country, but for now, all you can do is wait. All you can do is keep chipping away at the barriers, mouthing the soft “Ls” as you walk to work, forcing yourself to offer conversation when all you want to do is be silent. All you can do is keep pounding on the door steadily, claiming joy in each fragment of paint that you scrape off, with the hope that one day in the not so distant future, you will break down the door and enter.



What Language Learning is Really Like

“Just go live in the country for a few months; you’ll come back fluent for sure.”

“You just have to immerse yourself in the language. Once you hear it spoken, you’ll pick it up and be speaking in no time.”

Comments like these to the aspiring language learner are well-meant, but, as I’ve learned, are not completely accurate. Before my first semester studying abroad in Russia, I heard countless variations of these words from friends and family. I had already learned the basics: the Russian case system, basic verbs of motion, and commonly-used vocabulary. Filled with enthusiasm and hopeful naivete, I believed them. I closed my eyes and pictured myself rattling off perfect Russian, spiced with apt jokes and subtle puns. And I pictured myself doing this after only three months.

Let’s just say that the reality of language learning did not live up to my expectations. When I arrived in St. Petersburg, I realized I could not understand the majority of what people were saying. When I tried to order my food in Russian at a Pizza Hut, the waitress ignored me until I spoke in English. When I arrived in Nizhniy Novgorod a few weeks later to begin my studies, I made it my goal to take every opportunity I could to speak with Russians, hoping the magical “immersion pill” would start to kick in.

Throughout my three and a half months abroad, I immersed myself as best as I could, going on long walks with Russians, chatting with my host family over late night chai, and pouring myself into my three hours a day of Russian class. Without a doubt, I enjoyed all these experiences immensely, but almost every day, I would beat myself up about my “slow” progress. Instead of celebrating learning a new word, I would chastise myself for not yet achieving this glimmering “fluency” that I so idolized. By the end of the trip, I am sure that I did improve both in comprehension and in speaking. But because I had held so tightly to comments like “just live there for a few months and you’ll be fluent,” I felt that I had failed. After all, from what people said, I should be fluent by now. I should be able to effortlessly translate the sentence that Russian spy said in Get Smart. I certainly shouldn’t be making these stupid mistakes anymore and stuttering through simple sentences!

You would think I would have learned that I was creating overly high expectations for myself, but I entered the Critical Language Scholarship Program last summer with much of the same attitude. Again, although I improved quite a bit, my unreachable expectations made me think that I had failed.

After returning, every time someone asked me, “So, are you fluent now?” made me want to scream and throw everything in the vicinity like a madwoman. I would disguise my frustration with a saccharine smile, answer with a gentle, “well, conversationally fluent, but I still make a lot of grammatical mistakes and there are many topics I don’t know the vocabulary for.” When I left the conversation, I would beat myself up again, thinking “you are supposed to be fluent by now!” One of the biggest mistakes I have made time and time again in my language-learning journey is to expect too much improvement in too little time. Immersion is important, but time is just as important!

Now I see that my reaction should not have been dismay, but rather an excited “Wow, I can communicate with Russians on a number of topics, isn’t that cool! I still have a lot to improve on, but I’ve come pretty far!”

As I embark on my next trip to Russia, I want to throw out unreachable, pie-in-the sky expectations of speaking Russian like a native speaker effortlessly and without a mistake. It’s not because I’ve lowered my standards. No, I still hope to attain a much higher level of proficiency…in time. But for now, perhaps the best expectations I can make for myself are small and measurable, like “learn x number of new words a week,” and “discuss x with three Russians.” Slowly but surely, I will improve. But I want to enjoy the journey and not get overly caught up in the seemingly asymptotic destination.