June 5, 2009

From Merengue to Borscht: learning Russian with Soviet Army music

There’s proof that music leads to learning!

Last week, I was helping my friend David Mathison at his booth at Book Expo America. David was selling his book, Be the Media, a guidebook for authors, musicians, film makers, radio hosts and other creative people to create their own media companies. David’s aim is for people to bypass the major music studios and publishing houses and distribute their own content using the Internet and social media marketing.

A man wearing a T-shirt with the word “BEAR” was admiring the stand. I asked him if he had any questions. Miguel Vargas-Caba, the Latin American man, was marveling at the book because he had self-published his own book, BEAR: Flight to Liberty, and had to learn about social media marketing all on his own. He was happy that David had written a book to help other authors use the Internet and technology to maximize their exposure. He reached into his bag and pulled out some papers describing his book about Soviet airline pilot defectors in the 1970s.

A Latin American man writing about Soviet defectors?

He has got to be Cuban, I thought.

Who else in Latin America could comprehend the mentality of Communist defectors but the cubanos, many of whom will risk their lives in makeshift rafts to escape the land of Castro?

I read in his papers that he began learning Russian by listening to Soviet Army music in the Dominican Republic.

“Do you speak Russian?” I asked him in Russian.

Perfectly formed Russian sentences flowed from Miguel’s mouth. His accent was excellent. I was shocked. (I am a native Russian speaker.)

How did a Dominican learn to speak such good Russian?


He’s never been anywhere in the former Soviet Union.

In addition to Soviet army music, he taught himself the language by using textbooks written for English speakers to learn Russian when he lived in the Dominican Republic. He lives in New York now.

I was beyond impressed. Russian is a very difficult language to learn and it’s rare to find people who learn to speak so fluently and gracefully without having ever stepped foot in the land of Peter the Great or in any former Soviet republics.

Miguel was more proof that yes, one can really learn to speak with a good accent by listening to music in one’s target language.

He also told me that listening to the army music aided him in understanding the Soviet mentality. Being able to “feel” the spirit of the army, helped Miguel craft the characters for his book about Soviet airplane pilot defectors whose plane crashed on the way to Canada. Music is not only an entry into the sound of a language, but also the soul and culture of the people who speak the tongue.

I am truly impressed with Miguel’s ability to learn Russian and patience for Russian melancholic music. I doubt I could listen to as much somber Russian music as he does! I teased him that he went from living in the sounds of happy merengue to borscht!

-- Susanna Zaraysky is a guest blogger on Leximo. She will publish her book, Language is Music, in June 2009. The book has over 70 tips on how to learn foreign languages easily using music, TV, radio, film and other free and low cost resources. She speaks seven languages (Russian, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Serbo-Croatian, and English.) Her mission is for people to become confident communicators in foreign languages.

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