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Wednesday, February 16, 2005


Learning Azeri

Despite the fact that I've lived here almost eight months, I just recently started learning the local lingo.

I could say it was because I've been too busy. That would be a lie.

I could say I started to feel guilty, but that wouldn't really be the case. I know it would be "culturally sensitive" for me to learn, but that wasn't a compelling rationale either.

I hate learning languages. In my experience, the process is frustrating and devoid of satisfaction. I have enough frustration in my daily work life and there is little incentive for me to take more on voluntarily.

Besides, which language would I learn?

Russian, without question, is more useful beyond the borders of Azerbaijan and is widely spoken in Baku. But it is the "colonial language" and all my meetings and activities are conducted in Azeri. Furthermore, Azerbaijan uses the Latin alphabet so no signs are written in Russian letters. Most importantly, however, Russian is really hard.

According to Azerbaijanis, Azeri is spoken everywhere that matters and is practically the world's second language, after Chinese. Everyone knows that half the population of Iran is ethnically Azeri and it's only a matter of time before they rise up and demand re-unification with the anavatan (motherland). When that happens, people who know Azeri will be in a strong position to dominate the greater Caspian region.

There are political considerations too. Everyone who's "educated" speaks Russian. But if you're REALLY educated, and politically aware, you speak Azeri. That's important in my line of work. Indeed, out in the regions, very little Russian is spoken at all, but not because there are a lot of well-schooled shepherds who reject symbols of the colonial oppressor. Knowing some Azeri can help you quite a bit out there when you need to order some greasy kebabs or find the pit toilet.

So Azeri it is.

What really forced the issue, however, was the conclusion that I needed a positive alternative to the temptations presented by Baku's night life. Surprisingly, the prospect of facing my intense young teacher at 8:30 in the morning has been enough incentive to stay home and study a few nights a week.

So, after two months, I can make insightful observations such as "that man has three wives." Vendors at my local bazaar are so thrilled to hear me ask for a kilo of potatoes in their language, they reduce their foreigner mark-up by half, at least.

Indeed, it has occurred to me that learning a language isn't that big of a deal, if you devote more effort to it than scanning the book while sitting at a traffic light on the way to school.

Had I learned that lesson 20 years ago, I might be in a position to rule far more than just the greater Caspian region.

Good luck with learning the language. It should not be too hard to pick up the basics since you have to use it everyday. In my experience I have found that actually using the language is a lot more effective than studying from a book, although you need to do that also.

Keep up the good work with the blog, I enjoy reading it. I have put a link to your site on my blog, feel free to link to me if you want.

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