Monday, February 25, 2013

The ASMR Phenomenon and Learning Russian

I enjoy watching videos about Russia and the Russian language on YouTube, and I'm subscribed to a lot of channels run by Russian users.  As a result, I regularly see Russian (or Russia-related) videos come up on my feed, and I click on them from time to time.  Today a video came up on my feed by the YouTube user GentleWhispering with the title =*=Russian Teacher Relaxing RP=*=.

Going from the thumbnail, it looked like a standard video for learning Russian - a young lady (I saw on her channel that her name was Masha) with glasses was standing in front of a blackboard with a matryoshka nesting doll beside her, and it looked as though she was looking through some notebooks on her desk.  Now, since I'm at an advanced level in Russian, I don't really need to watch videos teaching the alphabet, simple phrases, or anything like that, because I learned all that stuff years ago.  But since I'm aspiring to teach Russian at the university level, I still find these kinds of videos valuable.  It is interesting for me to know what aspects of the language are introduced to beginning students first, what pace is appropriate, what activities are most beneficial, etc.

So I started watching the Russian lesson video with this woman.  It was in fact a Russian lesson video, but as I continued to watch, I noticed that something seemed "off" about this video.  As Masha spoke, she said everything very slowly and in a gentle, "relaxed" voice that was almost a whisper.  She frequently smiled, paused, and looked into the camera. 

Masha in the middle of giving an introductory Russian lesson.

Masha, without a doubt, had a pleasant smile and a nice relaxing voice, but I am used to my language lessons being more fast-paced, so I skipped around the 30 minute video so that I could see what was going to be actually taught in the video.  I found that in the timespan of 30 minutes, the only Russian-related things that were taught in this video were the basic sounds of the Russian letters, Россия (Russia), я люблю тебя (I love you), and спасибо (thank you).  It dawned on me that the main intention of this 30-minute video was most likely not to educate viewers on the Russian language.  I started to wonder, what was the point of this video?

The name of Masha's channel is GentleWhispering, and the title of the video had the word "relaxing" in it, so I initially thought that she was running a YouTube channel with Russian lessons that were simply supposed to be relaxed and free of the stress that comes with taking classes at a school.  Then I looked at the rest of her channel and I saw a mix of videos in English and Russian.  I clicked on one called ○○○Белый и пушистый шепот 3D sound○○○ASMR.  The video had a thumbnail of a hand surrounded by soft cotton balls.  I clicked on it, and I started to hear the voice of the same Masha that was standing in front of the blackboard, but this time she was not merely speaking softly, but she was actually whispering

Masha runs her fingers through a pile of cotton balls as she whispers in Russian.

I was wearing headphones, so I noticed that the audio was not always panned to the center, but it would often come from the far left and far right (so that the sound would be felt more intensely in one ear than the other).  This seems to be what the 3D sound was referring to.  But what I didn't understand was what ASMR was.  A lot of the videos on Masha's channel had this tag, and in the "Related Videos" column I saw many other videos by other people that all had the ASMR tag.

So I decided to look it up.  According to Wikipedia, it stands for autonomous sensory meridian response, referring to a buzzing or tingling sensation in the head and scalp, similar to feeling "goose bumps" or "chills" from certain stimuli.  ASMR has apparently been difficult to research, so there is not much evidence that it is a real physiological phenomenon, and there are many who are skeptical about the whole thing (Steven Novella wrote an article about it on SkepticBlog). 

One thing that intrigues me about ASMR are the role-play videos.  I at this point realized that the "RP" at the end of Masha's Russian lesson video stood for "role-play", which meant that she was role-playing as a Russian teacher.  On Masha's channel, she also has a video where she simulates going to the eye doctor in Russian, and an ASMR video in Russian where she talks about ASMR itself.  Quickly looking through related channels, I saw a simulation of having make-up applied, another Russian lesson role-play, a role-play of an interview to become an art teachera role-play of being stopped by a police officer for drunk driving, and an attempt to get the viewer to fall asleep.  All are in Russian with voices that are slow, calm, and relaxing, yet not forced or robotic in any way.

Masha plays the role of an eye doctor and shines a flashlight into the eyes of her viewers.

Seeing these videos made me start thinking - could ASMR-type videos be valuable in the world of language learning?  Regardless of whether there is any physiological phenomenon behind all this, I think that being exposed to slow, clear speech in the target language can only benefit the language learner.  It's one of the main reasons people find the NCLRC Russian webcasts are useful, anyway.  You can familiarize yourself with the sounds and words so that it will be easier to understand when you deal with real-world situations where people don't speak as slowly and clearly.

The "role-play" videos that I mentioned in the previous paragraph made me think of how role-playing is used in language classrooms, and how OPI (oral proficiency interviews) sometimes include role-playing scenarios.  I think that it might be good for language programs to include a few "toned-down" target-language ASMR videos in their repertoire.  I say "toned-down" because I think certain things could be eliminated, like whispering (many people would find it annoying, and it also makes it harder to see what is actually being said).  Relaxed, slow speech would be a better alternative.  Naturally, the goal of these videos would be a bit different - the goal wouldn't be to put the viewers to sleep, but to give them a greater amount of attention and focus. 

From what I can gather, ASMR has only been a "thing" since the beginning of this current decade, and it has gained most of its popularity within the past year (2012).  It seems to be especially popular in Russia and other countries where Russian is spoken.  There is a Huffington Post article about it that was written about a year ago. 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Hypothetical "You" in Russian

In this post I want to talk about an an area of Russian grammar and stylistics that doesn't get mentioned too often.  This post will deal with the hypothetical "you" in Russian.  The hypothetical "you" is what one would use in a context when referring to a hypothetical, undefined person.  In English, the hypothetical "you" is included as one of the meanings of the pronoun you when in an informal context, but in more formal contexts it is generally expressed with the word one.  (Example:  One must be careful when crossing the street.)  As seen in the example sentence, this kind of construction is common with aphorisms, popular sayings, warnings, and other contexts where the speaker wants to make a generalization, but does not want to directly refer to any particular person, including the person or persons with whom he is having a conversation.

Expressing this in Russian is different than in English.  You have to use an односоставное предложение (in this context, it means a sentence where the subject pronoun is omitted) that uses a verb with an informal 2nd person singular ending (such as -шь for the present tense, and -и/-ь for the imperative).  The pronoun ты must be omitted!  

D. E. Rosenthal's Russian reference gives some examples of how this construction can be used (the bold emphasis is mine, showing the two example sentences):
Любишь кататься – люби и саночки возить (односоставное в составе сложного) – Каждый, кто любит кататься, должен любить и саночки возить (двусоставное в составе сложного) первое придает высказыванию афористичность, второе – назидательность;
Both of the example sentences are grammatically correct; the difference is just in stylistics.  As Rosenthal mentions, the first sentence, using the informal endings -шь and , has a quality like that of a proverb.  The second sentence, which uses the infinitive, has a more "instructive" quality. 

Here is another example from Rosenthal:
Синонимия возможна также между разновидностями односоставных предложений, в частности между инфинитивными и обобщенно-личными. Ср., например, строки Тютчева Умом Россию не понять, Аршином общим не измерить; У ней особенная стать – В Россию можно только верить и потенциально возможный вариант Умом Россию не поймешь, Аршином общим не измеришь...; инфинитивные предложения отличаются большей категоричностью высказывания.

As noted by Rosenthal, the original line by Тютчев (the first bolded sentence in the quoted text) uses infinitives and has a more explicit, strict quality to it, stating that without exception, it is impossible for one to understand Russia with your mind, and that no standard unit of measurement can be used to measure Russia.  The second bolded sentence is an edited version of Тютчев's line where the two infinitives are each replaced with informal -шь endings, making the sentence sound more like a proverb or wise saying than an absolute statement of fact. 

What's interesting about all this is that it's acceptable to use the informal verb forms to express the informal "you", even when you are in a formal conversation with someone and are using the formal Вы forms.  In this case, using the informal verb forms is not considered to be breaking formality and making the conversation enter the level of familiarity; the person with whom you are talking to will know from the context that what you are saying involves the hypothetical "you" and does not apply directly to the conversation partner.  This is why the ты personal pronoun must be omitted - otherwise, what you are saying might be mistaken for familiarity.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Book Review - Barron's Dictionary of Russian Slang and Colloquial Expressions (Vladimir Shlyakhov and Eve Adler)

In my recent review where I criticized the contents of Edward Topol's book, Dermo!, I mentioned that people interested in Russian slang should instead look at Barron's Dictionary of Russian Slang and Colloquial Expressions, by Vladimir Shlyakhov and Eve Adler.  I want to expand a bit on what I like about this book and add a few words on how this book could be improved.

Book Structure

The first section of this book contains a couple of prefaces - if you have a serious interest in this subject, it is worth it to look at these prefaces.  The first preface talks about how Russian slang had not been documented very well during the Soviet era, and that significant interest in Russian slang manifested itself only after the fall of the Soviet Union.  The titles and authors of some publications from the 1990s about Russian slang (all in Russian) are listed, as well as some American publications about Russian slang (some of these date back to the 1970s). This section also talks about the book's relevance in linguistics and sociolinguistics, and gives instructions on how to use the book when searching for idioms.

Following this section is a page with the prefixes to the second and third editions of the dictionary.  The most recently-released edition, and the one that I am currently using, is the third edition, published in 2006.  The preface mentions that new words and expressions have been added since its last publication in 1999, which is a good thing.  I would expect that some time during this decade, a fourth edition will be made with even more recent words.

Unlike Topol's book which was filled with anecdotes and tangents, this book is clearly a dictionary and it doesn't pretend to be anything other than that.  After the prefaces is the main section, containing more than 5,000 words on 329 pages.  The book goes from only Russian to English, not the other way around.

Positive Aspects

My overall impression of this book is a positive one.  The entries for each Russian word are bolded, and an acute accent is placed over the vowel that should be stressed.  The only thing I don't understand is why the stress marks aren't included in the example Russian sentences.

This book also does a good job at providing the necessary forms/endings so that whoever uses this book will be able to accurately use these words, provided that they already have some background in Russian grammar.  For nouns, the gender and genitive forms are included (since knowing those two things allows you to make accurate predictions about what the noun's other endings will be).  Verbs contain both the imperfective and perfective forms (this is a huge plus), and adjectives contain the feminine and neuter endings next to the default (masculine) ending.  Literary translations are sometimes given for certain words/expressions, and example sentences are provided as a context for most of the words.

Negative Aspects

Besides the fact that the example Russian sentences didn't contain stress marks, there was one other thing that bothered me.  It wasn't made clear in this book where the example sentences were coming from - were they invented by the authors themselves, or were they from some outside sources?  Either way, it would have been useful to know the relative time frame in which each word was used.  I would suspect that the vast majority of words in this book are words that were discovered during the 1990s and 2000s, but it would still be nice to see a year or several years attached to each word (or at least have a special marker identifying which words are new to the 2006 edition). 

Also, even though many words from русский мат are included in this book, they are only marked as rude.  The problem is that many Russian words and expressions are rude, but not all of them are мат.  This could have been differentiated with a simple abbreviation.

Who should use this book?

I recommend this book for anyone who has some knowledge of Russian and wants to start learning about slang.  Those who want to go even further can check out the Russian-language materials mentioned in the preface.