Friday, March 1, 2013

Book Review - Streetwise Russian (Jack Franke, Ph.D)

No one can claim to have a complete knowledge of Russian slang.  Experts believe that every hour 50 new slang terms appear in the Russian language, just like in English.  Nevertheless, it is important to study slang because it is organic and, most likely, a necessary part of the language.  Streetwise Russian

I have mentioned in previous blog posts that slang is an important part of any language, and becoming highly proficient in a foreign language involves not only being able to understand formal speech, but also being able to work your way through situations where informal language is more prevalent - such as dealing with younger generations.  

It has been difficult to find high-quality English-language resources for Russian slang - some are simply outdated, while others devote too much attention to русский мат (the most offensive Russian obscenities).  Streetwise Russian, by Jack Franke, Ph.D., is an exception - it is full of dialogues, cultural notes, commentary on word formation, practice exercises, and even a CD full of .mp3 files so that the reader can listen to all of the dialogues and vocabulary words from the glossary.  I would say that this is the best English-language resource I've seen so far for Russian slang.

Book Structure


The book starts off with a short introduction and then proceeds to the main section of the book.  There are 11 chapters in total, and they are divided into the following sections:

Section I:  Guy Talk - "Guy Talk", "Military Service", "Drinking"
Section II: Girl Talk - "Girl Talk", "The New Russians", "At the Club", "In the Groove", "Boutique Shopping"
Section III: Teenager Talk - "Don't Play Dumb", "Hot Bodies", "Stay Cool"

Each chapter contains 1-3 dialogues.  The conversation in Russian is given first, then its translation in English.  Following that is a vocabulary section (each slang Russian word is provided in the left column, while the English translation and equivalent literary Russian words are provided in the right column).  After that are exercises to practice your knowledge (matching columns, sentence translations, crossword puzzles) and a page or two of cultural notes regarding whatever topic the dialogues focus on. 
Following this section is the answer key to all of the exercises and crossword puzzles, and then an English/Russian and Russian/English index for all of the vocabulary words.

Audio Material

There is a large amount of audio material for this course.  For each chapter, separate audio files in .mp3 format are given for each of the conversations, the vocabulary words introduced in each chapter, and any Russian words or sentences that appear in the "Cultural Notes" section.  A separate .mp3 file is also given for each individual Russian word/phrase in the glossary.  All of this can be accessed by browsing the folders on the CD.

Positive Aspects

This book was released in 2010, which automatically gives this book an edge over other slang-related materials I've used which were released in the 1990s and 2000s.  As I have mentioned in other posts, the year of publication carries a lot of weight when it comes to slang-related materials, since slang expressions tend to change at a faster rate than standard forms of speech.  When looking through other books of slang expressions, such as Topol's Dermo! or even the Dirty Russian book (which Viktoriya of gave a great review of), I noticed that there were many phrases in those books that I had never heard, despite having spent a lot of time around young people in Russia.  As I looked through Streetwise Russian, on the other hand, I constantly saw phrases that I remembered hearing on a day-to-day basis in Russia. 

The intro to the book was well-written.  It was very brief and only lasted a couple of pages, but it gave a clear indication of who should and shouldn't use this book, and how the book should be used.

Going a little deeper, I saw that the "Vocabulary" section included not only English translations of each of the slang words, but also synonyms in standard literary Russian for each word.  I think that this is very important.  Ideally, when one learns a foreign language, one should have a strong foundation in standard expressions that can be used with all audiences before delving into slang words that are only acceptable when you are having a very informal conversation with friends.  This book does a good job of providing different ways, both slang and literary, to express a given situation.  The only thing that bothers me about that section is that sometimes other slang terms are given along with the "neutral" literary forms, though according to the intro, the book is geared more towards those who already know the standard forms.

Another thing that stood out - and I'm going to consider this a positive aspect - is that there is no мат at all (despite having a fair share of words that are very rude nevertheless).  There are some euphemisms here and there, but most of the slang words in this book have no connection to мат.  It is nice to see a comprehensive book on slang that shows that there is more to colloquial Russian speech than spouting obscenities, especially considering that мат tends to get a disproportionate amount of coverage.

Last but not least, I want to mention how great it is that this course came with audio.  Many books, especially those dealing with slang, lack audio, so this is a big plus!

Negative Aspects

I want to preface this by saying that this is an extremely good book - the things I am pointing out are for the most part just nitpicks and probably shouldn't dissuade you from getting this book.

The first negative thing that stood out to me was that none of the Russian dialogues or vocabulary words have stress marks.  Now, the presence of audio material does partially make up for this flaw, but it would still be good to have the stress marks in case one loses the CD or mp3 files.  Given the amount of hard work that went into making this book, I can't imagine that it would ahve been that difficult to put stress marks above all of the Russian words.

Now for some specifics.  The lesson discussing the Russian army hazing (дедовщина) contains a short list of links to Internet videos on the subject.  I have a number problems with this.  First, whether you own the hard copy of the book or the .PDF file, you are going to have to type in the URLs yourself (one is a YouTube URL, one is to a video hosted on, and one is a RuTube URL that was shortened with Tinyurl).  I don't think most people would have the patience to meticulously type in each URL, especially given the fact that the book doesn't tell what each video is about (other than the fact that they all are related to Russian army hazing).  The second problem is that these videos are all hosted on public video hosting sites.  I checked them out and the links do work, but it is a well-known fact that videos on YouTube and other places have a habit of disappearing; the channel owner may close his channel, YouTube may shut down the channel, or the owner might decide he doesn't want the videos up anymore.  Lastly, I think URL shorteners like Tinyurl should be avoided in all professional publications.  You can't tell what address a Tinyurl will lead you to, and URL shorteners have been used in the past to direct unsuspecting users to sites that have viruses.  Now, how could this problem have been solved?  I think that this book should have included all video material on the CD itself (with acknowledgments as to where the videos originally came from).  The тусовка chapter also suffers from this problem - some of the URLs contain long sequences of letters and numbers - most people wouldn't have the patience to type all that out. 

There is a sentence that reads "Whereas in English there are usually feminine names for weapons and military equipment, Russian uses both male and female names."  There are two things wrong with this statement - first, "male" and "female" refer to biological sex, never to the gender of a word.  "Masculine and feminine" should be used instead.  Also, Russian not only uses masculine and feminine names, but neuter ones too (the word бревно is given as one of the examples.)

I mentioned that the lack of мат is a positive aspect, but since this book contains euphemisms for the мат expressions, I think an asterisk or some other symbol should have been included to indicate that it is a мат-derived euphemism, just to be safe. 

Who should use this book?

This book has a lot of practical value and it would be a good idea to look through it before going on a trip to Russia (or any Russian-speaking country).  Aside from the slang, there is some good information in the cultural notes of each chapter, such as a list of toasts for men and women on different occasions, common Russian superstitions, rules on forming Russian words with prefixes and suffixes (actually pretty thorough!).

There is also a nice discussion of Russian slang in general, how it is used, how certain words have shifted in and out of slang over time, etc.

Because this book contains exercises, it could probably be used in a classroom too if they wanted to do a unit on Russian slang.

So if you're interested in Russian slang, definitely pick up this book along with Barron's Dictionary of Russian Slang!

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