Alexander Lipson’s unforgettable Russian course

A short text from A Russian Course by the late Prof. Alexander Lipson of MIT:

The Abnormal Woman.

I’m an abnormal woman. My dear husband loves his wife. If he knew, what would he say?! My dear children love their mommy. If they knew, what would they think?!

Do you know where I was today? And do you know what I did? In the city there is a chic restaurant. I was there the whole day. Other women were there as well. They drank tea and, in general, behaved well. I drank vodka and, in general, behaved very badly. They listened to classical music while I sat under the table and smoked big black cigars. While they spoke about culture and life, I stole all their shoes. And while I stole their shoes, I cried.

My God, Dr. Schultz! Why? Why?

Dr. Schultz is not an analyst but an expert on concrete (as in “concrete and glass”) and the little masterpiece above serves an educational purpose: Lipson was a brilliant, innovative teacher. There are links to scanned pages of his Russian course in the comments section here. I’ve read somewhere that Lipson followed a system proposed by the great linguist Roman Jakobson. To quote from reviews on Amazon:

Many years ago, I studied Russian with this textbook. It was the funniest and most effective foreign language class I ever took (of the seven languages I know). Although the take on Soviet life is dated, Lipson’s linguistic theories completely revolutionized and simplified the notorious idiosyncratic Russian verb system into an easily learned system of rules.

Or this:

I took Lipson’s course from the master himself at his home in Cambridge Massachusetts the summer of 1963. He was then a graduate student of Horace Lunt at Harvard… I learned Russian using Lipson’s text which was then under development and under his direct tutelage in his parlor at home with half a dozen other course attendees. The learning speed was breathtaking to me who was a veteran of courses in three other languages and knew how quickly or unquickly learning in those other much simpler languages had proceeded. Lipson was a shooting star teacher with a truly five star text!

Or this from the Language Hat post linked above:

I respond well to linguistic approaches such as the one Lipson pioneered for Russian. Thank Bog I used Lipson’s books for 2 years, I really, really understand the structure of Russian in ways that those who learned from Soviet sponsored texbooks do not. His choice of vocabulary was pretty weird, though. I learned the word for “concrete mixer” before I learned the word for “airplane”, for instance, because one of the dialogues we had to memorize concerned a lazy construction worker. Lo and behold when I got to the USSR I wound up working on a construction site. Full of lazy (and drunk) construction workers. Working on – you guessed it – the betonomeshalka.

Or this testimony:

 I failed Russian my second year at Harvard, (that was doing it the hard way). After I was out of Harvard, I took Russian at night in a course by Professor Alexander Lipson of M.I.T., and studying Russian Lipson’s way, I learned basic Russian in ten months (that was the easy way).

This is the LRB blog post that got me talking about Lipson.


    • Yes, but surprisingly effective too – there’s a theory that at least some people learn foreign languages better if they have to use them in absurd or unusual situations or contexts.

  1. Taking a Russian class using Lipson’s text ignited a love of linguistics that fuels my work 40 years later! The course was brilliant and memorable. I have not seen the text in all the intervening years and I can still tell you about concrete workers and shock workers washing their hands on trolley buses and hooligans smoking on trolley buses. We are a blessed few:)
    хулиганы курить на троллейбусах

    • Культурные люди не любят курить в троллейбусах!

      I can understand how Lipson may have borrowed Jakobson’s approach to Russian verb conjugation, but how did he come up with his little stories, such as the tale of the ant, the ant’s wife and the ant-eater?

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