Textbooks for Gaining Reading Proficiency in Eurasian Languages

The ordinary language class in American universities often focuses on the four skills (speaking, listening, reading, writing) at the same time. This is exactly what most students need, regardless of their future profession or intended use of the language. Scholarship in the humanities and social sciences often demands developing a reading proficiency of another language, especially when studying a region as linguistically diverse as Eurasia, where imperial rule meant that no one language is just enough.

I always advise students who ask me to work with them towards their honors’ or M.A. thesis to start their journey towards a reading knowledge of the language the summer before they start working. Three years of four-skill instruction in the college classroom are not needed at this stage of their studies. A diligent use of a good grammar-based textbook might be just enough. It often is. The following list is my recommendations for such textbooks and readers that can help in gaining a reading knowledge of a Eurasian language. Most are at least OK for individual study as well.

For Russian, Slavica Publishers have three different options, best used together: Jules F. Levin et al., Reading Modern Russian (1979), Patricia M. Arant’s Russian for Reading (1981), and Ruth L. Pearce’s Russian for Expository Prose (1982) in 2 volumes. Al three provide a good starting point. They also have some great readers and grammar textbooks (with exercises) that are worth checking out if you are a serious student. Their “Case Books” series (available for Russian and Czech at the moment) is the best there is for studying the Slavic system of cases seriously. Charles E. Townsend and Eric S. Komar’s Czech Through Russian, revised and expanded edition (2000) and Michael Heim et al., Readings in Czech (1985) are good options for Czech, the first one can be used even without much knowledge of Russian. The more grammatically-minded student will enjoy Michael Heim’s Contemporary Czech (1982). They also have a Slovak textbook for beginners, but a student with prior background in a Slavic language will make much better use of Slovak for Slavicists (1976) published in Bratislava (with translations to numerous languages). For BulgarianSlavica Publishers republished the famous textbook Български език (1964 and 1968 in the original; 2006 in Slavica‘s edition) as well as Charles E. Gribble’s perfectly helpful Reading Bulgarian through Russian, 2nd revised edition (2013). Readers include A Bulgarian literary reader (1968). A Basic Reference Grammar Of Slovene (1993) should also be acquired, perhaps alongside Zakaj ne po slovensko? published in the late 1960s in two forms: one using the “direct method” and one using the “synthetic method”. The second one is preferred for reading purposes. Students of Polish should use Apprendre le polonais par les textes (2005) or Lehrbuch der polnischen Sprache auf der Grundlage literarischer Texte (2018). For Serbo-Croatian, Ronelle Alexander has written an incredible textbook for all three variants, but the real deal is the grammar companion. For readers: Slavna Babić’s Serbo-Croatian Reading Passages (1967). See also Monica Partridge’s Serbo-Croat Practical Grammar and Reader. There are many recent and good four-skill textbooks for Ukrainian, but hardly any that are meant for reading purposes; Harvard offers a Ukrainian for Reading Knowledge course over the summer, which is rather expensive. Good readers include Ukrainian Reader with Vocabulary and Notes (1966), Ukrainian Prose Manual (1977), and Readings in Ukrainian Authors (1949), all of which assume an intermediate knowledge (can be replaced with very strong Russian). Many of these materials were published by the Ukrainian Canadian Committee. An old-school textbook that can serve the purpose of acquiring a reading proficiency is Andriĭ Horni︠a︡tkevych’s Contemporary Ukrainian (1975).

Students of Hungarian will find Zoltán Bánhidi et al., Learn Hungarian (1965) as a great entryway to the language. The Foreign Service Institute’s Hungarian Graded Reader, like all of their graded readers, is immensely useful and available online for free, including audio files. Шандор Деак’s Учебник венгерского языка (1960s) is the best overall textbook, but students who have no previous experience with Soviet textbooks might be intimidated by the first few lessons that offer phonological insights in great depth yet unbelievably dry style. They can be skipped. For Romanian, Ana Cartianu’s A Course in Modern Rumanian (1958) and An Advanced Course in Modern Rumanian (1964) will likely remain the standard course for years to come. Slavica has an auxiliary reader by Rodica C. Botoman et al. (1982) that can be a source for additional reading materials. Albanian especially suffers from a dearth of learning materials, but an obscure handbook by Leonard Newmark, Readings in Albanian, is available freely through the U.S. Government. It is a very peculiar book: with only 30 units (out of supposedly 100 units of a series that I believe was never completed), the reader gains reading knowledge by simply reading, reading, reading. Not for the faint-hearted. Anne Farmakides has been a champion of Modern Greek for decades. Her Modern Greek Reader and A Manual of Modern Greek are a must (the first volume of each) as well as the supplements published by McGill University which include novels and short stories prepared for learners (but not adapted), including in Katharevousa. 

Students of Georgian should use Howard I. Aronson’s Georgian: A Reading Grammar and Georgian Language and Culture: A Continuing Course. Both textbooks, published in 1990 and 1999 respectively, are entirely overwhelming and should be read slowly. George Hewitt’s Georgian: A Learner’s Grammar can be used as a companion volume for reference. Students of modern Armenian would find Thomas J. Samuelian’s A Course in Modern Western Armenian (2 vols., 1989) useful but difficult to acquire. It is essentially an attempt to write down what Samuelian used to do in his classes, so many of the chapters are written as imaginary dialogues between an English-speaking student and his teacher. Still, useful. Mary Hakobyan’s Eastern Armenian Textbook is meant for the general reader but has great reading passages. For Classical Armenian, see textbooks by Robert W. Thomson (1975) and Robert Godel (revised edition in 1990).

This is the place to introduce you to Dunwoody Press, a legendary publisher in the field of little-studied languages. Among their publications are readers, like Advanced Georgian Reader and Armenian (Eastern) Newspaper Reader and Grammar but also grammars, such as A Short Grammatical Outline of the Chechen Language. Their readers are also useful for dialects, like Hijazi Arabic or Gheg Albanian, and — since this is a Caucasus paragraph — Azerbaijani/Azeri. Especially noteworthy is Michael Craig Hillmann’s entire series of Persian textbooks.

Dunwoody Press also has offerings for students of Turkic languages, including a one-volume beginners’ and intermediate textbook in Kazakh, a reader of Turkmen and Uyghur, as well as an Islamic reader of Uzbek. The real deal when it comes to Turkic languages, though, is Indiana University Press. Modern Literary Uzbek is a fantastic resource, as is a textbook of the same name by András Bodrogligeti published by Lincom Europa. Harrassowitz, another famous publisher for language learning, has a Chrestomathy of Modern Literary Uzbek (1980) which is well worth your time. Indiana University’s Uralic and Altaic Series is unparalleled for very small Eurasian languages, including Jungar Tuvan, Slekup, and Eastern Ostyak. Some highlights include Kirghiz Reader and Kirgiz ManualBasic Course in Uzbek and Uzbek Newspaper Reader; Basic Course in AzerbaijaniChuvash Manual; Buriat Grammar and Buriat Reader (though Buriat is best accessed after learning some Mongolian); Bashkir Manual; Yakut Manual; Tatar ManualA general word is caution is that “manuals” are more difficult to use, and demand more linguistic aptitude, than textbooks. Manuals generally have one section on grammar and then texts with minimal notes, which is intimidating

For premodern literary Turkic: Eric Schluessel’s An Introduction to Chaghatay is amazing and freely available online. For Ottoman is the expensive Korkut Bugday’s The Routledge Introduction to Literary Ottoman (translated from German) is good. It is the only option for learning Ottoman without any Turkish. I like The Delights of Learning Turkish (2014) for Modern Turkish, but Elementary Turkish by Lewis V. Thomas is more entertaining. Yusuf Baz’s Turkish Grammar in Practice is also useful.

For Mongolian, see Indiana University’s ample series: David Montgomery’s Mongolian Newspaper Reader, John Hangin’s Basic Course in Mongolian and his Intermediate Mongolian, though it contains a heavy influence of his own knowledge in Inner Mongolian; James Bosson’s Modern Mongolian: A Primer and Reader. For dialects, Samuel E. Martin’s Dagur Mongolian (which is based mostly on one informant). John Gaunt’s Modern Mongolian: A Course-Book (2004) is also good: be sure to get the audio files. Rita Kullmann and D. Tserenpil’s Mongolian Grammar is indispensable, especially as it bridges modern and premodern Mongolian. Those interested in Classical Mongolian should check Kaare Grobech and John R. Krueger’s An Introduction to Classical (Literary) Mongolian, though there are other options too. 

For Finnish, Indiana keeps being useful with Meri Lehtinen’s Basic Course in Finnish, Robert Austerlitz’s Finnish Reader and Glossary, Paavo Ravila’s Finnish Literary Reader; Eli Maranda’s Finnish Folklore Reader and Glossary. Maija Helikki Aaltio’s Finnish for Foreigners in two volumes is grammar-based but uses mostly conversational situations. For the not-so-different Estonian, see Juhan Tuldava’s Estonian Textbook and Felix Oinas’s Estonian General Reader and Ants Oras’s Estonian Literary Reader of the same series.

For Germanic-speaking Europe: Jacob Smit and Reinder P. Meijer’s Dutch Grammar and Reader (1978); Einar Haugen’s Beginning Norwegian: A Grammar and Reader (1977); Elias Bredsdorff, Danish: An Elementary Grammar and Reader (1958, reissued 1999); Ann Mari Beite et al., Learn Swedish (1977). All are great beginning textbooks for future readers of Dutch, Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish. After Smit and Meijer, or if you have a solid foundation in German, readers are advised to use Christine van Baalen et al., Dutch for Reading Knowledge. Stefán Einarsson’s Icelandic: Grammar, Texts, Glossary (1945) is old but gold, but is best used alongside Snæbjörn Jónsson’s A Primer of Modern Icelandic (1927). But Icelandic is more fun when learning Old Norse…