Summer 1994 (2.2)

Profiles Abroad: Daniel Weiner
From Folk Music via Noun Declensions:
Entering the World of Azerbaijanis

by Betty Blair

Getting Started Azeri. What Works? by Daniel Weiner

He's possibly the best non-native speaker of Azeri living in the United States. Azerbaijanis are amazed when they first hear him speak. And what's more, he's learned to speak Azeri through his own resourcefulness. He began with no books, no teachers, no dictionaries ­ only an incredible drive to learn. He's never set foot in Azerbaijan. He's not married, or in any way related, to a native speaker nor are his closest friends Azerbaijanis. He's accomplished all this despite being only 23 years old and having to overcome obstacles most others don't have to think about. Daniel Weiner is blind.

He'll tell you it was Azerbaijani music ­ an Ashiq folk song - that mesmerized him, making him so curious about this country, its language and people. "I have an obsession for music. I play the piano, the flute, and I sing. When I hear beautiful music, I want to know the words so well that even a native speaker can understand me." And that's what set this music lover on his long, pain-staking road to study Azeri about three years ago.

Finding resources has been his greatest obstacles. The fact that Azeri is written in three scripts ­ Cyrillic, Perso-Arabic, and Latin ­ hasn't simplified matters. Emigrants from Baku, whom Weiner knew, could read the Cyrillic script but they usually didn't know Azeri as they had always spoken Russian. Azerbaijani Iranians knew how to speak Azeri but had never formally been taught to read and write in the Perso-Arabic script. And the Latin-modified script recently adopted (1991), as the official alphabet by the Republic of Azerbaijan is still too new for most Azeris to read fluently.

Obstacles haven't stopped Weiner though. Born with congenital rubella, he became totally blind at the age of nine. "The truth is I've been blind most of my life. You get used to it. There are alternative ways of doing things when you're blind. It's not the end of the world, you know," he'll tell you matter-of-factly. And that's the way he approaches difficulties in learning Azeri, too.

He's had a long, mostly futile, search for teachers. Of the people Weiner knew who spoke Azeri, most lived far away from his home state, Florida, and had little time. Sometimes, he was able to practice speaking long-distance. Sometimes he'd receive cassette tapes.

Eventually, his diligence was rewarded when he located a grammar text in English (Tabrizi dialect) and though the Azeri was not written in an official script, he managed to learn some grammar basics ­ especially how the language was structured, a critical step as it is an agglutinative language: suffixes added to the roots of words alter their meanings.

"It was a great help when I was able to get my hands on dictionaries, even though they were in Cyrillic." Since Weiner couldn't read them, he convinced a good friend to learn the script just to help him. He didn't let it bother him that his friend knew neither Azeri nor Russian. "A thousand books aren't worth as much as one person who's willing to help you," he'll tell you.

Sometimes in desperation to expand his vocabulary, he would memorize pages of the dictionary. It's not a method he'd recommend. "You have to watch out; most dictionaries don't tell whether the words are old or new, or whether they're rarely used. Many of the meanings are often omitted. And it's rare to know how the words should be used socially, or perhaps, more importantly, how and when they shouldn't be used."

Before Weiner even knew that Braille had been developed for Azeri, he had figured out a system for himself based on the Cyrillic alphabet. There are no Azeri-English Dictionaries in Braille but now, thanks to friends traveling to Baku, he has two Azeri-Braille books, which include stories about one of Azerbaijan's most famous folk heroes, Khoroglu, who was the son of a blind man himself.

Azeri is not the only foreign language Weiner knows, nor his first. At 11, he took a keen interest in languages and now has opened a vast universe to himself through the dozen or so that he feels comfortable speaking ­ Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, German, Russian, Polish, Azeri, Persian, Afrikaans and Slavic. Oh, yes, and he's dabbled a bit with Mandarin, Arabic, Greek, and Shona (Zimbabwe).

Weiner's goals for the future include Azeri. "I'd like the chance to go to Azerbaijan and study Azeri with native speakers. I don't want to go there as a tourist. I'd like the chance to get involved in some sort of project and make a contribution to the Azerbaijani society."

Long-term, this brilliant young man with a marvelous gift for languages would like to be an interpreter doing simultaneous translations. With so many languages under his belt, and so much determination, little should stop him.

Daniel Weiner consented to this interview because he wanted to make new Azeri-speaking friends. Contact:

From Azerbaijan International (2.2) Summer 1994.
© Azerbaijan International 1994. All rights reserved.

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