Learning Russian: a beginner’s tale01-Mar-2013
I have wanted to learn Russian for quite a long time, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, I think it sounds beautiful, and I find the script so interesting because it’s so different from my native English: I want to look at a page of Russian text and be able to understand it. I also love a lot of Russian literature and after having studied French for about 15 of my 24 years, I know that when you get to those stages where it all seems like a chore and like you’re never going to be able to understand a certain grammar point, that you need passion to get you through it: if you have something to fall back on that you truly enjoy (in my case, reading), then it makes the struggle a whole lot easier and will help to keep you going. Finally, I knew I wanted to learn a new language but I wanted to do something non-European, so with the above in mind, I went for Russian. So, with my decision made, I finally took the plunge and I started classes back in January. For the next few weeks, I’ll be telling you all about my struggles and my triumphs, and sharing some tips that might translate well into your own classroom, from a learner’s perspective.
First of all, let me tell you a bit about the kind of classes I’m attending. It’s a beginner’s course for people who have no previous knowledge of Russian. The course lasts 10 weeks and I attend classes one night a week for two hours. We started off with about 18 students, and they ranged in age from about 21 to about 75, so a real mix of people! Now, we’re half-way through the course and we’re down to 13 regular attendees.
The teaching style is very communicative, as it should be at such a low level, so we learn chunks of language: key phrases that we would need at the airport or around town, such as “Hello. Here is my passport. Where are the toilets?” and “Hello. Where is the metro station? Is it far?” Funnily enough, I can also give directions in Russian, so if I do go to Russia for the first time and somebody asks me where the Kremlin is, I could tell them! I mean, I have the words to tell them, but I don’t actually know where it is. Maybe I’ll pretend I know, just so I can practise my new vocabulary: “go straight on, then left, and then right and it will be on your left”.
The communicative approach has actually been my first struggle, and it sounds strange, but I think I’m a bit too curious for my own good. I’m probably quite rare because I love learning pure grammar and drills: repeating verb conjugations was always one of my favourite parts of French class! So to learn in this communicative way makes me want to know more about every aspect of what I’m saying. For example, one of the first things we learnt was ‘My name is…’ and this translates to ‘меня зовут…’ (pronounced ‘meenya zavoot’). After studying French, I know that these words don’t translate directly to ‘my’ + ‘name is’, so I want to know what kind of word class ‘меня’ is and what tense ‘зовут’ is in. But of course, it’s too early for me to understand this kind of grammar, and so I have finally learned to embrace the endless, non-thinking repetition and drilling. This was really difficult for the first few weeks: I don’t remember how I learnt French when I first started, and I’m sure it was in this functional way, learning whole chunks before progressing onto grammar later. But my memories of French are more advanced and much more grammar-focused, so it’s been difficult for me to regress to this more “basic” method. But now, of course, I accept that I’m nowhere near ready for the advanced method and am perfectly happy with the mingling activities we do, asking everyone in the class “What’s your name? How are you? Are you a tourist? Is this your suitcase?” over and over again!
Of course, the most basic thing we learnt for the first few weeks of the course was the Cyrillic alphabet, which is both similar and different to the English alphabet. There are some characters that are exactly the same, both orthographically and phonologically, so these are easy. Then there are some that we don’t have in English at all, and these are fairly easy too because you just have to learn them (except for this one sound that I still haven’t cracked, but I’ll save that for another post). Then, there are the hardest ones, where the character exists in English but has a completely different sound in Russian:
It’s still really hard for me to see these letters and to pronounce them correctly rather than accidently pronounce the English version. But I’m sure as time goes on, I’ll become more and more habituated to them. For now, my most successful way of remembering how they need to be pronounced is to think of some simple common words and to link those words’ phonological pronunciation with the orthographic character. For example, ‘restaurant’ in Russian is ‘ресторан’ so I can identify the ‘р’ with the ‘r’ sound. Similarly, vodka in Russian is ‘водка’, so it follows the same process. The more I expose myself to these characters in texts, the more frequently I’m getting them correct; and reading them aloud helps too.
I hope you’ll enjoy following me on my learning journey, and if you have any tips for me, whether you’re a language teacher or a student, please leave a comment in the box below!
Read more about Becca’ journey through the Russian language by following the links below.