Cultural experiences and funny musings by two twenty-somethings living abroad
When it comes to languages, Hmsies is doing pretty well. Between us we can speak English, French, German, Russian and Spanish and we can understand parts of other languages to the extent we might be able to get by. But my Russian is a bit of a horror show rather than actually being any horosho (good) and the words I try to say sound as bad to Russian ears as a cat scratching its nails down a blackboard. Frankly, my Russian is pretty bad, but then everyone is a beginner at something at some point and I never properly started to learn the language. Until now!
But why do I actually want to go through the effort of learning such a tough language and reaching a level of some fluency? Well, Russian is a language I have always found really interesting – it’s one of the world’s major languages that uses an alphabet different to my own. From a utilitarian point of view it is a language that will almost certainly help me in my working life, plus it’s a great way to understand another part of the world, especially the language of a people who have contributed so much in the field of politics, science, theatre and the arts, and I’ll never be able to find out about what Russian-speakers have brought to the world unless I learn the language.
So what am I going to do to learn this language, which is the furthest language from English that I have learnt so far in terms of how alike they are?
Well, I have already taken the first step of learning the alphabet. I figured that if I was going to learn a language that uses a different alphabet, I should learn the alphabet first and then go on from there. It’s much better to use that than inaccurate transliterations because the Russian language produces sounds that do not exist in English and I don’t want to sound too obviously as someone who has effectively Google translated their speech. So now, I am more or less familiar with the alphabet, but it is still tricky to read words if you don’t know what they are and what they mean.
A good option though would be to take some classes. As my workplace is very multicultural, there are lots of language classes on offer and Russian happens to be one of them. However it could be an advantage that I’ll be learning Russian via German, because German and Russian share quite a few grammatical concepts like noun genders, cases and adjective formulation and even some vocabulary – things that are not shared between English and Russian.
Another option is to find some short simple stories for children. Because Russian and English are so different, in some ways it might actually be a good idea to start learning such a language as if I were a kid, like learning my mother tongue for the first time, rather than try to relate everything I learn in Russian to some equivalent in English, and then eventually to build on that. I found a really good website with a YouTube channel called “Book Box”, which produces animated children’s stories spoken by a narrator with subtitles, and this is something that’s not just available for Russian but also for many other languages so it’s worth checking out if you’re interested in learning another language too. Here’s one of the stories I saw which I’m trying to draw some vocabulary from!
I also decided to get a tandem partner from quite early on. It’s good to be put into situations where you have to use the language, plus you get a lot more fun out of it rather than just learning it from a textbook and your teacher being the only person you can converse with. After all, a language is to be used to communicate with people and you can’t do that if you’re forever stuck behind a textbook, so get out there and meet people to speak to! (Olesya, you’re gonna have to start speaking to me in Russian more!)
Once I’ve got the foundations settled, then I could start learning Russian the way I learnt German at university. We were always encouraged to find 5 new words every week, find synonyms for them, write down what they meant in German and then write an example sentence using that word (whether we actually did that task was another thing), and we were always encouraged to try and find music, films, book and TV shows in the target language and then write or say something about it.
A key thing to do though is to try and think as much as possible in the target language as possible. At university, I gradually came to realise that, if I constantly tried to think in English whilst speaking or writing in German, I was inevitably going to make lots of mistakes, so the sooner I start thinking things in Russian, the better it will go and the more accurate it will be.
So this is where my challenge to learn Russian will properly begin! I’ll post some blog entries from time to time to let you know how it’s all going! Are any of you learning Russian or any other language? What are your best tips?