Is It Possible to Learn Russian?
Naomi Britz of Ruslingua, and Marina Lukanina
140 million Russians, not to mention 120 million neighbouring Georgians, Armenians and Kazakhs will tell you it is. Granted, they have a distinct advantage; so is it possible for a Westerner, based in Moscow for a limited amount of time, to learn Russian? I’ll still tell you it is, and I’ll tell you why.
There are two elements to consider: Russian itself and how you approach learning it.
The nature of the beast
Russian has a lot of familiar words, and even a beginner student will find he has a substantial vocabulary. Apart from the obvious international words like футбол, компьютер, кафе and туалет, Russian started borrowing words a long time ago from other languages. Thus we have этаж (fr. étage/floor), парикмахер (ger. Perücke macher/lit wig maker i.e. hairdresser), бухгалтер (ger. Buchhalter/bookkeeper or accountant), молоко (eng. milk) and видеть (ltn. videre/to see). There are of course all the Russian words which have entered English like vodka, tundra, tsar, balalaika, and Leninism, which may not necessarily be the most frequently occurring of words, but are encouraging nonetheless.
Sometimes Russians add -овать to English verbs, and voilà, they have new Russian verbs: адаптировать (adapt), контактировать (contact), компенсировать (compensate), дублировать (duplicate), копировать (copy). My personal favourite is нокаутировать, which really does mean to knock someone out. Adjectives are similarly adopted and adapted by adding –ский or -ний, hence дипломатический, романтический, драматический, регулярный, профессиональный, квалифицированный. Familiar nouns include анализ, операция, реакция. Pity the poor Westerner racking his brains over what результат might mean, the trick lies in appreciating what looks easy in print but is far less easy to recognise when spoken.
Don’t stress it
What about cases, gender, declensions, prefixes, conjugations, adjectival agreement?
I hear you groan. Don’t let the cases get to you. It is far more important to say something meaningful than to say something beautiful. You can say something wrong and still be understood. You aren’t in school and won’t be marked down if you get your cases mixed up. Of course, if you jazz up your speaking with some evocative body language, even broken Russian can get you far.
Pronunciation is, in my opinion, the greatest barrier to understanding and speaking. It’s not surprising when you consider that Russian has 33 letters and people only have 32 teeth to get their tongues round them. The way to overcome this particular hurdle is to listen.
Active listening – take your cue from the most natural of language learners
Babies spend a year just listening before they vocalise the words they need the most. Your adult brain reduces the time lag, but take it from babies that listening is the most important factor in language acquisition. When babies do start speaking, they’re not spouting modern political theory but communicating simple needs like wanting a drink or to be picked up. Keep your aims similarly grounded – in the early stages you need Russian to get things done, be that catching a cab, buying a blin or flirting with a devushka.
The best language learners are those who aren’t afraid to risk sounding stupid, making mistakes or entering into conversation in the first place. Of course, this can lead to self-destruction. Once while I was staying with a Russian family, the father started a diatribe on… I wasn’t sure what. I nodded and smiled and said да a lot until he suddenly asked me «это хорошо или плохо?». I understood the question, but my heart was pounding at having to answer it. Given I had a 50/50 chance of satisfying him with my response, and judging by his furrowed brows during the telling I plumped for «плохо». He nodded, gratified and I was out of the woods… until he looked up and asked «почему? ». Panicked, I muttered something about really needing the loo and ran away, but later I proudly related having had my first discussion of political issues in Russian!
The tricks of the trade
The more you know, the easier it gets. Make sure you really know the essentials – the pronouns, easy verbs, basic objects – the hooks you can pin new knowledge on - and then start thinking laterally. Names of people and places are a great place to pick up language hooks. Remember Yugoslavia? It’s where the Southern Slavs lived. And it’s not a coincidence that Yugozapadnaya metro is located in the South West of the city. Consider Prime Minister Putin, whose first name, Vladimir means ruler of the world (владеть to rule/own, мир – world). Vladivostok rules the east. There was already a Novgorod in the North, so Nizhninovgorod identified the Lower New City.
A little goes a long way
Many new students quickly become intimidated by the effort they think they have to put into learning Russian. Knowing you can’t commit two hours a day is not a reason to abandon your more modest efforts. Studies have shown that the optimal time for really intense study is 10 minutes. Faced with lack of time, just learn a word or two a day – don’t wait for the perfect evening to study for hours on end – and before long you’ll have a decent sized vocabulary. Listen out for the new words you’ve covered, this will help you stop focusing on everything you don’t know and start reveling in what you do. The words will stick and you’ll be able to figure the gist of conversation.
Language acquisition is drastically aided by drinking, smoking and having sex. Alcohol loosens the tongue in any language, ponsing fags is an easy conversation starter and the pillow method is exceedingly effective.
Regardless how much you study and the specific methods you employ, relax and enjoy yourself. The more fun you have, the better you will speak. Правда!
In a separate interview conducted by Martina Lukanina, Yuri Prokhorov, Head of the Pushkin State Russian Language Institute, added:
- It is essential not to be afraid to ask questions and to speak, even with mistakes. Russians are usually tolerant to foreigners who do not speak Russian and therefore are eager to help. Learning the language implies leaning not just the grammar and punctuation rules but the entire cultural background, such as the fact that you cannot give an even number of flowers in Russia unless you attend a funeral service; you have to open the gift if you receive one right away, in front of guests and the person who gave it to you and not just put it aside, etc.
- So the “situational language practice” is necessary to receive high results?
- Absolutely. There should be courses of everyday communication. For example, an expat taking a walk with his teacher to a store and role play various situations there. The model of communicative behavior is very important here. How to behave in the store, at the restaurant, at the gas station? Everyday component of a speech is crucial.
- At what level of Russian would you recommend using language courses?
- I’d say from the very beginning. I know that expats are usually too busy to attend group classes; however they prove to be the most effective. You hear a lot more information in a group class than in “one-to-one” setting.