Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Peripatetic School of Russian

I did indeed follow through with my intention of starting to learn a new language, and the language I eventually picked was Russian. The more I thought about it, Russian was the logical choice because I have a great fondness for Russian literature, and so I'd be much more likely to use a knowledge of Russian and keep it up. While Persian and Arabic strike me as interesting because I'm interested in Islam and the Middle East (and because I just find the Arabic script which both languages use attractive) but present rather less that I'd be actively interested in reading. (Though I did pick up a few books on Persian from the library and get through learning part of the alphabet.)

So I ordered a copy of the Penguin Russian Course by Nicholas Brown from Amazon, and from the library I picked up Pimsleur's Basic Russian at the library.

I've been progressing through both programs slowly. In the Penguin text, I've worked through the alphabet and some basic words, but am taking some time to be able to write reliably, due in part to the fact that handwritten Russian script is in a few cases drastically different from the printed alphabet. For example: the Russian "t" sound is represented by a letter that looks pretty much like an English "t" or Greek tao -- but the cursive version looks like an English cursive M. Almost makes me tempted to forget about cursive (as I long ago did in English) and just write the exercises as if they were typed. But some it seems like one ought to try to do the thing properly.

With the Pimsleur audio course, I've been extracting the lessons to my iPod and listening to them while taking my afternoon walk around the corporate campus. I'm now moderately proficient at saying things like "Excuse me", "Hello", "Goodbye", "Do you understand English?", "I don't understand Russian very well", "I'm American", etc. However it's been making me realize how essential spelling (and the instincts coming from knowing the phonetics of English, Latin and Greek) is to my language acquisition skills. In English, and to an extent in Latin or Greek, I can hear a word and pick it up pretty quickly because I'm fairly confident as to what phonetic sounds make it up. I know enough of those languages to know how a word is likely to be spelled -- and thus what phonetic sounds I am likely to be hearing.

However, I have no such instincts when it comes to Slavic languages as of yet, and so I find it very difficult to tell if what is being said and say it correctly. For instance, the word for "hello" is (spelled very roughly phonetically) edravstvoyte. However, to hear it (even with many, many repetitions) it was hard for me to tell if it ended in an "itche" or "oyte" kind of sound.

Clearly, we must originally learn language without giving any thought to spelling, but it seems that I at least have lost much of any ability to address things in that manner. I find it very hard to feel confident in using a word if I don't know for sure what phonetic sounds compose it, and in a langauge I'm not yet very familiar with, I can't feel confident in knowing the phonetic compostion without knowing the spelling.

So while I'm enjoying the walking and listening approach (and it assures that I get my daily dose of Russian) I'm finding that as of yet there is no replacement for book learning.


Annie said...

Phonetically (using the standard Russian transliterations) hello is zdrastvoutye (Здравствуйте). It ends in the Russian letter 'e' which translates 'ye', but when you say it, the -tye all blend together into one sound. I struggled with this quite a lot when I was learning Russian. You can always forget about the formal hello and just say 'privyet,' which means 'hi'. Learning to read and write in Cyrillic is a big help. It's easy and it makes other people think you know a lot more than you do. Good luck!

Bernard Brandt said...

One text/tape set that I have found very useful in learning how to speak Russian (to the very limited extent that I can) and more to the point, sing Russian, is How to Pronounce Russian Correctly. It is very useful in showing one how to do the subtle shifts necessary to sound more like a Russian and less like a Yank. You can find it here:

Other than that, a thing that I have found about Russian speakers and the language is that it has very subtle shades of sarcasm in it. Think "nyah-nyah-nyah", and you have the y-glide essential for getting the "soft" or "front" consonants.

And one last thing: It has helped me immensely in having watched "Rocky and Bullwinkle". Get in touch with your inner Boris Badanov. That should help immensely in getting the Russian sound. Is only one problem, though: is irresistable urge to say, "Moose and Squirrel must die!"

Anonymous said...

Gde babushka, Darwin? Gde?

Anonymous said...

It's been waay too long since my Russian classes in college, but...

If you can say "hello" in Russian, you can say anything. Or so my first Russian teacher said.

Find an "in" with the Russian emigre community; they are very friendly and will help you with the language, even though they may not understand why you'd want to bother. Piano lessons for your kids are a good entree. At least around here.

Also, if you think of the Cyrillic alphabet as that dream code you always wanted when you were a kid -- and even better, because it's "real" -- it becomes fun to memorize, read, and use. And, guess what? Just like code, it's not that hard to memorize. And what could be cooler than a code designed by a saint?

Every language teacher I have had, and they are many, has claimed that in THEIR language spelling is phonetic. It's not ever true, but Russian is actually better than English, once you get used to the rules and the Cyrillic "code".

If you can still find it, look for an old edition (pre-1980) of Clark's "Russian for Americans". My Russian teachers swore by it, although they complained bitterly that each subsequent edition was dumbed-down. Memorizing the dialogues at the beginning of each lesson was their favorite form of homework.

Oh, and listen to the Yale Russian Chorus (you can get copies of recordings, I'm sure). It will help your pronunciation.

Scotch Meg

KateGladstone said...

Good luck with Russian handwriting -- I have to say that I eventually got my Russian handwriting to the point that at least some Russians have praised its appearance even at speed ... even though I got to that point by writing a semi-joined calligraphy-pen adaptation of Russian italic typeface rather than by sticking to actual Russian cursive!

As you'll gather from the above, I've at least one thing in common with you: dissatisfaction with Cursive As We Know It. If you'd care to learn a bit more, perhaps visit the "Writing Rebels" page of my web-site -- -- and explore the rest of the site if you wish.