Earlier in the year I dropped a couple of articles into the system, inspired by my own ongoing adventures with the Russian language (Find them here and here). Well, the nightmare continues; but with some perverse comfort at the revelation that the Russians also find it a battle to learn English! It’s enlightening to see how the other half live (and learn). What I’m trying to say is that: no one has it easy when it comes to language a new language. Whichever side you are on take heart: there are pluses and minuses to both.
So the fight continues. After climbing this particular mountain for quite some time; progress has been made – though I won’t be discussing particle physics in Russian for the foreseeable future. It’s notable though that a few interesting oddities and repeatable errors (frequently repeatable in fact!) continually recur. Here’s what I’ve found:-
“Wow! your Russian sounds really good”
You will hear this a lot from your English friends and colleagues, usually when you drop “Hello, I am from England”, “What is your name” and “Where is the restaurant?” (all in Russian) randomly into the conversation, simply because someone asked you how your Russian was going. They are absolutely wrong in their estimation of course, as any brief interaction that you dare attempt with a native Russian speaker will instantaneously and brutally reveal to you.
You could be inventing word-noises on the fly and your English chums would still be impressed. They are praising you for climbing a mountain, when you are in fact only 30ft up the side (and the mountain happens to be Everest). So, believe them and you are set for a monumental crash. You are c**p, and will remain c**p for a long time to come. Each hour of practice is a lesson in humility.
How’s that “Kh” and “rrrrr”?
These are the two hardest sounds (for a native English speaker), and Russians use them an awful lot. The first is a cross between the letter “H” and the start of an asthma attack. It’s the sound you make when trying to hack up something from the back of your throat. The second is something between a rolled “R” and a purring/growling cat. It’s not that the sound is particularly difficult to make per se, it’s just that it requires some vocal acrobatics to switch in and out of it – in the middle of a surrounding word that consists largely of consonants. So naturally I try to force it (which is wrong) and I growl, literally growl like I have some bizarre form of tourette’s syndrome, several times throughout the most innocuous discussions on food, music, the state of the economy, anything.
That’s a lot of nouns
Expanding your vocabulary is not just about “cat, table, television, tram, beer, hotel, car, airport, cake, horse” etc etc ad nauseum. What is it about nouns that attracts us? Perhaps the notion that knowing them gives us some kind of ‘grip’ upon something tangible rather than abstract? How’s your Russian vocabulary doing? chances are (especially if you are a self-taught beginner) that there’ll be a lot of nouns in there at the expense of other word forms. Nouns feel like progress don’t they? But how are you going to use them if the supporting language isn’t there? Sentences aren’t strings of nouns. Well that’s obvious you say, as you mentally run through your wordbase, and with realisation mutter a stifled “oh, duh” under your breath.
That’s what it looks like??!
It’s the curse of audio-lesson dependency, though they do have their place. We’ve all been there. Can you believe now that you once thought you’d grab an audio course and instantly become proficient? That this would be “learning Russian”? It’s the difference between cramming a few handy travel phrases and “knowing” a language. It depends on what you are looking to achieve of course. After around 20 or 30 times parroting “Tell me please: where is Red Square?” you will realise that audio courses suck in absolute beginners and spit out simply: beginners. What’s more, relying on them gives little indication of how the words are constructed. You hear the sounds and you mimic them. Later you will read the Russian for “Tell me please: where is Red Square?” and it will look like nothing you ever imagined. You’ll even struggle through the sentence and think: “hmm, now where have I heard that before”. Then in a flash of light: it clicks.
More next time.
[Photo by AllAnd]