Following last week’s revelations, here are a few more pitfalls and milestones encountered during the ongoing learning process that will ultimately see me employed as personal translator for the Russian premier during international arms negotiations. No, that’s probably not the most likely of outcomes, but in a multiverse of infinite variations and possibilities; there’s bound to be a version of me doing just that, somewhere, right?
On the subject of alternative outcomes, it’s also interesting to consider your Russian linguistic counterpart trying to come to terms with the random chaos of the the English language. Let’s continue.
It’s emphatically stressful
There is a sudden epiphany that comes after spending time text-learning in a relative vacuum, also highlighting why it’s important to practice with an accomplished Russian speaker.
You are saying it all wrong, it’s that simple. Even with the help of a phrasebook or dictionary that highlights where the stress and emphasis occurs, syllable by syllable, you are still relying on your own flawed ability to interpret written instructions in order to form spoken, alien words. It’s another cognitive step away from the final result. A recipe compared to a meal.
So, back to audio courses, which I touched upon previously. They can be really helpful (within strict parentheses), but once again, they bring issues of their own.
In the context of stressed syllables: you are likely to hear good pronunciation and repeat it on cue, but you are still memorising what you think you hear. With the subtleties of an unfamiliar language you will still get it wrong when you believe that you are getting it right. Chances are though that you will still be in the correct ball park.
Pre-recorded audio also means that the content is fixed according to someone’s else’s parameters. If you have a hunger for the new language then your quest for words will likely outstrip the simple repeat-repeat-repeat model based around simple common phrases. But that’s progress. As a place to start: great! So, back to the “accomplished Russian speaker” again.
Would you speak more slowly please?
Perhaps this is a factor of learning any language, but the jagged rattle of consonants spat out by a Russian in full flow is something to behold. How can something so awkward be said so damn fast?! You’ll find yourself grabbing about one word in 20 from the bubbling stream, then one in 10, and with time: (hopefully) more. But that moment, when you first realise the magnitude of the job in hand will cause you to waver. Someone advised me to simply listen to a Russian radio show, just in the background, to get used to the sound of the onslaught and let it soak in – as if by osmosis. With familiarity most things become simply: normal.
Slur that again
The ongoing process of learning Russian is giving me an insight into just how lazy we are (okay, I am) when it comes to using the English language. It is as if we slur our way through words, phrases and even whole sentences. Russian words seem very precisely ‘clipped’ by comparison, almost delineating each syllable to get the message across. That’s not surprising though when Russian words often contain more information than their English counterparts. That’s if they have direct counterparts.
With words that contain a “root” plus gender, case, tense and status suffixes/prefixes; Russians get away with single (often longer) words whereas we have a single “article” and a host of supporting language. So if you don’t respect all the component parts, the chances are that you are neglecting something important.
Touché or tit-for-tat
They have the case system, but we have word-order. If you think that you have it tough, consider a reversal of fortune. Russian prefixes and suffixes contain enough information for the actual word order to be very flexible. Yes there are conventions, but there is also a massive amount of freedom. Imagine moving from that to English, where word order is critical when it comes down to who owns what, or who is doing what to whom. That’s got to be a killer. Also consider the often bizarre elements of our language that we just take for granted, such as the spelling and pronunciation of: rough, cough, though, dough, plough, borough, thought, bough, fought, corps and core, beard, heard and heart etc.
They do have anomalies of their own however: a tendency to randomly (?) pronounce “G” as “V” or a word-terminating “O” as “A” for instance, but such things are small-potatoes by comparison. The struggle continues.
[Photo by klimkin]