Are you familiar with that sinking feeling? You reel off another Russian word-salad to your Muscovite friend with the enthusiasm of a junior presenting his half-baked school science project. Then, after a pause, said friend stares blankly back at you and with perfect diction, calmly states: “Just say it in English, please.”
Back to the drawing board, or the Russian language class, or that expensive audio course, or the phone app, the textbook – whatever. “There are so many mistakes,” he summarises, shaking his head sagely and offering: “Russian language is so hard,” as your compensatory excuse. Then, by way of correction he’ll deliver a variation on your verbal train-wreck that sounds slight to you – but signifies a chasm of misunderstanding to him.
Does the note of sympathy make the situation better or worse? I haven’t yet decided, although I hear it relatively frequently. Yes, my Russian language skills are still officially “poor”, although (very) slowly improving. English friends enthusiastically say, “That sounds really impressive,” to which I reply: “That’s because you don’t speak Russian!”. I could be making random sounds and they’d still look-on wide-eyed. So what’s the problem here? There are a few.
Do you remember viewing a page of Russian cyrillic characters and recoiling at the seemingly alien script? Never mind the meaning -you couldn’t even handle the alphabet! The good news is that those 33 characters are much easier to learn than first appearances would suggest.
For a start, you get 5 of them ‘for free’. Yes, Russians use A, K, M, O and T in (almost) the same way that we use them. I included a qualifier there largely because the Russian “O” is often pronounced as a sharp “A”. It all depends on whether it’s “unstressed” or “stressed”, respectively.
There’s more good news in the fact that the majority of the other characters represent vocal sounds that we are familiar with, and that we would denote with either one or two latin letters Things start getting a little stranger (to us) with a breathy back-of-the-throat “H”, a double-consonant “T-S” and a “U-I” combination that sounds like grunting response to a gut-punch. Finally, two characters that have no sounds at all, but determine whether the prior character is pronounced “hard” or “soft”.
Rules is (not always) rules
And that neatly segues into a major problem that I have encountered when learning Russian. No problem, I thought when approaching the intricacies of Russian text. “If I learn the rules of the language then I’ll be able to apply them, -no problem.” Well, although rules exist -there are also a wealth of exceptions that frequently apply, often rendering the rules little more than flexible guidelines -and not really “rules” at all.
There are tables purporting to unlock the structure of Russian language, that follow the form: “Do this, except ‘here’ -where you should do that instead- but not when ‘this’ applies, in which case you should do ‘another’ instead. The notion that we should trace a mental line through all the qualifiers mid-way through a sentence whilst our conversation partner looks on expectantly is bizarre.
So, I’ve decided to dig deep for phrases that generally work, and then modify accordingly -on the fly. It’s Pidgin Russian and it’s not pretty but I can clunk through a few basic ‘life’ scenarios. That’s progress.