Sunday, November 30, 2008

Is Russian Difficult?

Many people told me that Russian language is difficult to learn. Well, it is not exactly so. First, there are no articles in Russian. No a/the, der/die/das/ein/eine and other puzzles. Second, Russian has only three grammatical tenses — past, present and future. The last one encouraging note is about Russian alphabet (it is called Cyrillic): we have the whole five same letters with Latin alphabet. They are: A (like a in father), E (like ye in yet), K (like k in kitten), M (like m in map), and O (like o in not). I’m through with good news.

Frankly, if I were not a native speaker, I would never learn Russian. This language is too irregular, too irrational. Russian spelling follows three different logics (interesting, what would Mr. Sapir and Mr.Whorf say about this?) — morphological principle, phonetic principle (what I spell is what I hear) and sometimes historical principle. As a result, we get many rules and even more exceptions.

Russian grammar is pretty complicated. Nouns in Russian have three genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter), however a large number of words can be easily identified both as masculine and feminine. Russian is one of a few languages that have a category of animacy. Russian nouns can be animate or inanimate. Hypothetically, many years ago people used animacy to mark if the referent of the noun is alive or not. In modern Russian, the word “corpse” (труп) is inanimate, the word “deadman” (мертвец) is animate, however, obviously, the referent of both these words is not alive anymore. Russian syntax is based on free word order that means only that there’s no universal scheme “subject – verb – object”. Words in Russian sentences can be put in any order you like, but it doesn’t mean that there’s no rules. Russian word order depends strongly on what you want to say. In other words, the word order expresses the logical stress, and the degree of definiteness. Let me stop here.

When I was a child, I learned Russian knowing nothing about genders, tenses, logical stresses and communicative intentions. My parents talked to me, I listened to them and repeated after them. Most kids learned speaking very well at age of 3 or 4. I’ve been learning English since 10, at school and at the university. I learned grammar rules and word usage. And know what? My English is still not so good as my Russian.

“Be like children” is a good advise. The only one way to learn language is to use it. It is like dancing – you should dance to learn dancing. You would never start dancing well if you learned dancing from books only. If you listen to native speakers, read books, watch movies, and, try speak and write the language you are studying as frequently as possible, your memory works for you. Step by step, you remember words and their combinations from fiction, pop songs etc. Practicing this way, you unavoidably start speaking the language soon and choose correct grammatical forms automatically. It’s just a question of how often you use the language. So, there are no difficult languages in the world.