Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

Thank you for reading, sharing and commenting!

I wish you peaceful and prosperous 2014!

Sincerely yours,
Eugenia Vlasova

Picture by Marina Fedotova

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Pelmeni: Siberian Winter Food

Pelmeni (plural, пельмени in Russian) are dumplings consisting of a filling wrapped in thin, unleavened dough. The typical filling for pelmeni is minced meat with chopped onion, salt and pepper. According to a legend I've heard, pelmeni was the favorite food of postal coachmen and hunters who had to cross endless snowy Siberian steppes. Sometimes coachmen could spend days without meeting a single living soul, excluding inns or any other en-route facilities. Minding this and particularly fierce winter weather, coachmen had to think carefully about their food. Pelmeni seemed to be a perfect solution: nutritious, compact, could be kept frozen for weeks, and was easy to cook.

To me, pelmeni is a taste of New Year. There was a tradition in my family to make pelmeni before the New Year night. We made them together: my mom was in charge for the filling, dad made the dough and then flattened the round cakes with a rolling-pin. My sister and I added the filling to the cakes and shaped pelmeni making them look like a funny bread ears. When we got two or three large baking sheets filled with straight rows of pelmeni, dad put them outside to freeze (baking sheets were too large for a fridge). Pelmeni would be served for New Year dinner, and for many other dinners throughout the long winter. In my childhood, there were store-made pelmeni, but they were half not that yummy and therefore not so popular. Home-made pelmeni were beyond compare.

Time changed. About ten years ago or so, hand-made pelmeni of quite high quality appeared in Russian stores.The tradition of making pelmeni at home has been almost forgotten, because it is so much easier to buy a pack of ready-made frozen pelmeni and spend 10 minutes cooking instead of two hours making them from scratch.

When I immigrated to Canada, I started missing my favorite food.Of course, there are Russian food stores and markets where I can buy the food from Eastern European countries, but I decided to make pelmeni by myself, reviving the memories of my early childhood. My husband helped me with the ambitious project, and the result exceeded our expectations. Our pelmeni were really good! Here is the recipe and step—by-step instruction.

Step 1. Dough. Take 2 pounds/1 kg of bread flour, make a heel with a crater on the top. Break an egg and pour it into the hole. Add 0.5 teaspoon of salt. Pour about 1.5 - 2 cup of water and start kneading the mix until the dough is rubber-like. Put the dough ball to the bowl and cover with a kitchen towel, so it won't dry. Normally I ask my husband to help me with the dough, because I can not knead it well enough.

Step 2. Making the filling. Take 2 ponds of ground meat (the classic Siberian feeling is 50% of ground beef and 50% of ground pork, but you can also use lamb if you like). Chop one large onion finely, add to the meat. Add 0.5 teaspoon of salt, ¼ teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper, and ¼ cup of water. Mix well.

Make sure your onion is fresh and fine. Otherwise, the smell may spoil you the dish. Do not prepare the filling in advance. The onions may start smelling very unpleasantly if they come in contact with meat. When the filling is ready, start making pelmeni immediately.

Step 3. Dust your working surface with flour. Cut off some dough from the dough ball, make a 'sausage', and cut it into small chunks, about 1 inch each. These will be your round cakes. Press the chunk with your thumb. Dust a pin-roller with flour too, so the dough won't stick to it. Roll the chunks into the cakes. They should be thin as paper, but not too thin, so the dough won't tear when you add the filling and wrap it. The outer side of the cake that contact the surface of your table gets more flour on it, while the inner side stays relatively clear and sticky. You'll need the sticky side to wrap each pelmen.

Step 4. Wrapping. Add a small amount of the filling to the very center of your round cake. I normally put about 1 teaspoon of the filling. In your mind, divide a cake into two half circles. Stick the opposite sides together, so you get one half-circle with a meatball inside. Make sure the sides glue together well, so when cooking, the filling remains inside the pelmen. Wrap the opposite ends of your half-circle together, and you get the roundish thing that resembles an ear. Here is your first pelmen. Continue wrapping pelmeni until you run out of cakes. Then repeat step 3 and 4.
If you decide to make round cakes out of the entire dough ball, they'll get dry, and won't stick together. Making smaller portions is much better.

Step 5. Put pelmeni onto the baking sheet and freeze, if you prepare them in advance. If you want to cook them immediately, boil water in a large pot. Add salt and 2 to 3 bay leaves. Add pelmeni to the boiling water, steer them gently, so they don't stick to the bottom. After a few minutes, pelmeni will start getting up. When all pelmeni are up, cook them for 5-7 minutes, drain and serve with butter, mustard, or sour cream.

The best way to make pelmeni is with one or two helpers, because otherwise, it would take you too long, and you'd feel too tired. Now you know how to make a genuine Siberian pelmeni, so you can surprise your guests with a Russian Style New Year party! Приятного аппетита!

Friday, December 6, 2013

Russia's Open Book

I was utterly excited to learn about the New PBS Documentary RUSSIA'S OPEN BOOK. I hope you'll share my excitement when you get to know about this project too.

For Western readers, Russian literature is mostly its classics – Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, or Tolstoyevsky, as some people ironically refer to them. Needless to say this is a very narrow perception of the Russian literature. There are many bright contemporary writers in Russia whose names are utterly unknown to the wide public, and whose works are still waiting to be discovered. My desire to share my reviews on recently published Russian novels usually withers away, because the names of the writers are mostly unknown, and the novels haven't been translated yet.

You can imagine how happy I was to read about the Russia's Open Book – a co-production of Intelligent Television and Wilton Films. Broadway World wrote:

"Hosted by actor, author, and activist Stephen Fry (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Jeeves and Wooster, The Hobbit), RUSSIA'S OPEN BOOK celebrates contemporary Russian authors who are carrying on one of the world's great literary traditions - yet doing so on their own terms. Each author is interviewed extensively in the film, with contributions from their literary critics, publishers, and peers. Excerpts from the authors' recent works are brought to life by vivid animated sequences created exclusively for the film and voiced-over with dramatic readings in English by Fry, who currently stars in the new Broadway production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night"

From the trailer on YouTube, I've learned who are the authors, to whom Mr. Fry talked. Here they are:

Zakhar Prilepin (Захар Прилепин) – born 1975 in Ryazanskaya oblast. In 1990s he “worked as a laborer, a security guard, served as a squad leader in the riot police, took part in the fighting in Chechnya in 1996 and 1999”. He is a very contradictory person, and his political views (a supporter of national-bolshevism) may be somewhat extreme, but he is no doubt a very talented writer.

Lyudmila Ulitskaya (Людмила Улицкая) – a novelist and short-story writer. Being an activist, she “is actively involved in philanthropic projects”. She often writes piercing stories on social issues in the modern Russia and promotes ideas of religious and social tolerance. Though some readers think her texts are somewhat dry (an unexpected characteristic for the female writer), she works with details very thoroughly. By those details she reproduce the unique atmosphere that keeps you reading on and on.

Mariam Petrosyan (Мариам Петросян) – unfortunately, I know very few about her, and didn't have a chance to read her most famous novel “The House, in which...” (Дом, в котором...). I've added her books to my to-read list.

Dmitry Bykov (Дмитрий Быков) – He is a virtuoso of writing. He writes as naturally as he breathes. His novels are always long, and his prose is wordy, yet as delicate as laces. He works as a teacher in one of the schools in Moscow, and, honestly, I envy the kids that have a chance to listen to him. His lectures about the Russian literature are amazing. He is exceptionally good in Russia's history of early Soviet epoch.

Anna Starobinets (Анна Старобинец) – a horror fiction writer. I haven't read her works yet, so, I just added her to my to-read list too.

Vladimir Sorokin (Владимир Сорокин) – His biting, sarcastic novels were banned in the Soviet Union. He managed to be so irritating that in 2002, there was a protest against his book Blue Bacon Fat. His recent dystopian novels of the Oprichnik cycle are, in my humble opinion, a very accurate and merciless diagnostics of the modern Russian society.

Hopefully, the documentary will be available soon. I can't wait for it!

Meanwhile, if you want to learn more about the modern Russian writers, you can also read Life Stories, a unique collection of original works by 19 leading Russian writers.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Word That Can Mean Anything

Any language has many words that have literal definitions, but are rarely used in their direct meanings. For example, nobody means that you are fearsome by saying “you are awesome!”. In the Russian language, there is a word that may mean either excitement or huge disappointment in colloquial Russian, while its literal meaning “in general”, “on the whole”, “always”, “at all”. This word is вообще (vaabschE). Here are some examples how to use this miraculous word:

- Русский вообще и его фонетику, в частности, трудно выучить. Russian generally and its phonetics specifically are hard to learn.
Here вообще is used in its direct formal meaning – opposite to 'specifically'

- Почему ты такая весёлая? Why are you so cheerful?
- Я вообще такая. I'm always like that.
In this case, вообще means “always” opposing to some particular moments.

- Наш менеджер опаздывает на собрание? Is our manager late for the meeting?
- Он вообще не придёт. He won't come at all.

- Я не готовлю дома. I don't cook at home.
- Я удивляюсь, как ты вообще не умер один с голоду! I wonder why you haven't died of hunger at all living on your own!
In these examples, the word вообще has a slightly negative connotation. It is not explicit, but Russian native speakers would hear some faint note of irritation or irony.

Those were the meanings of 'вообще' that you can find in a dictionary. Now let's see the examples from colloquial speech.

- Я выпил твоё пиво. I drank your beer.
- Что ты вообще делаешь в моей квартре? What on earth are you doing in my apartment?
Вообще plays a role of “what on earth”, “what the hell” in the sentences to show extreme emotions (mostly negative).

- Я сказал начальнику, что он идиот. I told the boss that he's an idiot).
- Ну ты вообще! hmm... the mix of distrust, jealousy, fear and respect, like 'Man!'

- Посмотри, какую машину я купил! Look, I've bought a new car!
- Вообще! Wow! Super!

- Я утопил твой телефон в кружке с чаем. I sunk you phone in the mug of tea.
- Ты что, вообще? WTF did you just do?!?!?!?!?

- Её парень не чистит зубы. Her boyfriend doesn't brush his teeth.
- Вообще! Ugh!

The context and intonations usually help to distinguish whether “вообще” means excitement, anger or disgust. It is so funny to watch how far the real usage of a word can deviate from the official definitions!

Photo by Ralph Kränzlein

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Emergency Russian Course

When I was a teenager, I believed that if I learned English, I could easily travel across the globe. My very first visit to Germany, then Poland and Spain helped me to realize that the global role of English is vastly overrated. If you want to follow beaten tourist tracks, English might be enough. People who are into tourist services normally can speak English well. But if you want to step off the tourist routes and explore a country on your own, you'd better learn the language of the country you are going to visit.

So, you are very excited about your upcoming trip to Russia, but you doubt that you can learn Russian during the two weeks before you leave. “Oh, come on, Russian is believed to be one of the most difficult languages to learn, and you want me to learn it in fourteen days?”, you might think. Well, you can still learn some Russian. Of course, nobody expects you to read the original version of “Crime and Punishment” during your flight to Moscow, but you can at least get yourself prepared to ask people for directions and understand their answers if you get lost somewhere between Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Here are some tips on how to organize your emergency Russian course.

Learn the Russian alphabet. It is easier than you think. Split all the Russian characters into four groups. In the first group, put the characters that you already know. Yes, you know some Russian letters! There are at least five Russian letters that are the same as the English/Latin alphabet! The second group is for characters that represent familiar sounds, but look different – it is relatively easy. The next group is for characters that look similar to some English letters but represent different sounds. Those letters are the most confusing ones. The last group is for specific Russian characters that represent specific Russian sounds. This slideshow may help you to memorize Russian characters.

Train your ear for the Russian pronunciation of names of places. Now when you know how to read Russian characters, write down the most important words, such as the name of your hotel, the street where you plan to stay, the name of the underground station near your hotel, places where you plan to go (for example, the Baltschug-Kempinski hotel – oтель Балчуг-Кемпински, the Winter Palace – Зимний Дворец, the Bolshoy theater – Большой театр) and so on. Check these words on Forvo (pronunciation dictionary) and listen repeatedly to how Russians pronounce them.

Create your own emergency phrase book. You can use this downloadable list of phrases as an example. Practice articulating your phrases, pronounce each word slowly and distinctively. Don't focus too much on your accent though. As long as other people can understand you, you are fine.

Ah, how could you know that Russians understand you? You can find a partner online for speaking practice on iTalki, Lang-8 or similar language portals. There are many Russians looking for language exchange sessions, so they would be glad to help you to improve your pronunciation for free (or next to that).

So, by following these easy steps, you'll gain some confidence and, in the worst case, you have your emergency phrasebook printed and easily accessible. You are ready to go!

When in Russia, let your ears listen to the music of the Russian language. Like any other language, Russian has its specific rhythm and melody. Listen to it with your heart, not with your brain. Who knows, maybe your first trip to Russia is just the beginning of your love affair with the Russian language!

Moscow - Red square
Photo by solcarlus

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Swearing Correctly

As some of you may have heard, the chairman of Russia's Investigative Committee, Aleksandr Bastrykin has recently faced some very unpleasant questions while giving a lecture at the Sorbonne on prosecutions and the reform of the criminal proceedings in Russia. You can watch a short video from the meeting here and read the news in Russian here.

Politics aside, I would like to comment on the Russian grammar here. What caught my attention was the phrase that a supposedly French activist yelled in Russian: “Вы преступники!” (You are criminals!). In Russian, “Вы” is either the plural ‘you’ (like in 'you guys'), or the polite form to address a person older than you, in a higher social position, or that you otherwise want to show a lot of respect to. It seems that the rebellious guy in the video put “criminal” in plural form (преступники), so we must assume that “вы” here is plural 'you'. In this case, the phrase is grammatically impeccable.

There is something that puzzles me, however. Bastrykin was only a single representative of Russia. Why would anybody address him as plural? Is it possible that the guy, who is likely a French speaker judging by his cute r-sound, pronounced a word 'prestoopnik' with a french accent, ‘prestupnique’, adding a subtle vowel in the end, so it sounded like the plural form of ‘a criminal’ to my Russian ear (prestoopniki)? If so, then “вы” is not plural -- it is a polite addressing, and the actual phrase was “Вы - преступник!” (You are a criminal!). It sounds a little bit absurd to me: why addressing someone politely to say something offensive? You are either polite or offensive, not all in one, right? So, to sound really rude, one should scream “Ты преступник!” (Ty prestoopnik), which is correct both grammatically and stylistically.

Specifying your protest

In Russian, ‘преступник’ is a general word, like a criminal in English. There are more specific words that you can use when protesting against a politician whose moral behavior is below your standards:
  • тиран - tyrant
  • убийца, душегуб - murderer
  • разбойник - a robber
  • вор - thief
  • казнокрад - embezzler of public funds
  • палач - butcher, executioner
  • похититель - kidnapper (a kidnapper of ...+ noun in Genitive)
  • насильник - rapist
  • развратник - profligate
  • лжец - liar
However, you should remember that each of those words, though not rude, imply serious accusations, so they should not be used in vain.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Don't Be Polite, Be Helpful

“There is a large Russian community in my city, and I have made friends with some Russians. We meet on weekends and chat. We talk a lot. But all we do is talk. Nobody corrects my mistakes, and I don’t feel that I’m making any progress,” one of my students once complained. His Russian was fluent, so we could communicate well in Russian. As I was his teacher, I corrected his occasional mistakes, but it didn't hinder our enjoyable conversation. I knew exactly how he felt, because after two years of living in an English speaking country, I struggled with the same problem: my English was good enough to communicate with native speakers, but native speakers never corrected my mispronunciations or clumsy grammar. They think it would be impolite, but I would prefer them to be being helpful rather than polite.

I recalled my talk with the student, when I met my native English speaking friend, who finally allowed himself to correct my funny mistake. “Please keep me on the loop!” I told him. “Hmm, Eugenia, it is actually IN the loop, but I like your phrase better - on the loop, like hopping from one loop to another”, - and he jumped like a rabbit, making me and my husband burst out with laughter. Of course, I will never make this mistake again. Each time I use this phrase, my friend stands in my mind's eye, jumping like a crazy rabbit. I wasn't offended at all; I was very thankful. If only all my English-speaking friends were kind enough to correct me, I could integrate into the society much faster.

I can often read on the internet that being a language of international communication, English is being strongly influenced by other languages. Immigrants, business partners from other countries, tourists - the globalized world speaks English. Broken English. What you, my dear native speakers, could do, is to get rid of false politeness and help others to learn your beautiful mother-tongue. Of course, correcting other people is a delicate job. You have to find a way to sound non-offensive, but believe me, you can be really helpful - both to non-native speakers and the English language itself.

I’m in a good position to correct students of Russian - it is my job, actually. I don’t think that you can correct a total stranger without the risk of being rude. But if you know a person a bit better, you can, for example, echo the correct version of the wrong phrase or word keeping the natural pace of your conversation. By doing so you won’t accentuate your correction much, but still the English learner will remember the right version. You can also make a friendly joke, like my friend did - it should work better in terms of teaching. Of course, people differ, and some may not like your corrections, but you will be surprised to learn how many people will actually appreciate your help!

Have you ever corrected any non-native speakers? If so, how did they react to that? Do you know any other ways to correct people in a non-offensive manner? How do you react to corrections from other people? Please share your thoughts with me!

Correct Me
Photo by Gwynfier, on Flickr. See more pictures at Gwynyfier.com

Monday, November 4, 2013

How To Learn Russian Independently

I’m a great supporter of online education. The Internet opens literally unlimited opportunities, for example, everyone can learn any language for free or next to free, while staying at home.

Once I had an online lesson with an English-speaking student who had managed to learn Russian by himself. He did a really great job. He spoke Russian fluently, even though he had never had formal language courses. He needed some speaking practice with a native speaker (me), so we talked for an hour about everything. Our conversation went smoothly. I finally asked him what he did to achieve such fluency in the language that is believed to be among the hardest to learn. He told me that he had been learning Russian for three years, and that his way to success lay through practice, namely:

1. Writing letters (emails) to Russian penpals. He considers writing very helpful for memorizing new words and phrases, and for “switching from one language to another”.

I often suggest to my students to write as much as possible, because I have noticed that those who practice writing progress much faster. Don’t try to write long essays. Nobody expects you to compose another “War and Peace” unless you want to. Ten short sentences about the topics that are really interesting for you is quite enough. It is important to pick topics that are relevant, because if you have nothing to say about a certain thing in your mother-tongue, you would hardly be able to master a text about it in a foreign language.

2. Watching popular Russian movies with subtitles. The student told me that when watching movies, he first understood about 60% of the dialogues, but it was easy to comprehend the rest from the context.

Understanding the bigger picture instead of looking up each particular word is a very helpful habit that every language student has to develop. When you watch a movie in the language you study, you do what you used to do when you were acquiring your mother-tongue as a small child: you try to make sense of what you see with the help of the context. Even though you don't understand every word, you guess and then verify your guesses as the movie proceeds. By exercising this way, you train your language skills much more efficiently than when memorizing words detached from the context.

3. Reading books. My student likes Soviet SciFi. He tried to read Master And Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, but had to drop it after the first few chapters, because there were too many cultural references that are well-known to Russians, but are rather obscure to people with a different cultural background.

Reading books in their original language is a pleasure of the highest class. Fiction is good in providing information about culture. Gestures, traditions, the way characters communicate, moral judgements - all these things that culturologists describe in their nerdy slang fiction writers manage to put into beautiful prose. Don’t be afraid to choose a book that is too hard for you, but be prepared to meet with strange, weird, unexpected things that you don’t know how to interpret. My personal approach toward fiction is “it is better to be hard and challenging than boring”.

4. Listening to music. My student said he preferred contemporary Russian rock. Another student of mine was crazy about Russian female pop-singers. Both spoke Russian very well, so it doesn't matter what kind of music you like. What does matter is that you love those songs and can listen to them over and over again. Luckily, we are living in the epoch when music of any genre is easily available on the Internet. Songs are particularly good for memorizing new words and how to pronounce them correctly.

When a movie or a book grips you, you don’t need to remind yourself “it’s time to practice Russian”. You simply watch and read, and enjoy the content without even thinking that you are learning a new language. Self-education does not require you to be a self-disciplined kind of person, at least when it comes to languages. Languages are all about passion and having fun. Otherwise, why bother learning them?

Photo by Alan Levine

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Spooky Stories

Halloween is coming, and many people ask me whether Russians celebrate this holiday. Well, the first (and the last) time I celebrated Halloween was when I was a student, in late 1990-s. While some people, mostly younger ones, do celebrate Halloween, many don’t. In the average Russian city (my dear Russian readers, please, correct me, if I’m wrong), there are no large sales or specific decorations in supermarkets, mothers do not bake bleeding-zombie-hands pies, and kids do not beg for candy. With increasing popularity of American culture, specific holidays like Saint Valentine’s Day and Halloween have come to Russia, but been transformed into yet another excuse for having a noisy costume party

However, I can't say that Halloween is completely foreign to the Russian culture. When I was a kid, we used to tell spooky stories to each other. There was a special time and special place for them. Pioneer camps (summer camping for kids) were where we learned those spooky stories. And the right time to tell them was at night, after going to bed. Imagine a relatively large group of pre-teen girls, and a beautiful summer night. Nobody wants to sleep yet, but going outside is strictly prohibited. The only available entertainment was to tell spooky stories to each other, in the hope that there was at least one novice in the group who has never heard them before, and who would react strongly enough to make everybody else happy.

Black cat yellow eyes on Moorlynch ave
Photo by Grégory Massal

The spooky stories (страшилки in Russian, from страх, fear) vary from generation to generation, but the common features remains unchanged: something supernaturally bad starts happening in some place or/and to a protagonist. The main character sees bad omens and receives warnings from everywhere, but does not pay enough attention, and finally dies in a scary fashion. The classic one is the story about the Black House set in the black forest. By accident, one girl found the Black House and entered it. She saw a black table with a black casket on it. She looked inside and found a dead man with the black holes where eyes should be. The dead men strangled the girl, put her into the casket and then ran away. Since then, the dead man has been wandering among the living people, while the girl lies inside the casket waiting for another naive visitor to replace her in the Black House. When I was 8, I found this story pretty impressive. I was the novice who had heard this story for the first
time, and my first night in the camp was sleepless.

I love spooky stories, and find them very helpful. First of all, kids practice their acting skills when telling the stories to each other. They have to develop their own style to keep up the suspense. Should they tell the story with a special scary low voice, or should they rather choose an intentionally dull, and a somewhat bored manner of speech? Should they scream or whisper? They learn to feel when their audience actually buys their story, and they improve their public speaking skills. I remember there was tough competition between spooky story narrators, where the main prize was the audience scared to hiccups. Psychologists believe that spooky stories also help kids to work on their fears. Of course kids realize that the stories are not true, and
they learn to control their fears, which is a very important part of growing up.

The genre of spooky story is alive and thriving in the age of the Internet. Here are a couple of websites (1 and 2), where you can read spooky stories in Russian and, who knows, may be you can find something there to surprise your friends on the Halloween. If you want to share your spooky story with others, you are very welcome!

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Success Story

My dear readers, let me share with you a story of persistence, struggle and success. A true story from my teaching experience. I hope, it will inspire you. I hope, you'll find something here that will help you to accelerate your progress. I have been teaching Russian for three years only, yet I'm very proud of my students and thankful for each of them for their curiosity, enthusiasm and friendship. This is the first story that I decided to share with you. Hopefully more stories to come.

The way to success!
Photo by Robby Ryke

Last year, I received a request for a Russian speaking practice from a Korean student. The student, a girl in her late teens (I'll keep her name undisclosed), wanted to study in Russia for one year, and needed to boost her speaking skills. The first introductory session revealed that the student had good knowledge of the Russian grammar, but her communicative skills were below the level that would allow her to live in a new language environment with comfort. The student was highly motivated, since she was already admitted to a prestigious university in Russia. I had one month to help her develop language skills.


During this month we had 60-minute speaking sessions over the Internet two times a day - one in the morning and one in the evening. Sometimes, we could have only one session a day, and sometimes we had to skip a day or two for some reasons, but normally we spent 120 minutes a day practicing Russian. I have to note that I would actually suggest teachers and students to opt for one session a day, because biologically, our intellectual capacities are quite limited, and a student may need more time to acquire new information, so for many students taking one session a day would be more efficient and productive than taking two sessions every day and ending up feeling overloaded with new information. In this particular case, the intensity of classes were rather a necessity, and the student herself insisted in the twice-a-day mode.

Building Language Environment

One of the key features of our sessions was that neither of us spoke any other language besides Russian. Considering that the student would be in a Russian-only language environment in two months, I considered it useful to give her an opportunity to struggle with the necessity to express her thoughts, needs and wishes in Russian.

Besides speaking practice sessions, I provided the student with links to various online resources from free online libraries to news sites, pronunciation guides, and YouTube channels relevant to her personal fields of expertise and interest. Thus, she could build her online environment so that she could immerse herself in Russian whenever she wanted.

Speaking and Listening, Writing and Reading

In order to develop both active and passive language skills, I diversified our sessions mixing reading and listening tasks with speaking and writing. For example, I asked a student to read a news article from a Russian news site (reading), and then we discussed the text (speaking). Or I read a short story in Russian aloud and then we discussed the story.

An important part of our routine was writing tasks. Every day the student wrote 15-20 sentences about the topics relevant to her life and/or on the topics discussed in the class. Writing tasks helped the student to learn and memorize new words, while I used the written texts to track my student's progress and to spot/identify grammar patterns that needed to be explained or corrected.

Choosing Topics

Russian psychologists Aleksey N. Leontiev, Lev Vygotsky, and Alexey A. Leontiev pointed out in their works that intellectual development is only possible through active operations with objects. Second language acquisition is no exception to the general principles of cognitive activity, thus encouraging the student to use Russian by modelling natural conversation was my primary task and challenge.

After the first few sessions I found out what topics were relevant to the student, what topics might resonate with her and cause positive emotional response. Among other topics, the student wrote essays about her family, her pets, her city, her expectations on education and living in Russia, her travel experiences, her favorite food, the folk tales famous in her country, the movie she wanted to talk about and so on.

Having more time, I would organize the flow of the topics more logically, in order to cover as much helpful and frequently used vocabulary as possible, but considering the urgency, we both, my student and I, did the best we could. Every time, I would check her essays for grammar mistakes and explain the most frequent ones (I believe a teacher should correct only repeated mistakes or the mistakes that are the result of the influence of the student's mother-tongue; this approach helps us focus on important grammar patterns and saves time). After that, we talked about the topic, I asked questions that really interested me, so our conversation flew naturally. Though the lively discussions were really hard for the student to support due to the limited vocabulary and lack of experience in conversational Russian, she didn't show signs of stress. Rather she was involved into our discussion, forgetting that our conversation was a part of her educational course.

The Outcome

One month of intensive speaking practice proved my method to be efficient. The student made tremendous progress during the course. She overcame the language barrier and started talking freely. She started speaking more fluently and using her vocabulary more effective. She went to Russia, managed to settle in a campus, and eventually successfully completed her study.

I believe that the learning experience described above could be reproduced with other students (with some reasonable adjustments to their life style, areas of interests, and personal goals). Second language acquisition ingrained into the student's everyday routine proved to be a fast and efficient way to fluency.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Russian Grammar In Brief

I used to say that grammar is not that important for acquiring a new language. This is true. Knowing linguistic slang doesn't help you to become fluent in any language including your native one. Practice does. However, as I learned from my teaching experience, for some students it is quite useful to understand the basic logic that lies behind the over-complicated Russian grammar rules. This is why I decided to make a brief observation on how the Russian grammar describes or, better to say, categorizes the world.

Words mean something more or less material. There is something in the real world, and we have a word for it - this is how any language works. Besides, words have grammatical meaning - the meaning that is needed to build an intelligible sentence, to show the relations between words in a sentence. In English, you have a word order to do this job, and endings are not that much needed (Love is all you need. vs. Need is all you love). In Russian, the regular meaning (semantic) is normally placed in a word root, while grammatical meaning is concentrated in its ending. In short: roots (and, sometimes, affixes) are for saying what you want to say, and ending are for connecting words together.

Русский (Russian) - the root Русс- is for Russ-, suffix -к- is for adjective, and ending -ий is for masculine, singular, nominative

Grammar divides everything into the two big categories - things (nouns) and actions (verbs). Verbs stand for actions. Verbs show who acts (I myself, you or someone else, a grammatical category of person), does he/she/it acts alone or in a company (number), where in time the action takes place - past, present or future. Take a Russian verb, find its ending - and you'll see what person, number and tense a verb is. For example: бегут (are running) - the ending is -ут, which is a regular ending for 3-rd person, plural (they), present tense. In the Past tense, Russian verbs have gender, but don't have person. For example: бежaла (was running) - the ending -ла is for Past, feminine for all the three persons. Я бежала (I was running), ты бежала (you were running), она бежала (she was running).

The verb ending -ут is for present, third person, plural (they)

Nouns which stand for things can be singular or plural, which is quite understandable: you either have one flower or many, one stripe of bacon or many, one hand or... Hmm.. Well, a few centuries ago, there was the third grammatical number in Russian - the dual number, but it vanished completely (good news, you have fewer endings to memorize). Also nouns could be masculine, feminine or neuter. Grammatical gender is not equal to sex, so there's no logic behind defining revolution (революция) as feminine, and pollution (загрязнение) as neuter. The third grammatical attribute that each noun has is a case. What is a case? A case shows how one thing relates to other things in a sentence. For example, if a nous is a subject, i.e. something or someone who acts, you should put a noun into the Nominative case. If a noun is a direct object, out it into Accusative. Same in English: She (nominative) see me(accusative). So, each noun has a gender, number and a case.

Things may have some features or attributes. Adjectives are what you have to use if you want to make your language more colorful and descriptive. I've heard a term “modifiers”, but I don't like it. Adjectives do not modify nouns, they describe nouns. Adjectives in Russian are not quite independent, they 'belong' to a noun. Thus they inherit grammar attributes from a noun, its gender, number and case. The rule is very simple: put the corresponding adjective into the same gender, number and case with its noun.

You can perform an action in this or that fashion. For describing how exactly you perform an action, Russian has adverbs. Adverbs is my favorite part of speech, because it has no grammar categories except of degree of congruence. You run fast (быстро), and you can run faster (быстрее).

Of course, knowing that Russian nouns have six cases won't help you to learn Russian, but, probably, my article will help you to accept the reality of Russian grammar.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Why Grammar Doesn't Matter

A few days ago, I chatted with my Russian friend who lives in the United States and teaches English as a second language. She told me about her student who insisted on practising grammar, but couldn’t build the simplest sentence when it came to real conversation.
- She asked me to practice in complex object, but couldn’t ask me if my daughter was sleeping while we talked.
- Hmm, could you please remind me what is complex object? - I replied, feeling slightly embarrassed with my ignorance.
- It is like “I saw her standing there” or “I expect taxes to increase next year”.
I sighed with relief. Of course I knew it. I use it every day. I learned it from practice. This is why its name was new to me, but the structure itself wasn’t.

It brings me to the question of what do we really learn when we study a new language. Knowing a language means being able to speak grammatically correctly. However, the key word here is “to speak”. It is quite possible to learn a grammar rule not even realizing that it is a grammar rule. The opposite situation is also possible and not rare. One of the first English grammar rules I learned in school was adding -(e)s to verbs in the third person, singular. I know this rule very well, but I can easily forget to add the right ending to a verb. So, knowing grammar rules and speaking correctly are two different skills.

The Russian grammar is overcomplicated, as a matter of fact. Does it mean that Russian is hard to learn? Well, not harder than any other language. Don't let the Russian grammar scare and discourage you. Everything is a question of practice. If you practice in speaking language, you'll improve your speaking skill. If you practice in doing grammar exercises, you'll improve your performance in doing grammar exercises, that's it.

I would not suggest anyone to ignore grammar rules completely. It is indeed helpful to understand how grammar works. It is necessary to a mature brain to see some logics (patterns) behinds things. But if you commit a few hours a day to your language practice, you’d rather read, listen, write and speak than learn grammar. It will bring you to the desired results much faster.

Photo by Sancho McCann

Friday, February 8, 2013

Competition vs cooperation

Perestroika, formerly closed Soviet society has recently become more open and friendly. So friendly that Americans were allowed to invite the best English students in my school to take the TOEFL. The reward for the very best student was one year of study in one of the leading American schools. In the early 1990's, you wouldn't find a Russian teenager who wasn't dreaming about America, so all the students, including myself, tried our best to win.

Our test instructor, a nice looking young girl with a snow-white smile, explained the process, and the test began. After an hour she had to stop the testing because to her surprise, we were helping each other with the test. She couldn't understand why a student would help another to pass the test when clearly only one winner would be selected out of 20 students.

“Guys, what are you doing? I don't get it, why? Only the winner will go to America, not everyone here. Don't you understand this?”, she cried.

Of course, we did. We knew it was a competition. However, there was something more to it than that. She was an American teacher, and we were Russian students. We wanted to impress her with our English. We knew that she would judge all the students in Russia based on her experience with us, so we wanted to do our best on this test. If there was a fight, it was not between us (we were quite realistic about our abilities and understood each other's knowledge of English).

This story came to my mind when my friend, who is also Russian, told me about her experience when taking a professional test in Canada. The test was administered over the course of three days, during which students stayed on campus. And those three days were something that my friend said were, "the worst hell”. She said that other students were extremely non-collaborative. “When someone asked me for help, I tried to be helpful. I didn't mind answering their questions or letting them borrow my books. But they never answered my questions or even worse, they intentionally gave me inaccurate information. Why? We were not competing with each other, why did they treat me like that?”

In both cases the reaction of the strangers seemed overly emotional and irrationally strong, which is a true sign of culture clash. I think, the reason for the grave misunderstanding is that the Western culture is highly competitive and individualistic, while Russian culture is all about solving problems collectively. Personal success in the North America is the major value, which is openly declared in books and TV shows. This idea lies in the very core of the Western culture.

The question “Are you a team player” that is so popular among North-American HRs have no sense for Russians who are team players by culture. For centuries Russians have been valuing “we” over “I” and have ostracised individuals which are too focused on their own personal success. If this wasn't so, the idea of communism wouldn't have been so massively supported during the October revolution. It doesn't mean that Russians don't care about personal success or that every Russian is exceptionally supportive. I'm talking about a difference in perception. Sometimes we tend to cooperate where people from Western cultures see competition (I can't help but say 'we').

In order to give you the true sense of a collectivist's mindset, let me tell you about a story that was included in 1st grade textbooks for years. Once there was an old man who had three sons. He felt very ill and called for his sons. When they came, he told them to tear the broom apart. The brothers tried hard, but failed, because there were many twigs in the broom. Then the old man told them to loosen up the twigs and break them one by one. The brothers managed to complete the task very quickly. “When you are together, nobody and nothing can break you. When you are alone, you are easy prey”.

Photo by Barret Anspach

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Three Keys To Successful Language Acquisition

During the last few days of 2012, after all the necessary New Year preparations had been done, I reviewed some Russian grammar books written by both native and non-native speakers. I have no idea how people can actually start speaking Russian after reading a book that gives you 26 different verb conjugation paradigms and expects you to memorize which verb belongs to which paradigm with all the subsequent changes in verb stems and endings. No one is able to memorize all these endless conjugation tables. If I, being a native Russian speaker, ever thought about what paradigm I should use for each and every verb, I would be silent, may be the most silent speaker on Earth. Yet, many non-native speakers, including my dear students, speak Russian fluently. How did they manage to succeed? Three years of tutoring, as well as my own experience of learning English, allow me to define the three major factors that help to improve language acquisition. Here they are:

1. Speak, don't learn

Language is a mean of communication, not a target. Imagine that learning languages is like cooking. What if instead of just following a recipe you start reading tons of books about food chemistry, physics and the physiology of digestion? Would those books help you to become a better chef? Probably yes, but the one who practices cooking would succeed much sooner. Just try to use your new language from the very beginning – and you'll progress. Read, write, listen, and speak. And, when necessary, use your grammar books and vocabulary lists as a reference.

2. Find what is really interesting to you

Boredom kills. Our brains refuse to work when we try to focus on irrelevant topics, and we should respect that.

I took EILTS exam twice. The first time, during the speaking section, an examiner asked me to talk about ageism. Just the night before the exam, I had read an article in a magazine about this topic. The problem was new to me, I found it pretty controversial, so we had a nice discussion about whether there were any professional occupations where age is a disadvantage. I got 7.5 for speaking (with 9 as a native-like level). The next time, I had to talk about sports in elementary school. It would be hard to find a topic that was more irrelevant to me. I had no kids, I hated sports when I was in school, and, frankly, I couldn't care less about both sports activities and elementary school. I got 6.5. Oops.

I told you my story just to illustrate how important it is to find topics that are of actual interest to you. You have to be intellectually and emotionally involved in what you read (in your second language), you have to like the songs that you listen to, enjoy the movies you watch, etc. This is why I always choose what to talk about with my students very carefully. I find it stupid and humiliating to start with “simple” words and topics - “my day”, “my home” - with a student that holds a PhD in Anthropology and Political Science (unless he/she wants to). Don't be afraid of advanced vocabulary. If you are a scientists, why not to start with words and concepts that you are working on? Try to transfer your “content”, your personality, into a new language environment. Say what you usually say, but in a new language.

3. Build your own language environment

In order to acquire a language naturally, you have to surround yourself with the language. Find blogs, news sites, online forums and communities (in the language you are learning) that are so interesting to you that you'll to check them for updates frequently. Follow tweets from native speakers that share interesting information, like pages on Facebook that are relevant to your job and hobbies. We live in a world without borders.It's a matter of your personal curiosity to find the right information channels. And, hey, it's more fun learning a new language this way than memorizing abstract grammar rules.

Good luck and happy language learning in 2013!

elephant talk
Elephant Talk by Gina

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