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.