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

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