Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Q&A: New Year Greetings In Russian

Hello! Can you please, please help me? I want to congratulate my Russian boyfriend for the New Year, but I don't know what's proper to write? Hope you have a great day and evening!

Hi! Russians like to list all the good things they wish for each other. You can go with this:

С Новым годом! Желаю тебе счастья, здоровья и удачи! Пусть все твои мечты сбудутся!

Happy New year! I wish you happiness, good health and good luck! May all your dreams come true!

These wishes are quite common and neutral.

Please note that when we wish good health (put it in Genitive: здоровья), wealth (богатства) and so on we don’t mean that the addressee is poor and sick. We just wish him or her well being.

Other things to wish:
  • процветания - prosperity (somewhat formal)
  • любви - love
  • спокойствия - serenity
  • много радостных дней - many joyful days
  • радости - joy

Some wishes can be more specific. For example, a wish to a student who is struggling with exams: Желаю тебе отличных оценок! (I wish you to get the best scores!) Or, more jokingly: Желаю тебе невредных преподавателей (I wish your profs to be not mean to you).

Phrases like May this and that” should be started with Пусть … + future tense.

С Новым Годом!

Photo by Steven Mueller

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Happy Holidays!

“So this is Christmas, and what have you done?” This song by John Lennon is in every store at this time of year. Indeed, Christmas is the right time to ask yourself this question.

This year, I taught over 180 one-on-one lessons. I've helped my students to achieve their professional goals, pass qualification exams, and bridge the language gap between them and people who are important to them. Learning languages does change your life in many ways. I learned it from my own experience and from the experiences of my students. I want to thank all of you for the good times we had together. You are the best, guys!

This year, I've launched a shop on Etsy in cooperation with my dear husband Paul. We offer funny, witty and intellectually stimulating t-shirts and home decors there). Attention, language lovers, there are many designs for you too!

The number of followers of my blog on Tumblr exceeded 1000 this December. I'm thrilled and excited about that. Over 1000 hungry-for-knowledge polyglots read my blog, comment on my articles, and ask me questions, and this keeps me in a good intellectual shape and gives me so much drive!

I recently quit my daytime job to dedicate more time to my projects. And here goes another question: what’s next?

Next year, I plan to transform my website from a humble blog to an interactive platform with language courses, forums, podcasts and more. I believe, 2015 is going to be a special year, so stay tuned!

I wish you joyful holidays and a very happy New Year! May curiosity and inspiration be with all of us in 2015!

Happy New Year!
Photo by lentina_x

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Q&A: Three Different Words For Real

What's the difference between настоящий естественный and реальный ? Could you give some example phrases to illustrate the distinctions, and some collocations?

Настоящий - 1) real as opposed to fake. Это настоящий Хеннеси, не подделка! This is real Hennessey, not a counterfeit.
2) It can also be used an an amplifier, similar to English ‘real’: Это настоящий бардак. It’s a real mess.

Естественный - natural, the opposite to artificial, or normal. Она была естественной - She was natural (= she acts normally, she didn’t pretend to be someone else). В естественной среде кошки живут 5-6 лет. In the wild (i.e. in the natural environment) a cats’ life span is 5-6 years.

Реальный - real as opposed to imaginary, also practical, factual. Добро пожаловать в реальный мир, Нео! - Welcome to the real world Neo! Реальная опасность для города - это автомобили, они отнимают всё общественное пространство. The real threat for a city is cars, they take all the public space.

In modern colloquial Russian, реальный is overused and (partly because of that) has a flavor of a poor language, a slang, when used as an amplifier (compare to настоящий) or a synonym for cool, awesome.

I hope this helped.

Photo by Steven Mueller

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Napoleon Cake

The Napoleon Cake also known as mille-feuille, a sort of custard slice cake, and has been one of the most popular cakes in Russia for two centuries. As Wikipedia says, “the exact origin of the mille-feuille is unknown”, however, one of the versions suggest a connection between the name of the cake and the Russian victory over Napoleon in 1812. Presumably, the triangular shape of a cake portion in a dish resembles the famous Napoleon's hat.

This recipe is from my family heritage. My great-grandmother wrote it about 50 years ago. My mom still keeps this piece of paper with her handwriting.

The ingredients are very basic, nothing fancy, but the cooking technique is quite complicated and requires advanced skills. When I was baking this cake I realized how much easier our life has become and how much more skillful our grandmothers had to be in order to cook so many different dishes out of plain, basic food. This is by no means a last minute recipe - it takes about 3-4 hours to cook it and it has to stand overnight to let the pastry absorb the cream. So, if you have plenty of time and want to impress your family and friends with an old-charm classy cake for Christmas dinner, challenge your cooking skills and try it!

For the pastry:
1 1/2 cup of sugar
1 cup of butter
2 eggs
2 tsp of baking soda (mmm, I think, it's too much, but...)
1 cup of milk
3 1/2 - 4 cups of flour, enough to make smooth and soft dough.

For the cream:
3 egg yolks
2 1/4 cup of sugar
3/4 cup of butter
4 1/2 tbsp of flour
4 1/4 cups of milk

Stir all dry ingredients for the pastry. Dice a cup of butter and fold it into the dry mix. Stir well (I used a mixer). Add milk. Stir again. If the dough is thin, add more flour until the dough is not too sticky and can be rolled into very thin slices.

Form 12-16 balls. Take a rolling pin, dust your work surface with a flour and make very thin, almost paper-like slices (not more than 2 mm) out of the balls. Heat oven to 180C (350F) and bake each slice for 12-15 minutes or until slightly golden-brown.

Meanwhile, start making the cream. Separate the egg yolks and stir them very well with sugar and a pinch of salt - until the mix turns a very light yellow. Add flour, mix well. Add 1 cup of cold milk, mix very well. Avoid lumps. When the rest of the milk starts to boil, reduce the heat immediately.Pour the cream mixture into the boiling milk very slowly, using a whisk to stir the cream. Stir vigorously, otherwise, you'll get flakes of cooked yolks. Bring the cream to the boil again, and cook it for another 3-5 minutes. Don’t stop stirring. Let it get thicker and set it aside.

To arrange: make layers by piling the slices on top of one another and putting a lot of cream on top of each slice. Be generous - you have more than enough of cream. Don’t forget to add the cream to the sides - the more cream the better. Crumble the most brown and well-baked slice and use it as a topping. Add cherries, chocolate or other topping, if desired. Let the cake stand for at least 8 hours in a cool place. Enjoy it.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Russian Names

When I was a child, I was an insatiable reader. I read everything I could get my hands on. Once I found the Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy, and spent a couple of weeks reading that incredibly long novel. Of course, the book was in Russian, because in the Soviet Union, books in English were quite hard to buy. So the hardest part for me was to track all the names there and figure out the relations between dozens of characters. To speed up my reading, I cheated - I didn’t read the names. Rather, I guessed them by reading the first letter and a couple of other letters, memorizing the length of the name and its shape. Funny looking British names were too weird for me back then. I couldn’t memorize them and when reading, I didn’t pronounce them in my mind. I marked the names like “the oldest guy”, “his son”, “that crazy lady - his prospective wife”, etc.

I recalled that well-forgotten episode of my biography recently, when my student told me that he was reading a long, classic Russian novel. For him, getting through all those monstrous Russian names was as hard as it was for me when I read Galsworthy. Since the Russian classic is still quite popular worldwide, here is a brief observation of Russian names. I hope it will help you to deal with the Russian classics.

Russian full names consist of three parts: first name, patronymic, last name.

First Name

Russian first names have their full form and one or more diminutive variants. Quite often, Russians call their diminutive names “short names”, but it is not rare that “short names” are actually longer than their full forms. Diminutive names are used with family and friends and generally show closeness and short social distance. At school, teachers normally call students by their diminutive names, because children are normally addressed by their short names. An older person may call a younger adult by his or her short name, which can be a sign of friendliness or patronizing, depending on their relations. What is absolutely unthinkable in the Russian culture is that presidents would be called by their short names, like Bill Clinton, for example.
Here are some examples of Russian diminutive first names:

  • Александр - Саша, Шура, Саня
  • Владимир - Вова, Влад, Володя, Вовочка.
  • Мария - Маша, Маня, Маруся

Instagram, photo
Photo by Ivano Bellini


Unlike in English, where you may or may not have a middle name, every Russian has a patronymic - the name formed from the father’s name. You might wonder, what if the new mom doesn’t know the name of the father of her child? Or she may simply not want to honor the man by giving her child the patronymic, which like the first name, is very hard to change later on. Well, then new moms make up patronymics. You can identify a patronymic by its ending: for men, it is -ович/-евич/-ич (-ovich, -yevich, -yich), for women, it is -овна/-евна/-ична/-инична (-yevna, -ovna or -ichna). Examples:
If the father's name is Михаил, the patronymic is Михайлович (for a son) or Михайловна (for a daughter)

If the father’s name is Игорь, the patronymic is Игоревич (for a son) or Игоревна (for a daughter)

Patronymic is a part of a full name and is normally used in formal occasions. It may also show your respect to a person. Sometimes you may find a patronymic used alone, without the first name. It is a very informal way to address a person that is acceptable in some specific situations - among close friends or where people are used to calling each other by patronymics only.

Last Name

Last name in Russian is фамилия (familia). One of the most confusing things about the Russian last names is that they are gender-dependent: Цветаев (m), but Цветаева (f), Савицкий (f), but Савицкая (f). However, this is true only for the last names ending with -ов(а), -ев(а), -ин(а), and -ский/ -ская. Last names ending with -их, -ко, and -ец (probably, some other endings should be added to this list) have no gender variations.

Regular Russian names have to be declined, and they follow their specific declension rules. For foreign last names the rules are more complicated: most male last names can and should be declined, while female last names remain unchanged in all cases: у Курта Воннегута, but У Анны Воннегут. However, Italian last names ending with -i or -o are not declined. There are other exceptions, too, so even Russians get confused when trying to add a foreign last name to a Russian sentence.

During the Soviet Era, it became a tradition to put the last name before the first name. I don’t know for sure why this happened back then, but this fashion has returned recently, and my friends register their accounts on Facebook in this way: last name + first name. It is a great source of confusion, because for people who don’t speak Russian, it is absolutely impossible to figure out which is which. Interestingly enough, celebrity names have been always written in the normal order: First name + Last name: Alla Pugachyova has never ever been introduced as Pugachyova Alla.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Setting Up Right Goals

We need goals. They navigate us through the chaos of life. They help us to become what we want to be. They organize us. If you decide to learn a new language, you have to set up your goals.

The only problem is that more often than not our goals remain unachieved. Most people start blaming themselves for being too lazy, or for procrastinating too much, or for being disorganized and wasting time reading Facebook instead of learning a couple of new grammar rules. Others start blaming their life circumstances - I work too much, kids take all my spare time, if only I had a helper and were less busy with my household routine… All these are true - we do kill time reading Facebook, kids require a lot of time, and your boss won't be excited to learn that you failed to meet an important deadline because you've been busy memorizing new words in Japanese. Yet, some people manage to learn a new language, and sometimes even more than one, while some just stop learning languages eventually.

I believe that the reason behind most of these failures is wrong goals. Goals equal outcome. Often we consider details about the process rather than setting up desirable outcomes to work toward. For example, if you say “My goal for the next year is to study Russian at least 3 hours a week,”, I bet you'll fail and feel guilty about it by the end of the year. If you want to improve your Russian, then your goal should be like “By the end of the next year I should be able to have a basic conversation in Russian”. Ideally, you also have to have an actual pragmatic need to communicate in Russian if you truly want to achieve this goal - a new job or educational opportunities, some close friends in Russia that would enrich your life, the love of your life that happens to be a Russian speaker etc. Desirable outcome planning can navigate you through the learning routine. Routine itself, even well-intended and well-planned is simply not a navigation tool.

So, what goals work and motivate? The ones that are relevant to your personal desires. For example, French modern art fascinates you. Your goal could be “Read XYZ books about French modern art (of course, en français)”. Or “Understand what a guide in the Louvre says”. You realize that those books are available only in French, or you suspect that something important is lost in translation, so you anticipate a meaningful reward for your efforts. Actually, you don’t have to feel like it's a goal. Those books attract and absorb you, so you don’t think about them as you are fulfilling your learning plans. In the long run, language is a means, not a purpose.

Or, for example, if somebody told you about the project "How to Cut Household Waste in Half," but unfortunately, all the descriptions - the books and videos - about this project are in German, you can set "study German 30 minutes every day" as a goal and get permanently frustrated because there will be days when 30 minutes are impossible to dedicate to studying. Or you can limit your desired outcome to reading those books and understand what those videos are about and work on achieving this simple and practical goal. The next step would be getting to know other supporters of these projects, reading online forums, chatting with other people who are into it - and voila, one day you find that you’ve acquired German without actually learning it on purpose.

I don’t want to make an impression that I know the only right way to learn languages. There are many ways to learn language. I believe, all of them go through hours of meaningful practice, i.e. using language for some good reasons. However, the ways to failure are all the same: substituting the outcome with the process, and purpose with the routine and schedule. Don’t learn hard, learn smart and have fun! Having fun is mandatory.

They've got a GOAL!
Photo by Les Chatfield

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Q&A: Did Russian Change Over The Last 50 Years?

Hello! First and foremost I'd like to say thank you for everything you do with this blog; it's been a great help to me while I learn Russian. A while ago I was with my friend at an old book store and I found a Russian grammar book that I decided to buy called "A Progressive Russian Grammar" by J. Kolni-Balozky. The book was printed in 1962. I'm wondering if there have been many changes in the Russian language since then that I should be aware of as I use this in my studies. Спасибо!

Thank you for your kind words! I’d say the Russian language has changed quite a lot since then, but changes happen at a different pace at different language levels.

Pronunciation and phonetics have changed significantly. Back then, the older Moscow norm dominated, now we speak differently. For example, the suffix -чн- was pronounced as [шн], булочная - [булошная]. Today, the only word where we pronounce it in this fashion is конечно (of course). The stress moved to different syllables in many borrowed words ( вАхтер - вахтёр). Many other small changes happened, too.

Grammar (morphology and word formation) is more static, though modern Russian grammar books describe the Russian grammar differently. Some borrowed words may have changed their gender. I noticed that in the 1938 edition (I found it online), there is the locative case. In modern Russian, the locative case is part of the prepositional case.

Vocabulary - it depends. Of course, the basics remain the same: мать, отец, брат, стол, etc. However, there are words that are now too archaic; we no longer speak like that. There are also many new words that have emerged into Russian recently. Some words now have different connotations.

Syntax and sentences - the basic rules have remained the same, but in general, Russian syntax is changing toward simplification. When I watch Soviet movies of this era, I find their speech kind of artificial and pretentious. We communicate very differently now. Again, the grammar basis remains unchanged: flexible word order, subject and predicate (verb) should agree in number and gender, etc.

Summary: Yes, Russian has changed during the last 50 years, however the grammar core is stable. You can use this book for grammar references, but you should remember that you would sound a little bit old-fashioned and peculiar if you started speaking like that.

Photo by Steven Mueller

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish

It is not a secret that many tales migrate from one culture to another. Sometimes it happens naturally, and sometimes we know who exactly helped to accommodate a tale to the new cultural environment. The tale of the Fisherman and the Fish, also known in the Russian speaking world as the Tale of the Golden Fish originates from Germany. The Brothers Grimm included the story about the fisher and his greedy wife (Vom Fischer und seiner Frau) in their collection of folk tales. The Brothers Grimm's book had become a European bestseller in early 19th century. Eventually Alexander Pushkin, a student of the the Imperial Lyceum in Tsarskoye Selo near Saint Petersburg, read this tale in the Lyceum's library and remembered the plot, and put the story into verse many years later. Pushkin re-worked the story and made the tale sound so genuinely Russian that generations of readers have never suspected it was borrowed. Actually, for me as a native Russian speaker, it is hard to imagine that this tale didn't exist in Russian before Pushkin.

In Pushkin's poem, an old man and his wife had a small hut. Fishing was all they could do for a living. One day was particularly bad for the family: the fisherman threw in his net a few times and pulled out no fish, just seaweed. When he threw the net for the last time, he pulled out one tiny fish which happened to be golden and capable of human speech. The fish pleaded for its life, promising any wish in return. However, the old man said he did not want anything, and let the fish go. When he came back home and told his wife about the golden fish, she got mad at her husband and told him to go and ask the fish for a new trough, as theirs was broken. The fisherman felt frustrated and didn't want to bother the fish with the stupid trough, yet he did what his wife told him to do. The fish happily granted this small request. The next day, the wife asked for a new house, then for a palace, and so her wishes were escalating, until she asked finally to become the Ruler of the Sea and to subjugate the golden fish completely to her boundless will. She had already been made a czarina by that time. As the man went to ask for each item, the sea became more and more stormy, until the last request, where the man could hardly hear himself. When he asked that his wife be made the Ruler of the Sea, the fish put the greedy woman back in the old hut and gave her back the broken trough.

This poem has become very popular in Russia. It is safe to say that every child in Russia has read this tale at least once or watched this wonderful old-school cartoon:

The phrase “to be left with the broken trough” became a proverb. Another phrase from this poem that has become popular is the question the golden fish asked the old man every time it saw him on the sea shore: Чего тебе надобно, старче? (What do you need, old man?). Probably, you won't find старче in a dictionary, because it is an obsolete vocative form of старик, an old man. In the 1960s, “old man” was how young people, friends, called each other. It was similar to “dude” in American English. It is still can be used sometimes between close friends. The quote from the Pushkin's poem sounds funny when put in that context, like “What's the problem, dude?”. Considering that the golden fish in Russian is feminine and diminutive (золотая рыбка), the phrase can sound even more playful, since старче here becomes more like “daddy”, an old patron. But enough of cultural contexts.

What the original German and Russian tales have in common is the moral: greediness, like gambling, is about not knowing when to stop, and it will unavoidably be punished.

P.S.: My new shop on Etsy offers a T-shirt with the quotation from this tale.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Russian Proverbs About Wolves

Proverbs are concentrated common wisdom. Catchy phrases and proverbs often have “twin-brothers” in different languages, maybe because common wisdom looks pretty much the same in various cultures, or because popular sayings migrate from one area to another. Translators like to explain a proverb in one language with its equivalent in a target language, however, sometimes results can be misleading.

I was looking for Russian proverbs about wolves for my new project and found that to understand the meaning and the flavour of the Russian proverbs, one has to know how Russians see wolves in general.

Russians have been sharing their habitat with wolves for centuries. Russians observed wolves and learned their habits, in order to cope with such dangerous neighbours. No surprise that there are so many tales, lullabies and proverbs about wolves in Russia. Wolves in the Russian folklore are, first of all, aggressive, but what is more important, they have no compassion. Wolf is a beast that knows no mercy, trusts nobody and, very often, has no friends. Wolves can collaborate and even build some social ties, but their community is always based on the might of the strongest and the only reason for wolves to co-operate is to improve their efficiency in hunting.

Wolves appreciate their freedom and untamed state. Unlike dogs, they can not be domesticated and can not serve a man. Dogs are faithful servants, while wolves always pursue their own interests and wouldn’t hesitate a moment to betray their master.

I don’t know whether these observations are correct and can be used as guidance for wildlife watchers, but they can definitely help in understanding some popular Russian sayings.

“С волками жить - по вольчи выть” (live with wolves, and you’ll learn how to howl) is often seen as the equivalent of “In Rome, do as Romans do”. Well, up to a point, those two proverbs look similar, yet, the Russian phrase is not about how wise it is to act in accordance with the social norms of the society you are currently dealing with. The Russian proverb is about how society forms your personality. If people around you are like wolves - merciless, selfish, cruel individualists - sooner or later, you’ll become like them, and your soul will cry in desperation (this is how Russians interpreted wolves’ howling - a cry of desperation).

Another proverb, Сколько волка ни корми, он всё в лес смотрит (the wolf that is being fed enough nevertheless is looking to the woods) is about people who, like wolves, never feel grateful and have no attachment to those, who love them and are good to them. It is also a warning to those who think that if you are trying your best to please another man or woman, you can eventually bond him or her to your company. The Russian proverb is unequivocal here: no, you can’t change someone else’s nature, no matter how well you treat him or her.

To finish on a brighter note, here is a proverb that is playful and ambivalent: “Работа не волк, в лес не убежит” (Work is not like a wolf - it won't run into the woods). I used to think that this saying is a great excuse for procrastinators: why bother about the work to be done if you can always do it later? Find the right work/ life balance and be happy! However, while browsing the Internet and searching for translations of it, I found many people (both native speakers and learners of Russian) believing that this proverb means quite the opposite: why procrastinating? The work is not going to be done on its own, if you don’t do it, nobody will do it for you. I honestly don’t know which explanation is correct. Perhaps, both - this proverb is not the only one in Russian that flips its meaning easily.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Q&A: Accents in Russian

Hello, sorry if I'm bothering, but I've been wondering something about Russian accents, and I was hoping you could answer me. In my country, northern accents are viewed as wonderful, and are mostly associated with intelligence and culture, whereas people with a southern accent are often considered to be ignorant, backwards, and stupid. So I was wondering, do any of these stereotypes exist within Russia? Are all accents appreciated? Thanks for your time. Sorry if I wasn't clear!

Thank you for the interesting question! In Russia, pronunciation is more or less standardized, and accents are generally considered to be a sort of deviation from the “normal” pronunciation. The norm is based on the Moscow accent and has two variants - the old norm (old-style norm, almost non-existent now) and the new norm (young norm). There are a few clearly distinctive accents - the so called okanye, when there is no reduction of non-accented ‘o’. This accent was widely spoken in Russia’s European North and today is considered to be rural. I’ve never met anyone who speaks like that. Another clear accent is the so called “south accent” with wider vowels and g like /ɣ/. This accent is associated with Russia’s Southern areas. Mikhail Gorbachev, the first and the last president of the USSR, is known for the Southern accent, for example.

There is the so called “akanie” - the type of accent with wide ‘a’ and many vowels morphed toward [ee]. This type of pronunciation was considered to be normal for people from Moscow. People from Russia’s provinces used to mock Muskovites for that. However, because of migration and many people from other areas moving to Moscow, I haven't heard this accent for quite a while.

There are also a number of stereotypes of how immigrants from various areas speak, but I don't want to translate them here for many reasons.

As I said before, the idea of the norm is (or, at least was, until the very recent times) strong in Russia. The only dialect that is considered to be prestigious is the old-school dialect of Saint Petersburg, which has some subtle pronunciation nuances and some vocabulary different from the Moscow norm.

Photo by Steven Mueller

Monday, September 1, 2014

Perfective and Imperfective Russian Verbs Of Motion

I often hear from students of Russian that verbal aspect (perfective and imperfective verbs) and verbs of motion are the two grammar topics most difficult to comprehend. As a native speaker, I can only guess how scary and confusing it can be when one has to choose which verb of motion to use and whether it should be perfective or imperfective.

I like explaining difficult grammar nuances as simply as possible, so I have developed my own explanation for different aspects of the Russian verbs of motion. Some of my students have found it helpful, so I decided to share it with others. This particular explanation works for the Future tense, but it also can be transferred to the Past with some adjustments.

First, let me remind you that the Russian word for go is идти (on foot). This is an imperfective verb. By adding a prefix you can modify its meaning and make a perfective verb out of it:
  • по+идти = пойти (to start moving, to leave)
  • при + идти = прийти (to come, to arrive)
So, imagine you are going to the park. Imagine time as a line with you in the present at the very beginning of the line and the park somewhere at its end:

Your way to the park starts with leaving a house and ends with arriving to the park. Those two major events can be represented as the vertical lines between you in the present and the part in the timeline:

Any action that can be represented as a vertical, a thin slice of your time line should be translated into Russian as perfective. For the first line, leaving home and starting your way to the park, you may use the word пойти: Сегодня я пойду в парк. (Today, I'm going to the park). For the second line – your arrival to the point of destination – you may use the word прийти: Я приду в парк через час. (I'll come to the park in an hour).

Imagine that you decide to take a walk to the park. You expect the road to take you about one hour. In your timeline, this hour is the space between the two vertical lines. It is not an event that takes only a thin slice of your timeline, it is rather a process. Any action that can not be imagined as a dot in the time line, that has no clear “borders”-vertical lines, requires an imperfective verb. In this case, we have to use an imperfective verb идти. Я буду идти в парк час (It'll take me one hour to reach the park).

It works for other verbs of motion too. For example, лететь (to fly, imperfective):
  • В понедельник я полечу в Москву. I'm going to Moscow next Monday.
  • Я прилечу в Москву в полдень. I'll arrive to Moscow at noon.
  • Я буду лететь в Москву четыре часа. I'll be flying to Moscow 4 hours, the flight will take 4 hours.

I hope my explanation helped you to understand the difference between perfective and imperfective verbs of motion. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions. Your questions are always welcome!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Google Translate: Cheating Or Learning?

Writing is a very important part of learning languages. When you try to build a sentence, you use language actively, which means you employ the mental capacities that remain passive when you read or listen to others. Writing helps to comprehend grammar and to memorize new words and expressions. This is why I like asking my students to write something for me for each lesson. Ten short sentences are enough for them to feel what it means to think in a different language, and for me to see what grammar rules I should explain to them. It works perfectly when a student writes his or her text independently. The traditional way of practicing in writing is this: you think of some idea, then open a dictionary (expanding your vocabulary), find the necessary words and try to connect those words (learning and comprehending grammar rules) so that you can get an intelligible sentence. Does it work the same way when a student uses Google Translate instead of doing all the entire job on his or her own?

Of course, Google Translate changes the whole meaning of writing exercises, but would it be correct to insist on not using automatic translation tools? My answer is no. First, it wouldn't work anyway. Human beings always try to find the easiest, laziest solutions. If you see how to complete a task without spending too much energy and time on it, you'll be sure to use this opportunity. It is natural for us to do so. Second, instead of fighting with technology, make it your ally. Take a close look at the text a machine generated for you and work on it. Make this text “transparent” for you. What all do these words mean? Why are the verbs in this or that form? Why is the word order like this?

Also, we are all well aware that automatic translation tools are still imperfect. Google Translate, though one of the best and advanced in this area, is not an exception. Most of my students don't trust Google Translate, and it is for good reasons. So, when you try to write something with the help of an automatic translation service, take the target text and probe it for mistakes. Doing so, you still learn a new language.

As you might suspect, reading and understanding an automatically generated text is not as good as writing a text on your own, but in some situations it may be helpful. I think there's nothing wrong in using Google Translate or any other automatic translation service when:
- you have a very limited vocabulary; looking up each and every word may discourage you soon, so instead of giving up, employ the help of advanced technologies and don't feel guilty about it.
- you lack knowledge of how to build a sentence of a specific type, like, for example, a conditional or compound sentence; instead of waiting for another month when you approach the corresponding chapter of your grammar book, play with a robot – you'll propel your learning and have more fun (remember, having fun is essential for learning language).

Of course, it makes sense only if you don't limit your work by feeding an original text to Google Translate, but rather scrutinize what an artificial intellect produces for you. After some time, you'll realize how surprisingly clumsy automatic translation is and feel more comfortable with building your own sentences.

"Robot boy"
Photo by Gal

Monday, July 21, 2014

Nouns And Adjectives In Russian

Maybe you like learning languages but hate linguistic slang. It is not always necessary to know theory to succeed in practice. Many world famous musicians don't know musical notation, likewise you can succeed in learning languages without diving deep into their grammar. However, since adult learners rely mostly on understanding rather than on memorizing, it can be useful to learn some grammar basics, even if you believe that during your school years you developed an allergy to the words like "noun" or "adjective".

While in English, parts of speech are normally identified by their function in a sentence, in Russian, parts of speech look differently and can be identified with confidence by the set of grammatical categories they have, not by their functions.

In English, you can say:
  • Google is the most popular search engine in the North America (Google is a noun here)
  • Google before you ask! (here Google is a verb)
  • I work on a Google advertisement partnership program (and here Google is an adjective)
In Russian, you can't leave “Google” unchanged, you have to form different words from Google. Below are the very same three sentences in Russian:
  • Гугл – это самый популярный поисковый механизм в Северной Америке.
  • Погугли, а потом спрашивай! (Ok, this is not standard Russian)
  • Я работаю над гугловской программой рекламного партнёрства.
So, in Russian, it is not enough to put a word into a different position to make it a different part of speech. We add different affixes and endings, so usually, we can easily distinguish nouns from adjectives or verbs even if they stand alone, while in English it is much harder to do.

Grammar books – both in English and Russian — try to list what nouns mean, but they actually can mean anything – a thing, an abstract concept, a quality, an action and so on. You should never rely on meanings when trying to indicate a part of speech. Nouns describe everything as a substance. A house (дом), Eugenia (Евгения), youth (молодёжь), confidence (уверенность), width (ширина), yellowness (желтизна) – in our minds all these words represent pieces of reality as separate subjects or entities. A thing can be alone or in a company of other similar things – thus, we have a grammatical category of number (singular, plural). A thing can be in a relationship with other things, and to show these relationships we use different cases. For some reasons, we still have an atavistic grammatical category of gender in Russian, which in fact indicates nothing but a set of endings. So, in Russian, nouns are words that represent a piece of reality as a substance/subject and have gender, number and case.

Things have attributes – short, yellow, noisy, stale, wet, etc. Those attributes constitute adjectives. Adjectives represent everything as qualities or attributes. In English grammar books I often read that adjectives modify nouns, which is very different from how adjectives are described in Russian. In Russian, adjectives “belong” to nouns. Indeed, in a pair of words such as “stupid government” (глупое правительство), “government”, a noun, can exit independently, while "stupid" is its attribute and can't exist on its own, it needs something on which to be labeled. Thus, in Russian, adjectives agree with nouns in gender, number and case, or, better to say, they 'inherit' those grammatical categories. Adjectives have typical affixes, such as -ск-, -н(н), -ов- and others, and endings where all the grammatical information is coded. In my example, the adjective гугловской has the suffix -овск-, which means belonging or relating to Google, and the ending -ой showing that the adjective is feminine, singular, instrumental case.

Why care about parts of speech? Mostly because if you understand the difference, it may help you to build grammatically correct sentences and memorize words easier.

1973 первый урок
Photo by Vladimir Varfolomeev

Friday, June 20, 2014

Q&A: What is The Russian Equivalent for Continuous Tense And How to Decline Dates In Russian

How would you say "I was talking"? Just "я был говорить" or is there a special way of adding the Russian equivalent of "ing"?

Very good question!

In Russian we have only three tenses - past, present and future, but we have aspects to differentiate between continuous actions and actions that have been completed.

'ing' in English indicates the continuous tense. We normally use the imperfective aspect for continuous actions. So, Я говорил is a suitable translation for 'I was talking'.

'I said' would be 'Я сказал' (perfective).

I am really struggling with the declension of numbers in Russian dates. When do I use the prepositional case and when the genitive case? Or the real question is: when do I use the preposition в with dates? Why is it "я родилась 25-ого мая" and not "я родилась в 25-ом мая"? And what do I do with the years? Thank you so much for all your help! :)

I can understand your frustration.

Genitive case for months when saying dates is because you actually say ‘25th OF May’, and ‘of’ normally equals Genitive in Russian.

Indeed, saying dates in Russian is confusing. I really don’t know why we say ‘Я родилась двадцать первого января’, but ‘Я родилась в пятницу’. I hate the phrase “this is how we say it”, but I can’t find any better answer.

As for years, it depends. If you want to say I was born in 1998, then you should say ‘Я родилась в тысяча девятьсот девяносто восьмом (1998) году’. You indicate the year you were born, so you are kind of ‘inside’ the year -> В … году.

If you want to say “I was born on May 25, 1998”, in Russian this phrase sounds like “I was born in 25 of May of 1998” -> Я родилась двадцать пятого мая тысяча девятьсот девяносто восьмого года.

I hope my explanations make it a little bit clearer.

Photo by Steven Mueller

Friday, May 30, 2014

Learning How To Communicate

Each time we start a communication, we have some more or less practical purpose in mind. We persuade, inform, ask, threat, lure, seduce, promise, entertain, and convince with words. Speech is action, and as such it is purposeful. By saying something, we do something. We acquire our mother-tongue by the age of 4-5, and spend another 10-15 years learning how to achieve our goals in the process of communication. We learn to express and hide our intentions according to social standards, we learn how to hear hidden intentions in speech of other people. We learn to recognize doubts, distrust, support and so on. It is called communicative competence.

In order to perform a communication successfully, i.e. to reach a pragmatical purpose, one has:

- to pronounce sounds distinctly so his or her speech can be understood by others
- to build phrases that are grammatically correct to the degree that allows one to be understood
- to express (mask) one’s intentions with the proper language means, so that the counterpart would be able to interpret the phrases correctly and act accordingly.

If my pronunciation is so poor that nobody can understand me, I won’t be able to communicate with people in general. If my grammar is horrible, I can hardly make basic conversation. If I don’t know how to express my intentions in this or that language, I’ll fail to reach my goals even if my speech is grammatically impeccable.

Language textbooks and grammar books help students gain vocabulary and grammar knowledge, but they don’t teach how to communicate in language. They don’t observe social rules, which can be very different in different cultures. Etiquette is only a small part of successful communicative behavior. Knowledge of etiquette won’t help you to scare or threaten people, but sometimes you need to know how to sound scary yet remain socially acceptable. For example, as a businessman, you may need to manipulate your partners or employees, and in some particular situations you may consider a threat as the most efficient tool.

Pop-culture provides us a wide range of samples of social behavior. By watching movies and reading books we can figure out how people react to different words, phrases and actions. However, there are two general problems with the pop-culture. First, movies and books often exaggerate everything. Art does not mirror reality, it interprets reality, so we can’t rely on movies and books completely. Probably, good TV shows and sitcoms are better source of samples of social behavior. Second, we may miss important social signs and signals, or misinterpret them. We see everything through the focus of our own culture, so we can easily overlook something important.

Living in a country where your target language is spoken gives some advantages. You have no choice but learn how to talk efficiently. Sometimes you learn the hard way. I believe many people with experience in cross-cultural communication have a couple of funny or tragic stories about this. However, being surrounded by the language is not an ultimate solution either. As I learned from my experience, people are too polite to correct other people and too busy to explain communicative mistakes.

What do you think could be a source of social and communicative knowledge? How do you learn communicating in a new language?

Photo by Dimitris Papazimouris

Monday, April 14, 2014

Follow Your Findings

Language teachers as well as independent learners often believe that, when it comes to grammar, there is such a thing as a plan. Start with simple rules like X and Y, and then move forward to more complicated stuff like Z. This logic lies behind the order of chapters in most grammar books. In theory, it looks like an optimum approach that helps a learner not to get overwhelmed and frustrated. In reality, it doesn't work even with the language of formal logic, not to mention about the messy, fuzzy, illogic human languages.

As a teenager, I started translating my favorite rock songs from English into Russian. I discovered lots of words, forms of words, phrases and syntax constructions that looked weird to me. I'd never learned those things in a class room. It was my 'Welcome to the real world, Neo' lesson. I asked my teacher to explain my findings to me again and again, and quite often she started with “Well, I haven't taught you that yet, because this is... hmm...” and then the excuses followed: too complicated, too colloquial, too conversational … Too real, in other words.

Now, when I'm on the other side and teach Russian to my students, I've become more sympathetic to my teacher. Simple and complicated things co-exist inseparably in the language fabric. When you deal with a real language, you have to embrace all the grammar topics at once. When you try to focus on one specific topic, you have to create artificial examples and ridiculous texts. Otherwise, you'd touch much more than one topic, and your lesson would become disorganized.

With all due respect to teaching methods and learning techniques, I learned English only because I switched from textbooks to the texts created by native speakers, for native speakers, with no educational purpose in mind. I strongly believe that this is the only way to learn a second language. When I teach, I let my students to dive into real texts. And this is when the most interesting thing begins: questions.

When dealing with real texts, my students discover grammar patterns on their own. They notice some regularities and ask me for explanations. This way they memorize those patterns faster and easier than when I first give them a rule and then try to repeat it until it gets into the knee-jerk level (classic approach to teaching languages). This same reverse learning works fine when it comes to vocabulary and word usage. It is amazing how attentive people can be to the semantic and stylistic nuances. After applying 'reverse engineering' to a text, people normally memorize words better and for longer time, than by simply repeating a list of words.

When it is the right time to deal with the real language? My answer is – from the very beginning. A few days ago, I had a session with a student who had just learned the Russian alphabet. I gave him a few short funny poems for kids to read in Russian. Frankly, I just wanted him to get more comfortable with the Russian letters. He worked on the poems for a week and came to me with questions that were way beyond the beginner level. During the session, I answered his questions, and, it turned out, I explained to him the basics of the Russian grammar in one hour. “Okay, I said after taking a long deep breath, this is how it works in Russian”, and we dived into the text. Hadn't he dealt with the poems before the session, he wouldn't have understood what I was talking about. I wouldn't have started talking about many of the topics we touched during the session. Of course, we'll get back to all those rules and patterns later. Of course, knowing about a pattern or a rule doesn't mean being able to use it, so it'll take hours and hours of speaking practice. Yet, that experience helped my student comprehend the Russian grammar, because it is so much easier to understand the details when one has the picture of the whole in mind.

Questions are precious. When you learn a new language, never let a plan guide you. Follow your own findings and do not hesitate to articulate everything that looks weird or ridiculous to you.

Photo by S.O.F.T

Friday, March 14, 2014

Cloudberry Language School

When I was at school, I had a very limited choice of languages to learn beside my mother tongue: English or French. It is still the case for many cities, even the large ones, that the choice of language classes is limited to a handful of the most popular ones, and popular here doesn't mean the most widely spoken. I was delightfully surprised to find a school in Chicago that offers classes in languages that are widely spread across the globe, but rarely taught in North America. If you think of taking classes in Russian, Mandarin Chinese or Arabic, and you happen to live in Chicago or Colorado, you might be interested to learn about this school too. I emailed the founder of the Cloudberry Language School, Ksenia Kologrieva, and asked her to tell me more about her language classes. She generously agreed to give an interview for the readers of the Proper Russian blog.

Eugenia Vlasova: Please tell me about your school. How did it all start? Was it hard to build a team?

Ksenia Kologrieva: Cloudberry Language School is a new-generation language school that focuses on teaching Russian, Mandarin Chinese and Arabic—languages that are spoken in countries of key importance for business and diplomacy, but which are not as commonly taught in the United States.

The idea started when I was applying for business school. During the long and painful process of writing essays on my strengths, weaknesses and aspirations, I realized that I would be good at creating a team of professionals who are passionate about foreign languages and cultures.

I was fortunate to be surrounded by talented multilingual people who are very energetic and well-rounded. It was sad to see them struggle to find a job despite their MAs, PhDs and impressive work experience. At the same time, I saw there was a lack of quality language programs for those who wanted to learn languages other than the traditional ones, such as Spanish and French. My goal was to connect the two needs and provide bright people with interesting work.

EV: What kinds of programs and courses do you offer?

KK: We offer very different language courses for both adults and children in Chicago and Colorado, and we are expanding. Cloudberry provides highly customized face-to-face and online language lessons. We don’t offer the old-school cookie-cutter types of classes. We tailor our classes to our students’ needs, and work with different levels—from beginners to advanced students. At Cloudberry, we provide training for translators and interpreters and offer industry specific classes. We offer many private classes to highly motivated and ambitious students or to those who are just very busy during regular hours. Also, we work with small groups at corporations and help their employees prepare for an international move or simply for working with global teams from developing markets.

We have programs for children as well. They differ depending on whether the child is from an English speaking or a Russian speaking (or mixed) family. We also work with adopted children from Russia and China whose parents seek to preserve their children’s native language.

EV: What is the Russian Language through Music course about?

KK: Music is a great and fun way to learn foreign languages. Through music you can learn a lot of cultural things as well as grammar and vocabulary. Our ‘Language through Music’ course is a great asset, not only for children, but for adults as well. It helps them practice rather complex aspects of the language while having fun, for example using the genitive case based on a famous Russian song from the movie The Irony of Fate. It’s also a great tool for our very little students or heritage learners who are not necessarily overly motivated to learn their parents’ language in the beginning.

EV: Who are your students? Why do they want to learn Russian?

KK: I have noticed that all our students are amazing! It takes courage to commit to a language that is completely different from your native one—with a different alphabet and logic. The languages that we offer are challenging languages, and they’re not an option at most schools. So the job opportunities they offer are often as exciting as they are lucrative. Therefore, our students may be very different in terms of demographics—young professionals, small children, teenagers, international couples—but most of them definitely have A-type personalities and are very curious about the world around them. Many of them have traveled extensively and have been, or are planning to go, to Russia. Some of our advanced students have found jobs in Russia and come to our school to better prepare for their international adventure. Many American parents have recently begun to grasp that these languages can provide more opportunities for their children in the future.

EV: Has demand for the Russian language increased or decreased over the last 10 years? What factors affect this demand?

KK: In my experience, demand has increased over the last 4 years. There was a temporary decline after the peak associated with the Cold War. Although Russia is no longer a “Cold War enemy”, demand for Russian speakers is still great in business and diplomacy. Russian is the native language of over 150 million people. It is one of the official languages of the UN, and regarded as a strategic language along with English, Chinese, and Arabic. Moreover, Russian remains the unofficial lingua franca of the former Soviet republics, an indispensable tool for communication across all of the Caucasus and Central Asia. The recent Olympics in Russia and geopolitical games between West and East also raised interest among Americans who might want to learn the language. Many people understand why Russian is a good language to learn. Some more reasons for learning Russian can be found here.

EV: Do your students want to learn colloquial, contemporary Russian or the language of the Russian classics like Pushkin and Tolstoy?

KK: We have some creative students who are interested in reading the Russian classics in their original language or those who are interested in Russian theatre, but most students want to learn the modern language in order to communicate with colleagues, family and friends from abroad. Therefore, most of our classes are focused on developing speaking skills. Our instructors are trained to get students talking!

EV: One of the most frequently asked questions - How long does it take to learn Russian? More specifically, how long does it take to become sufficiently fluent to communicate in Russian?

KK: There is no one single recipe for everyone. Some students learn faster than others and devote more hours to self-study. I have found that hard working and ambitious students make impressive progress quite quickly. On average, at our school I see excellent results after about 4-6 months of classes once a week or after about 3 months of classes twice a week. Consistency and discipline are very important in learning. As for fluency, research shows that it requires 425 hours of study for the Russian language. The main rule is to constantly speak it—with friends, teachers or study partners.

EV: Russian World-wide Language Quiz, or “Тотальный диктант”, launching on April 12, was primarily designed for native speakers. Who is involved in this fun, educational flash mob in the USA, and in Chicago, in particular?

KK: The Russian community in Chicago is pretty large. Some of them choose to stay connected to the Russian culture, while others do not. Those who do have a better chance of getting their children interested in learning the Russian language and preserving their cultural heritage. And I think this event is for these families. Just imagine, if a child’s mom is going to participate in a Russian language test that is taken simultaneously by people in 271 cities around the world, she will find out how much Russian she has forgotten over the years while abroad and her children will be impressed by the fact that the whole world is doing this together with their mom. In this case, children feel like it’s a global thing and not just their mom’s language that they never use with their American friends. They feel a part of the global community.

Also, this event is for young people who want to get connected with other Russian speakers in the city and around the world and have fun together. Cloudberry is proud to finally bring it to Chicago. Chicago is a diverse city and a main cultural center and it’s great that it can be a part of such a fun, educational flash mob. I’m very excited to participate in it for the first time myself.

EV: Do kids of Russian immigrants want to learn Russian or is it rather their parents who insist on this? Do teenagers treat the language of their parents differently compared to children who are 5-8 years old?

KK: It really depends on the family. If parents make it a priority to raise a bilingual child, then they find ways to motivate their children to learn their heritage language, regardless of their age. At Cloudberry, we do everything to help parents increase motivation and cultural awareness as well as improve speaking/reading skills. We use the latest resources and teaching methods in heritage language learning. It’s important for kids to meet other Russian speaking children from the community and have fun together while learning. We also collaborate with different universities and schools around the world and work hard to connect Russian children living in the US to children of the same age living in Russia. It helps them realize that Russian is not only their mother’s language but a great tool to connect with new friends from abroad and learn about the lives of their peers on the other side of the world.
You probably know that recent studies show that a multilingual brain functions more quickly, is better able to deal with ambiguities, solve problems and multi-task, and is even less susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease. Raising a bilingual child and a true world citizen who is aware of other cultures should be a priority, especially for immigrant families, and we give a lot of credit to the parents who understand this. It takes a lot of time but the investment is worth it.

EV: What would you suggest to students of Russian? What is the most efficient way to learn Russian?

KK: Speak it! If you want to learn a language, you should speak it, even if it’s hard and painful at the beginning. Don’t be scared of the uncomfortable feeling; do it step by step. Don’t give up and don’t procrastinate. Just 20 minutes a day can bring about great results. Watch a lot of movies and practice your listening skills. And choose a good teacher!

EV: Thank you very much!

Here you can find more information on Cloudberry Language School.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Q&A: Do Russians Understand Mispronounced R-sound?

Here is a question from my reader:

I'm a German native speaker and I can't roll the R at all. It really bothers me and I feel awkward while speaking Russian because it just doesn't sound right. Am I worrying too much? One of my Russian teachers said that there are even Russians who can't roll the R at all, but I don't find this very convincing. Do you have some encouraging words for me? Do Russians have problems understanding foreigners who can't roll the R?

You are, indeed, worrying too much. I am a native Russian speaker, and I couldn't pronounce the rolled R until I was 7. I learned to pronounce it after my parents brought me to a special doctor, who taught how to pronounce Russian sounds clearly. I also was bad at pronouncing the Russian hard L-sound. Even today, if I speak too fast or am too excited I can mispronounce the rolled R. I usually simply skip it when I’m speaking fast.

How did the doctor help me to learn the rolled r? She trained my tongue. She asked me to mimic clicking sounds, the noise that a tractor or a v-8 engine makes and so on. It took me about two months to learn it.

My good friend, who is also a native Russian speaker, has never learned to pronounce the rolled r. She pronounces it in the very cute French fashion - with the back of her tongue. It didn't prevent her from earning a PhD in linguistics. She teaches Communication Theory at one of the most prestigious Russian universities.

Russian speakers do not have any problems understanding foreigners who can not roll their Rs. Yes, we can easily spot a foreigner if he or she pronounces the R like in English.

I found this video particularly helpful:

Benny's article on the website Fluent In Three Months is also very good.

Probably, I will never master short and long vowels in English. It is a much bigger source of miscommunication, since in English, there are words that can be distinguished only by the vowel - long or short. Yet I communicate with English speaking people and normally have no problem being understood. In Russian, there is no sound like un-rolled R, so you can not confuse two similar words only because you don’t roll R.

Photo by Steven Mueller

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Culture Clash And Online Classes

Education, and specifically language learning, are drifting towards online. Some are skeptical about online language courses and one-on-one sessions with native speakers. Others, on contrary, are very enthusiastic. There is one aspect, however, that I found being overlooked by both supporters and deniers of online language learning: cultural differences. The Guardian has published a story about the problems that Anna Parkin was having when trying to find a good tutor to teach her Russian. As I could tell, the biggest problem there was miscommunication caused by cultural differences.

One-on-one sessions – the most popular format for online language lessons – are all about communication. Numerous self-help books like How To Convince People, How Make Friends et cetera shows that communicating in your own language is hard work which requires some specific skills. You've been developing and mastering those skills from early childhood by watching our parents, consuming pop culture and gaining personal experience. So you've acquired cultural standards. The way you communicate is framed by your culture. Now, another person, who is supposed to teach you a language or to learn it from you, was raised in a culture that is different from yours. In such a situation miscommunication is very likely.


Even before a sessions starts, a student and a teacher may have different expectations. Different countries have different education practices: highly competitive, progress-oriented environment vs. stress-free approach, memorizing techniques vs. creative learning, strictly scripted syllabus vs. free improvisation and student-driven scenario and so on. One may expect a dense schedule and a good load of homework, while another expects to have a nice conversation once a week. Both variants are fine, as long as the student's expectations match the teacher's approach, but more often than not they don't.


Different cultures promote different conversation styles between a teacher and a student. In some cultures, students subordinate when talking to a teacher and never ask questions unless being explicitly allowed to. In other cultures, there is higher degree of equality between a teacher and a student in the communicative level, and a teacher expects a student to interrupt him or her whenever a question arises.

What to talk about

One of the problems that online teachers and students struggle with is the choice of topics. Some cultures have specific taboos like sex, death, personal income, bodily functions and so on. Normally, we are more or less aware of those taboos, but it is always good to ask your vis-a-vis openly whether it is OK for him or her to talk about those things. Sometimes taboos are not that obvious and direct. For example, I can discuss politics with everyone who wants to talk about it with me, but I know many people who would feel very uncomfortable touching that topic with a complete stranger.

It is even more important how we talk about things. The vocabulary that is just normal in one culture may be considered aggressive in another country. Speaking negatively about goods or services is absolutely fine in Russia – we give negative feedback openly (which makes the job of smart marketologists very easy). In some other countries, however, direct negative feedback is considered impolite.

Words of Encouragement

In some cultures, saying “Good job!” to a student every time he or she does anything correctly is a standard. In other cultures, teachers react to mistakes rather than to correct answers. If you happen to have a teacher that never says good words no matter how hard you work, it is not because your teacher is mean, but exactly because you are doing all right! Otherwise, he or she would let you know.

A mere awareness about cultural differences may help you to improve your communication with students and/or teachers. If you feel an irrational irritation about a person who teaches you or takes your lessons, it is very likely that you are dealing with a culture clash. Take a step back, try to analyze what exactly makes you feel bad, and do not hesitate to speak up. Your teacher or student may be completely unaware of breaking your cultural standards. By communicating those issues you'll help him or her realize the differences and to adjust your classes accordingly. You may also learn a lot about your own culture and language by discussing those topics.

culture clash
Photo by Gianluca Vegetti

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Interlinear Books: Bring Literature Into Your Language Learning

Have you heard about a language learning method called interlinear translation? I hadn’t, until recently. A few days ago, I got an email from Linas Vaštakas, a guy who runs a project - Interlinear Books for learning languages. In the project, they translate books for language learners in an innovative way, and they have recently released a bilingual Russian book. I found his project quite interesting and decided to ask him a few questions about the method, his project, and the books he and his team are translating.

Eugenia Vlasova: Could you please give a definition for the interlinear translation method in one or two sentences?

Linas Vaštakas: Interlinear is a method of translating where the original text is followed by an English translation below each word or expression. Interlinear Books has been translating popular literature for language learners in the Interlinear format, currently featuring Russian, Swedish, Lithuanian, German books.

EV: What are the major advantages of interlinear reading as a learning tool versus ordinary bilingual books?

LV: Interlinear translation is potentially faster to read and thus allows more efficient learning. In Interlinear, you don’t need to re-read the sentences twice (once in the original language and then in translation), nor analyze which word stands for what. You can quickly see the translations of the exact words you need. This also allows you to be more engaged in the original story in the original language, providing more excitement in reading and saving you time.

EV: Who would benefit most from your method - beginners or advanced students?

LV: Anybody can try the method. We have seen people at different levels benefiting from the interlinear translation. Ideally, however, it is probably best if you are already an intermediate - advanced learner, as it is easier for you to read in the original language and you get the most fun out of reading then.

EV: What are the shortcomings of this method that a learner should be aware of?

LV: As always, when using translations for learning, a learner should try not to get too engaged in translation, so as to neglect the original language. Fortunately, Interlinear minimizes the desire to read the translation alone, because the translation does not flow as accurately and as nicely as the original text - after all, the English in the translation, while understandable, is a bit butchered and doesn't flow as beautifully as the original. Another problem with using translation in language learning is that different languages rarely overlap completely literally, and words can have different meanings in different contexts. The learner should be aware of that and remember that translation is almost always only approximation.

EV: Word-by-word rather than sense-by-sense translation could be misleading and confusing. How should language learners treat the interlinear text in this regard?

LV: Indeed, at Interlinear Books, our translations are made to be as literal as possible. It's important to note the "as possible" part: when we see that Interlinear translation wouldn't be understandable if it was completely literal, we go for a more figurative translation. So, you would have sentences like "Very much I want there to go." However, you wouldn't have translations like "For you needed him understand" for "Тебе надо его понять" as we would go for something a little bit less literal. The most important thing to understand for learners is that Interlinear translation is supposed to keep encouraging the reader to read the original instead of the translation. The purpose of an Interlinear translation is making the original text understandable, not replacing the original text.

EV: Have you tried this method for learning new languages?

LV: I have tried reading German in Interlinear, and I have improved my German quite a bit. I have, however, also combined it with other ways of learning (additional reading, speaking with natives and other language learners). Interlinear is not a silver bullet, I don't think such a thing exists: each learner should try to find what works best for them. Interlinear is just a good way to bring literature into your language learning, and, I believe, literature is often neglected, but it may work well for many people.

EV: How do you pick books for translation?

LV: We usually look for popular languages that we have the capacity to translate at the moment, and look for fascinating classical texts which are not too long. Novellas are currently our main focus

EV: Who makes interlinear translation of books for your website? Is your website a solo project or do you have a team?

LV: There is only one person mainly responsible for the project, that is me. I am a law graduate, who is also very interested in language learning, literature and building things. There are, however, other people who contribute with translation, editing, making the website usable and other things, so it isn't a solo project in the full sense. Interlinear Books is also looking to expand the team in the near future.

EV: Can we expect more Russian books on your website?

LV: I can't answer this question yet. I would love to add more Russian books, but we have to see how this one goes first. If and when we do make other Russian translations, expect us to cover classical writers first (so we would be likely to translate Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Pushkin and other great Russian writers.)

EV: Do you plan to add more languages to your platform?

LV: Definitely, Interlinear Books is currently focused on making new translations in new languages. We have two missions in this respect: first, we want to cover popular languages - ones like German. Second, we also want to promote language learning for less-popular languages, such as Swedish (which is a very interesting and quite easy language to start learning if you already speak English, by the way). It has been somewhat of a struggle to combine these two things, but we're doing our best.

EV: Anything else you would like to tell language learners?

LV: Literature is an important and fascinating way to learn languages, and I advise you to look for ways to combine literature into your language learning, even if isn't with Interlinear books. At the end of the day, each learner will have to decide what works best for them, but trying many things helps!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Q&A: Russian Reflexive Verbs

Here is a question from my reader:

I was reading the document on verb prefixes, and it got me thinking about suffixes. For example, there are the words хотеть and хотеться, which both mean 'to want'. But what does the 'ся' say? What extra information does it give? I find it hard to know when to use which.

-ся is a short for себя, -self. This is why the verbs ending with -ся are called reflexive verbs.

For example, купаться, if I were to translated it literally, would mean to bathe oneself, i.e. to take a bath, while купать means to give a bath, to wash smb.

-ся may also indicate a mutual action: целоваться = to kiss (each other) vs. целовать = to give a kiss.

-ся may show that some action is immanent to smth. or smb. For example, собака кусается = a dog bites, it is natural for dogs to bite. -ся here doesn’t mean that a dog bites itself, it shows that biting is the dog’s attribute.

Finally, -ся is used with impersonal verbs. Хочется is an impersonal verb. Хотеть requires a subject. There should be somebody who wants. Хочется refers to ‘it’, impersonal something that makes me want something. For example, Я хочу тебя поцеловать. I want to kiss you. vs. Мне хочется тебя поцеловать. Literally, “it is pleased, desired to me to kiss you”.

Here is a little bit more about Russian impersonal verbs.

I hope my explanation helped. Good luck with learning Russian!

Photo by Steven Mueller

Monday, February 17, 2014

Speaking Language vs Communicating

We use language to describe the world around us. We tell each other how things are, and this is one of the important functions of human language. We name things, put labels on them and thus reconstruct our immediate reality in our speech. However, language does much more than that. It helps us to express our wishes and dreams to others. We tell each other how we want things to be or how things could be. We describe desirable and possible realities with our language. If you record your talks with other people, you will find that telling others how things are takes a tiny part of your communication. You convince, demand, persuade, beg, insist – you communicate with others to change something in your status quo rather than simply informing about things.

Language courses and text books for non-native speakers usually start with describing reality. We first learn how name things and state facts. This approach, quite justified and rational in many points, has one significant drawback: grammar works differently when we use language differently. This is why when a student first visits a country of a language she's been studying for a while, she finds it extremely difficult to imply her knowledge to real life. She was taught to speak, not to communicate in a language (this implies to he-students too, of course).

In Russian, the gap between the standard grammar and its communicative implementations is huge. For example, the phrase “Пошли в кино?” is technically a question, and the verb here is in the Past tense, however, in reality, this is not a question about something in the past. It is a politely and informally expressed desire/ request or an offer to go to the cinema. This is how a girl may let her friend know that she wants to go to the cinema, without sounding too pushy or demanding. Formal grammar here has nothing to do with the real meaning of the message. Another example: “Готовим документы,” (Get your documents prepared) a border control officer may say to tourists in a bus when they cross the border. Formal grammar sees the verb готовим as 1 person, plural, we. Literally, this phrase could be translated as “We are preparing our documents”. Of course, the officer doesn't mean 'we' here, he is not going to prepare his documents, he is going to check yours. By using the imperfective verb in the form of the first person, plural, present the officer makes a powerful command. He demonstrates his power, he convinces you that you have to obey his order. He sounds slightly impolite, but not rude. The rude form of the same command would be “Документы приготовили” with a perfective verb in the past. Again, the formal grammar here is helpless.

Odds are you won't learn about those nuances from your textbooks. You can learn it by communicating with native speakers, watching movies and reading good fiction books. These are the more reliable sources of the information about how people use their language. Quite often, students think that they may get frustrated and lose their motivation by dealing with real life conversations. “I'm still at the beginning of my studies, it would be too hard for me to dive into the real things now,” they say. The truth is the more you delay this moment, the more you'll get frustrated. Hard is good, because by pushing yourself to the very edge of your abilities, you speed up your progress and save a lot of time for things much more interesting than repeating a meaningless “My little dog eats nothing*”.

* This is an actual example from my French textbook. Duh!

Photo by Dan Mason

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Q&A: the Russian sounds for Ш and Щ

Here is a question from my reader:
"I struggle with ш and щ. I guess it will come naturally later on, but how am I supposed to be able to differentiate between them? They are so similar!"
They are very similar, indeed. Many of my students confuse these letters.The only difference here is that ш is always hard while щ is always soft. What exactly does it mean and why should you care?

First, a bit of theory. Most non-Russian speakers find it difficult to distinguish hard and soft consonants. In Russian, hard and soft consonants are as important as, for example, long and short vowels in English. The meaning of a word may change because of hard or soft consonant. I’m sure you can differentiate between sheet and shit, right? I can’t because in Russian, we don’t differentiate short and long vowels.

The easiest part of your question is the visual difference between Ш and Щ. the latter has a small tail.

Technically, English sh is closer to щ. However, many Russians tend to pronounce sh too hard, like ш. Mock the Russian accent and you’ll probably get the idea.

There are not many words (actually, I don’t know any) that would be identical except that one has ш and the other is spelt with a щ. So, you won’t confuse two words just because you can not differentiate between these two sounds, don’t worry.

However, it is important to pronounce these sounds distinctively. To master Ш, form a cup with your tongue: let the middle of your tongue relax and lie down, and place (but don't press) the tip of your tongue against the back of the alveolar ridge (post-alveolar). Pronouncing Щ is pretty much the same as the sh in she, but you should raise the middle of your tongue slightly higher to the roof of your mouth.

Here is my recording of some words with Ш and Щ in different positions, so you can train your ear

I hope, this helps.

Good luck!

Photo by Steven Mueller

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Q&A: Russian Cases

From time to time, I receive questions from my readers about the Russian grammar. I decided to post my answers here, on this blog under the tag "Q&A". You can send me your questions at, and I'll try my best to answer you promptly. Please remember, there's no such thing as a stupid question, all your questions are very welcome!

Question: Can you please explain cases to me? I don't understand them in English nor in Russian what do they do?

Generally, cases show correlations, i.e. how things connect to each other. In Russian, they often do the job of prepositions.

  • Nominative is the case for subjects, the main topic of a sentence.
  • Example: Я люблю грамматику. I like grammar. It is me, who acts here, so I is in nominative here to show who is the subject.
  • Accusative usually shows a direct object. It uses no prepositions both in English and in Russian.
  • Example: Я люблю грамматику. I like grammar. My love to grammar is directed toward grammar. Grammar is a direct object of my passion. So we put it in Accusative: грамматику. Remember, in Russian, word order is flexible, not to say chaotic. Without proper endings, it would be unclear whether it is me who likes grammar, or is it grammar who likes me.
  • Genitive helps to show possessive relations. In English the preposition “of” plays this role.
  • Example: Я люблю грамматику русского языка. Literally: I like the grammar of the Russian language. (Note: adjectives should agree with nouns in numbers and cases). Also, Genitive comes with numbers. Шесть падежей. Six (of) cases. Think of it as a part of the whole (total amount of cases in the world).
  • Dative shows the direction of the action, like the English preposition ‘to’.
  • Example: Он посвятил свою жизнь грамматике. He devoted his life to grammar. There are other meanings of Dative, but all of them indicate the direction of the action in this or that way. Even in the example: "Мне нравится грамматика." the literal translation should be Grammar is pleasant to me (though we translate it in the reverse fashion, as ‘I like grammar’).
  • Instrumental comes where “by/with” comes in English. Instrumental shows your tools, your means.
  • Example: Я объелась грамматикой! I’m fed up with grammar! Your way of getting fed up was by grammar, so we put it into instrumental.
  • Prepositional. Generally, prepositional equals to ‘about’. There are some nuances, but they all could be summarize in the preposition “about”.
  • Example: Мы говорили о грамматике. We talked about grammar.

Some scientists would add another two-three cases, but let me stop here.

The idea is: cases show how one thing relates to another. I hope my explanation wasn’t too confusing.

Photo by Steven Mueller

Sunday, February 2, 2014

How Not To Die Of Boredom

The first steps into a new language are the hardest ones. You know so little, you have to look up every word in a dictionary. You struggle with unfamiliar grammar forms, you can't distinguish one part of a speech from another, and fail to recognize new grammatical forms of familiar words. It is so frustrating! And as if it's not enough, you feel humiliated with boring exercises. You are supposed to produce phrases that are too dumb for anybody older than 6 months, and that you would never ever say in your mother-tongue. They call it 'basic level'.

Is it true that basic level should be that boring? My personal learning experience and teaching practice prove this wrong. Starting with such 'basics' may kill your desire at the very beginning of your new language affair.

Build your own basic vocabulary. You do need to expand your vocabulary and understand grammar, but how often do you say 'I have a room. She has a room. The room is mine. The room is hers' in a real conversation? I suggest my students to start building their vocabulary with the words they would really use in real life. For example, a passionate cooker would more likely memorize new words for food and kitchenware, because (s)he wants to read original recipes and try something new. A gamer would learn the gamers' jargon first. A philosopher would seek for vocabulary that covers the area of her intellectual interests, so for her, 'epistemology' would be an easy word, while 'colander' would go to the remote periphery of her consciousness.

Don't be afraid of long and complex words. For many languages, complex doesn't mean hard to memorize. Break long words into pieces, learn the functions of each part, and while doing so, you'll memorize the word. Moreover, this simple procedure will help you to understand word formation rules, thus you'll be able to construct words (sometimes correctly). Another benefit from dealing with a long word is that when you understand what its parts mean, the next word with similar parts will be a piece of cake for you. You'll start expanding your vocabulary rapidly.

Start writing as early as possible. When you do grammar exercises and use the grammar clichés provided by the authors of your textbook, you learn very dry, artificial language (I wish I could secretly observe a group of linguists working on sample sentences for their new text book). When you write what you want, you acquire your target language actively. You try to find a way to express your thoughts, and this is the best and most efficient way to achieve fluency. We are lucky to live in the Internet epoch, so you can always post your text on lang-8 for native speakers to correct you.

The entrance to the new language lies in the area that brought you to the language.Don't make your learning process insipid. After all, we are here to enjoy ourselves, right?

Image: Bored
Photo by Steven Feather

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Thank You For The Music

Are you an audial person or a visual? Do you know your dominant perception channel? When I was a student, psychologists liked to play with the hypothesis that each person has a dominant sense and thus learns better when using it. In brief, the hypothesis states that some people are better in perceiving visual information, others prefer listening over watching, and a large amount of people notice they understand and memorize new information better when it is supported by some specific scents or touches. The idea of the dominant channel of perception was very popular back then, but later, scientists proved it wrong and suggested to involve all possible senses in the learning and teaching process.

I have noticed that I memorize new words and expressions better when listening to songs or sounds of human speech. I still consider myself an audio-oriented learner, though I don't believe in the theory of the dominant sense any more. First, I'm myopic and since my childhood I learned not to rely on my eyes solely. Second, I love music. It is a very important part of my life. Music can easily modify my mood (some songs make me enthusiastic and others almost put me into depression), it inspires me, and once it even pushed me to learn English. My older sister was collecting vinyl records of Western rock musicians, and, when I became a teenager, I started listening to rock music, from the Beatles to Bon Jovi. It is not typical for my generation to love this kind of music. Many of my idols were already dead by the time I became their fan; nevertheless, I started hunting for lyrics (it was a pre-Google epoch), and translating everything I could find. When I was 12, I spent the whole summer vacation translating the Beatles' songs. This is how I made the major breakthrough in my second language acquisition.

My husband, who is a native Russian speaker, is fluent in English too. His success story is absolutely identical to mine. Our tastes differed slightly – he mostly listened to hard rock and heavy metal when he was a teenager, but everything else is alike: love of rock music, burning curiosity, hunger for learning more about the subject of your dreams. I know a few more people whose way to fluency in a second language arose through their passion to music.

When I started teaching Russian, the question whether my personal learning experience is reproducible arose immediately. It happens that my most successful students, the ones who have reached a high level of proficiency in Russian, have a passion for music. Their tastes are different, for example, one likes female pop singers, and another prefers brutal Russian rock bands. Yet, those students have been learning Russian with songs. They don't force themselves into studies, they enjoy music. While listening to their favorite songs, they expand their vocabulary, train their ear, and improve their pronunciation.

Recently, I've incorporated what I've learned from my language acquisition experience into my teaching technique. I've made audio materials like songs the basis of the learning process. First, I make sure that a student prefers audio materials over visual ones. Yes, I know that the hypothesis of the dominant sense may be questionable, but it worked for me. Then I explore the student's music tastes, and pick something for him or her that would match them. The first results of systematically applying this approach exceeded my most daring expectations. Not only does music help students to learn more words and phrases, it helps them to overcome a language barrier.

Have you ever had the similar experience of acquiring a new language with the help of music? Please share your experience with me!

Photo by Lars Lehmann