Saturday, June 11, 2016

Q&A: Practicing Pronunciation And Specifically Щ

Hey! A fellow learner here. I was wondering if you have any tip or site to practice Russian pronunciation, especially words those with "щ", the hardest cyrillic letter to pronounce as I have read in some pages. Thanks for your time and help! :)

Hi! Pronunciation is probably the hardest part of the second language acquisition, because we acquire the sounds of our mother-tongue before we even start speaking it. However, there are some ways to improve your pronunciation in Russian. Here are some tips.

First, let your ear get accustomed to the Russian sounds. Listen to the sounds of Russian speech even if you don’t understand much. Just let your brain absorb those sound. You can set a Russian radio as an ambient noise when you are busy with something else, for example. I’ve read in a book about second language acquisition (SLA) that our brain collects statistics on sounds, so when it gets enough of it, it starts processing it and acquiring it in a meaningful way. It doesn’t mean that you’ll start to understand Russian all of a sudden, but you’ll build a phonetic system out of the speech sounds. Eventually, your ear will learn to catch щ in the flow of the Russian speech and contrast it to other similar sounds like ч and ш.

Second, a bit of theory. There are meaningful distinctions between sounds - the ones that help to distinguish two or more similar words, and non-meaningful, e.g. someone’s peculiarities in pronunciation. In English, these are vowels that help to distinguish similar words (sheep vs. ship, cat vs. cut and so on). In Russian, it is consonants that often help to distinguish similar words. Thus, you should concentrate on consonants, namely on hard and soft consonants. Щ is always soft, which means it should be pronounced (like most of the soft sounds) with the middle of your tongue raised to the hard palate.

Third, you are not alone! My readers have asked this question before, and here are my answers:
Fourth, the best way to practice pronunciation is with a native speaker. You can find a language exchange partner on any of the LE websites (GoSpeaky, for example) and check your pronunciation. Don’t be a perfectionist, you prime goal should be to sound Russian enough to be understood by natives.

Fifth, check Forvo anytime you are unsure how to pronounce this or that word. This is the best (and, maybe, the only so far) pronunciation guide generated by native speakers, so you can compare different accents and so on.

Sixth, once in a while it may be worth hiring a professional tutor who will help you to set up your learning environment, check and adjust your pronunciation and design the map for your further independent practice.

What techniques and websites would you suggest, my dear readers?

Photo by Steven Mueller

Monday, May 2, 2016

Rules? What Rules?

A few days ago, I watched a video of an English lesson for foreign students. Observing other teachers working with real students is a part of the Teaching English as Second Language certification, so I watched a young lady explaining to her students how to add the ending -(e)s to English verbs in the Present tense. Of course, I knew that the ending -(e)s is used to form the third person, singular (she, he, it). What I didn’t know was the existence of the rules prescribing when it should be -s, and when it is -es; and when -y changes to -i(es); and when -y remains unchanged. Probably, my English teacher explained the rules to me, and, it is very likely I learned them once, but I forgot them completely. I simply don’t need them anymore.

My English is still not so perfect, and sometimes, I can forget to add the third person ending altogether, but if I remember about the ending, I add it correctly, never having second thoughts about the spelling. I do it automatically. My eyes have seen many different verbs in the third, singular, and each time I saw this form, my brain absorbed the correct spelling. The fact that the rules exist shocked me for a moment, but then I thought, why bother? Why should a student spend her mental energy and finite memory resources on memorizing spelling rules instead of doing something useful in her target language?

Some linguists believe that grammar rules can be learned inductively. A student can figure out what rules are by comparing different words and sentences, and finding patterns how this or that word changes. It works perfectly for children - after all, we learned our mother-tongue knowing nothing about grammar. As for adult learners, it may be not the best way to learn a new language. Not the fastest, for sure. Remember, children spend years doing nothing but learning their native language. I learned from my teaching experience that in many cases, an adult student can benefit from an explicit explanation of grammar rules. However, memorizing rules is one thing, using them is another.

You as a language learner may have experienced that awkward moment when you put a word in a wrong form when you speak despite all those grammar exercises in the class. You knew that rule, but still made a mistake, because the rule hadn’t become your habit. The only way to turn your rational knowledge into an automatic reaction is to use your new language practically. Meaningful and authentic practice is the key. In other words, do something interesting and important in your new language. Grammar exercises are neither meaningful nor authentic - our life would be like an absurdist play if we were to communicate with each other using phrases from grammar books. Make the language you learn your new tool. Discover new articles, meet new people, watch new videos - whatever would keep you truly engaged in the content rather than the language.

Does it mean that language students should not learn grammar rules? Not at all. As I said before, it is often quite helpful to be aware of the rules. Grammar books may be your guides to the language; they may help you to understand where exactly your mother-tongue and your new language are different. It would be too naive, however, to think that you learn a language by studying grammar rules. It doesn’t make much sense to dedicate too much time to grammar. Find the content that motivates you. If you like books, or any specific writers, read books. If you are into quantum computing, watch videos and talk to your colleagues on the forums online. Rules will come to you after some time (have you heard about the 10000 hours rule? Yep, that’s right).

The last note. I noticed that when I bring authentic materials to my students, and those materials are interesting to them or at least relevant, they perform remarkably better than when they have to deal with texts and records that are not in their field of interest. This works all the time, for all my students. Be very picky choosing materials for your language practice and remember that boredom kills, while curiosity pushes you forward.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Q&A: What Words To Put In What Cases?

How do I know, for which words in a sentence i need to use what case. I understand what each case is used for and how I form the word, but when it comes to which word i need to change I'm lost, especially when its more than one word. Any help? :/

Hi! I think, what you’re struggling with is transferring your knowledge into a practical skill. When it comes to second language acquisition, it is not enough to learn about your target language and understand its grammar. You should deal with the language, absorb it through reading meaningful texts, listening to it and practicing it actively, for example, by posting short texts on lang-8 daily.

Disclaimer: I’m not affiliated with lang-8 and have never received payments from them.

Now about cases. How do you know when to use what preposition in English? It is the same with Russian cases. Russian cases indicate relationships between things/words - possession (= of in English), direct object (no preposition as in I saw her), instrumentality (=by/with), direction (=to) etc. Here is a quick cheat sheet that may help you:
  • Nominative - for subjects, who/what did smth.
  • Genitive = of (part of, possession of, a number of + a word in the Genitive case)
  • Dative = to (give it to + a word in the Dative case)
  • Accusative - direct object
  • Instrumental - by/with (done by/with + a word in the Instrumental case)
  • Prepositional - about/of, indirect object, location (in/on + place in the Prepositional case or I think about + a word in the Prepositional case)
Please do not rely on this correlation cheat sheet too much, there are many other positions where you have to pick this or that case, but you can start with that.

Again, everything comes with practice. You’ll memorize constructions, not forms of words, and the more you deal with Russian, the bigger you “sample library” will become.

Good luck!

Photo by Steven Mueller

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Passive Voice In Russian

Photo by Andrew McKee
The passive voice is a very convenient grammatical category. When something has happened, we usually can tell who did what, but sometimes, we don’t want to name the agents. We may want or need to report the event itself, but would prefer to shift our focus away from the actors to the action itself. This is where the Passive voice may help. Instead of saying, “Minister X stole tax money”, a speechwriter from the anti-crisis PR-management department may write, “The tax money was stolen by Minister X”. The passive voice may go further in its desire to smooth the situation and skip the real subject at all - “Mistakes were made”.

Since the need for social lubricants and vague language is universal, the passive voice is common to many Indo-European languages. Russian is no exception here. Unlike in English, however, Russian verbs do not have one regular active-passive structure opposition. There is more than one way in Russian to make passive voice out of active and obscure a subject.

Perfective verbs: construction with short past participles.
  • Сальвадор Дали написал эту картину в 1931 году vs. Картина была написана Сальвадором Дали в 1931.
  • Salvador Dali painted this picture in 1931. vs. This picture was painted by Salvador Dali in 1931.
So there is a perfective verb написать for active voice and its past participle написанный, with the short form написан/ написана/ написано.

Imperfective verbs: constructions with -ся.

With imperfective verbs, you should form the passive voice by adding the reflexive postfix -ся to a verb.
  • Сальвадор Дали писал картину в течение всего 1931 года. Vs. Картина писалась Сальвадором Дали в течение всего 1931 года.
  • Salvador Dali was painting that picture during the whole year 1931. Vs. The picture had been painted by Salvador Dali during the whole year 1931.
Писать is imperfective (a process of writing something or working on a painting). For the passive voice structures, add -ся /сь, and, of course, switch subject and object.
Because of this S-O switch, most of the imperfective verbs in the passive voice are in the form of the 3d singular or plural. Since we are not talking about “I” or “you” as agents, we make objects the center of our sentences, and so we need the verbal form for he/she/it/they.

Like in English, you may skip the subject in the passive voice and never mention who actually did this or that. In our examples, it would be like this:
  • Perfective: Картина была написана в 1931 году.
  • Imperfective: Картина писалась в течение 1931 года.
It would be just right if your readers already know that you are talking about one of Dali’s works. Or if, for some reasons, the name of the artist is not important or unknown.

Another way to obscure subject.
In Russian, there are the so called general sentences with the dummy (usually skipped) subject “they”. The mysterious "they" don't exist, of course, it is just a grammatical structure that helps to obscure the figure of real actors. If you check Russian news websites, you may encounter news headlines like this: Деньги налогоплательщиков украли - literally, “They stole the taxpayers’ money”. Who were they? Ah, who cares…

I tried to list the most common and frequently used passive voice structures. There are verbs - both perfective and imperfective - that don’t follow the major schemes. There are contexts that take unusual structures. I believe what I described here covers about 80% of the cases, so you can use it as a guide for your Russian practice. Good luck!

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Q&A: How To Answer "How Are You" In Russian?

I was wondering if you had a post or if you could make a post about emotions. I want to learn more ways to respond to 'Как дела?' than simply "Я хорошо" and such. If not, could you direct me to a place where emotions in Russian are listed? Спасибо!
Hi! Here are some options how you can respond on “Как дела?”

Note: very often, Russians start telling you how they are in great detail, because we naturally believe you really care since you’ve asked…
  • У меня всё хорошо. I’m doing all right.
  • У меня всё ужасно. I’m doing just awful (=things are going really bad)
  • Мне скучно. I’m bored
  • Мне плохо. I’m not feeling well. (physically or emotionally)
  • Плохо (without мне) - things are bad.
  • У меня всё прекрасно! I’m doing extremely well!
  • У меня всё нормально. I’m fine. (neutral response)
  • Ничего, спасибо. lit. Nothing (wrong with me), thanks. Another neutral response.
  • Мне страшно. I’m scared.
  • Я ужасно расстроена (f)/ расстроен (m) - I’m so pissed off!
  • Я злюсь. I’m mad (at smb).
  • Дела терпимо. Lit. I can tolerate how things are going. - it is good for mentioning that you’re experiencing troubles, but believe that you can keep up.
  • Потихоньку. Little by little.

Here you can find more words for emotions, and here I wrote a bit about apologizing and expressing support.


Photo by Steven Mueller

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

How to Get Most Out of Language Exchange

Photo by Adam J White

It has never been easier to learn languages. The internet has made many language resources accessible for everyone. Language exchange platforms went even further: they facilitated the hardest part of the learning languages online. I’m talking about finding a language partner for speaking practice. Many websites and mobile applications dedicated to language exchange have been launched recently. You register on one of those websites/ applications, indicate what language you speak and what language you’re learning, tell a bit about yourself, and the system makes an automatic match for you, suggesting dozens of potential language partners willing to talk to you. It no longer matters where you live; you can always find someone who speaks your target language. Some language exchange (LE) websites are more popular and populated than others. Some applications offers more features, others have better user interface - we all have plenty of options to choose from.

The growing popularity of LE platforms is easy to explain: LE websites and applications meet the increasing demand for language learning (in the global world monolingualism equals illiteracy). They correspond to the needs to communicate in a language rather than to consume artifacts created in a language, and resonate with the money-less digital economy models. Yet, as good and exciting as it seems, language exchange is only a tool, and, like with any other tool, one should learn how to use it efficiently and develop some specific skills.

As a language teacher and learner, I heard the following complaints about language exchange:
  • We arranged a meeting on Skype, but we both felt too shy to talk, so most of the time it was mumbling, not a conversation;
  • The person who invited me to an LE session confused it with a dating website;
  • We met online, but neither I nor my partner knew what to talk about;
  • We set up an appointment, but my partner never showed up or was late;
  • My language level didn’t match the language level of my partner, so we both were bored;
  • I can’t make any progress; probably LE is not for me.

There are many objective reasons why talking to a stranger (online or offline) may frustrate you. Yet, it doesn’t mean that language exchange sessions are doomed to failure. Here are a few tips how you can arrange your LE sessions and get the positive experience from learning languages through talking with native speakers:

Be picky and discriminating when choosing a LE partner.
Success or failure of your LE sessions depends on how well you pick a partner. Choose somebody with similar or close interests. The mere fact that a person speaks the language you are learning doesn’t make him or her a good fit for LE. Read user profiles carefully before inviting a potential partner to chat; filter out everybody who doesn’t seem a perfect match and never feel bad about it.

My best LE sessions were with people who share my beliefs, who like the same things I like and are into the same things I am into. Because we matched so well, we never had awkward pauses in our conversation, never had problems with bringing new topics and always knew what to talk about. Well, sometimes I had LE sessions that were hard to end in time, because there were so much we wanted to say to each other…

Schedule your sessions like you would do with regular lessons.
Spontaneous chat with native speakers can be a part of your language practice, but it is more convenient and practical to schedule your online sessions the way you would schedule a regular appointment. Create an event in your digital calendar, add an alarm (I prefer to set all my alarms 10 minutes prior an event), ask your partner if he or she wants you to send them an alarm as well. Think about how long your sessions should be. I personally prefer one hour sessions - 30 minutes for each language. If a session lasts longer, both participants may get tired, while sessions shorter than one hour may give not enough time for both of you to practice.

If you language partner didn’t show up or was late for more than 15 minutes and failed to provide reasonable explanations, look for another partner. It doesn’t make sense to spend your time on someone who doesn’t respect it.

Plan your conversation in advance.
Take your LE sessions as an opportunity to learn more about life and culture of the country where your partner lives. You started learning a new language for some reasons, so why not to satisfy your curiosity and ask your language partner as many questions as possible about things that are interesting/relevant for you? For example, if you are learning a new language because of new employment opportunities, ask your partner how job interviews are arranged in his or her country, what HR managers usually ask about and so on. In different countries, employment procedures look different, and you can learn about it during your language exchange sessions. If you are mostly interested in tourism and learn a new language because you want to travel independently and explore the world on your own, ask your partner where locals go for shopping and where he or she would suggest to go (beside the usual tourist sights).

Not all sessions should be divided into two equal parts.
Though the whole language exchange idea is based on mutuality, it doesn’t mean that you should dedicate equal amount of time to each language every session. Sometimes (honestly, pretty often) it is more natural to speak one language for the whole 60 minute and dedicate the next session entirely to another language. Switching back and forth is harder for our brains that putting it into one mode and stay in it for an hour. If you realize that in order to switch to another language you have to interrupt the natural flow of your conversation, just don’t do it - keep talking! You’ll have your turn next time.

The list of LE platforms:
- Wespeke
- Tandem
- GoSpeaky
- HelloTalk
- iTalki

Friday, March 18, 2016

Q&A: When To Put Comma?

Forgive me if you've been asked this already, but how do commas work in Russian? I instinctively pause whenever I see one, but I understand this isn't the case?
That’s a good question!

Yes, in most cases, you can pause when you see a comma, but Russian punctuation is not about intonations and pauses. It is about predication. Generally, whenever you have a predicative core (Subject + Verb/predicate in any other forms), you have to separate it from another predicative core with a comma.

Я уверена, что мы поедем в Мексику. I’m certain that we’ll go to Mexico.
Я уверена - the first predicative core, we will go - the second predicative core.

Also, participles and adverbial participles may count as predicates under some certain conditions, so they are separated from the main sentence:

Он подумал и, взвесив все за и против, решил, останется дома. He thought a while and, after considering all pros and cons, decided that he’d stay home.

And, of course, we use commas for listing. Though we do not have the “Oxford comma”, and after the final “and” we do not put commas:

У меня есть кот, собака, пони и единорог. I have a cat, a dog, a pony, and a unicorn.

Do you have a question for me? Shoot it!

Photo by Steven Mueller

Q&A: Overcoming Awkwardness

Okay, I have a weird question for you and your followers. I am a language freak. I'm fluent in Dutch, English, Spanish, Italian, and am learning German, Russian and French. (Don't ask how many times I've tried to say something in one and corrected it in another) My problem is, for Russian, French and German you have to use the accents to properly pronounce some of the words. Now it's a bit silly, but I get embarrassed when I try to mimic the accent. Do you have any tips on getting over it?
Hi! I think I can understand you. I feel deeply embarrassed when I have to pronounce English sounds [θ] and [ð]. Russian doesn’t have these sounds. Moreover, it is considered a speech impediment (sigmatism) if one produces these sounds. Listening practice helped me to get rid of these awkward feelings.

If by the accent you mean a stress, in Russian absolutely every word should be stressed properly: one vowel in each word should be articulated clearly, and all the rest reduced to some degree.

Interestingly, Karen Van Hook who is patiently working on reducing my funny Russian accent always says “That’s it!” exactly when I’m mocking (or I think that I’m mocking) typical American speech. You can’t over-do it. Never. Exaggerate - and you’ll get exactly where you want to be.

So my general suggestion would be: listen to native speakers, Russian songs and watch movies in Russian. Listening is extremely important. Even if you don’t understand 80% of what you hear, let your ear to get accustomed to the Russian sounds. You’ll get the rhythm and general sounding of the Russian speech, and will start doing the accent without feeling embarrassed. It only comes with practice. Good luck!

Do you have a question for me? Shoot it!

Photo by Steven Mueller

Friday, March 4, 2016

What Language Learning Is Like

Since languages are often a part of a school curriculum, many people believe that learning a new language is like learning algebra or physics. It is not. Algebra and physics take understanding. Learning a new language takes development of new skills, and it has more similarities with playing music, dancing, driving a car, and other practical skills.

Why is learning a language similar to learning how to drive a car?
When you learn how to drive a car, you should first learn all the traffic rules, but that doesn’t make you a driver yet. You need hours and hours of practice to learn how to apply all those rules on road. With a new language, you learn the rules first, but rules alone won’t make you a speaker - you need a real life practice. The shock a new driver may experience is similar to the shock a language learner gets when he or she tries to speak the target language for the first time.

Why is language learning easier than driving a car?
Because the cost of making mistakes is much lower for language learning. What is the worst thing that may happen if you pronounce a word incorrectly or mess up a word order? Some misunderstanding that is relatively easy to fix. You can not kill anyone with a wrong word or poor grammar.

Why is learning a language similar to playing music?
Music and languages both take a lot of boring, routine practice. In order to excel in music, an aspiring musician should practice every day, and most of the time it is just polishing technique and memorizing the material. You have to be really passionate about music to overcome this boredom. Only then can a musician enjoy the freedom and happiness of expressing oneself. Freedom and flexibility come with persistent hard work. This is also true for language learners.

Why is language learning easier than playing music?
Because musicians have to be perfect. The audience never forgives imperfections. Luckily, we are more forgiving to non-native speakers.

Why is learning a language similar to dancing?
Like in dancing, you need a partner to practice. Of course, you can dance alone, but it is more fun and makes more sense if you do it with with a partner or in a group. Like in dancing, you have to learn how to coordinate your mind and your body, and train yourself to perform a dance not a series of separate gestures and moves (words and combinations of words, in the case of languages), but like a whole and self-sufficient expression. Should I add that, like in music, freedom comes with hard work?

Why is learning languages easier than dancing?
Because when you dance you have no time and no chance to correct yourself. You can always stop and correct yourself when speaking - no one would even notice.

Why is learning a new language like fitness?
Athletes, much like language learners, have to spend a lot of time training, and quite often there’s not much fun in it. Like athletes, language learners should practice every day to stay in a good shape. Otherwise, all your previous efforts will vanish in a few days. All the words that you’ve learned - you’ll forget them if you don’t practice. A little bit of fitness everyday is better than a hardcore workout once a week. Similarly, a little bit of language practice every day is better than three hours of exhausting language lessons once a week.

Why language learning is easier than fitness?
Well, because you can not injure yourself practicing language. You can hurt your ego, of course, but it heals quickly.

Happy language learning!

Friday, February 12, 2016

5 Minutes Podcast: Episode 25

Привет! Вы слушаете двадцать пятый эпизод подкаста “Пять минут”. Это подкаст для тех, кто учит русский язык. Меня зовут Евгения Власова. Я лингвист, я веду блог и преподаю русский язык.

Сегодня мы поговорим о снеге.
А снег идет, а cнег идет,
И все мерцает и плывет,
За то что ты в моей судьбе,
Спасибо, снег, тебе.

Одна моя ученица, назовём её Ди, живёт в стране с умеренным климатом и мягкими зимами. Недавно Ди съездила в Москву. Столица России встретила её морозом и сильным снегопадом. Когда Ди вернулась назад, я попросила её поделиться впечатлениями от поездки. Я ожидала, что она будет жаловаться на холод, но в ответ я услышала: “О, снег - это очень красиво!”

Действительно, снег обладает одним почти волшебным свойством: он скрывает всё неприглядное и превращает самый унылый, скучный и серый пейзаж в зимнюю сказку.
Такого снегопада, такого снегопада,
Давно не знали здешние места.
А снег не знал и падал,
А снег не знал и падал,
Земля была прекрасна,
Прекрасна и чиста.
Мне встречались люди, которые считают, что снег является причиной холода. Как правило, это выходцы из тёплых стран. На самом деле, снег помогает почве сохранить тепло и влагу в сильные холода. Снег укрывает землю, как одеяло. Благодаря снегу многолетние растения - розы, виноград или клубника, не замерзают зимой даже в Сибири.

Кстати, сибиряки знают, что обычно снег идёт в тёплую погоду. Когда стоят настоящие морозы - минус тридцать и ниже - бывает ясно. Когда же морозы отступают, приходят ветер и снег, и вместе с ними потепление.

Слово snowstorm можно перевести на русский язык по-разному, в зависимости от того, как сильно дует ветер, и дует ли он в одну сторону или в разных направлениях. Вот несколько вариантов перевода:
  • метель - сильный ветер со снегом;
  • вьюга - снежная буря, когда ветер дует в разных направлениях и закручивает снег;
  • буран - снежный ураган, чаще всего, в открытой местности;
  • пурга - сильная метель, когда ветер дует понизу.
А вокруг белым бело, и снегу намело...
Лишь у меня запазухой всё равно тепло.
В России люди, в основном, хорошо относятся к снегу. Когда я переехала из Сибири на юг Канады, я узнала, что далеко не все разделяют мой восторг по поводу первого снега. Снегопад для большинства людей в Северной Америке означает, что нужно брать лопату и идти расчищать двор. В России жизнь организована по-другому. В российских городах очень мало частных домов. Люди живут в многоэтажках, поэтому снег добавляет работы только муниципальным службам и двоникам. Дворники - это рабочие, которые следят за чистотой дворов и улиц.

Вот кто по-настоящему не любит снег, так это водители. Ездить на машине зимой объективно сложно - дороги скользские, а если метель поднимается, то ещё и ничего не видно. Когда дорога проходит в открытой местности, то ветер может засыпать дорогу снегом - это называется “перемёты”. Подтаявший снег замерзает на дороге ледяной коркой - это явление называется “гололёд”. Для того, чтобы машина не скользина по снегу и льду, на колёса ставят шины с шипами.

И всё же некоторым водителям в России даже нравится ездить по снегу. Дело в том, что снег засыпает ямы и выбоины, и до весны дороги становятся ровными.
В лунном сияньи снег серебрится,
Вдоль по дороженьке троечка мчится.
Динь-динь-динь, динь-динь-динь —
Колокольчик звенит,
Этот звон, этот звук
О любви говорит.
Вы слушали двадцать пятый эпизод подкаста “Пять минут”. Если вы поняли не все слова, не переживайте - на сайте вы можете найти полный текст эпизода. В следующем выпуске мы поговорим про колбасу. С вами была Евгения Власова. До встречи через неделю!

В эпизоде использовались фрагменты следующих произведений:
  1. М. Кристалинская, “А снег идёт“
  2. ВИА Пламя, “Снег кружится”
  3. П. Кашин, “Русская песня”
  4. П. Налич, “В лунном сияньи”

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Connecting Your Academic Life With the Real World

"Welcome To The Real World, eh?"
Photo by Jon Bragg

Once a student of mine explained to me in good Russian that he was bad at learning languages. He explained to me exactly why he was incapable of speaking Russian for thirty minutes. When I pointed out that he had been speaking Russian for thirty minutes in a row, he was shocked. Another student told me that he had no time to learn English. A bit later he said that he read technical documentation in English and watched tutorials in English on YouTube every day; he didn't think it counted as learning. I've heard a student who complained about his tutor for not spending enough time explaining grammar. Instead, the tutor spoke to the student in the target language. Just speaking the language isn't learning, right?

Language learners often imagine language acquisition as yet another academic activity. They think, “I'll just read all those textbooks and do all the exercises for one hour a day, five days a week, and sooner or later, I'll become fluent”. Even if they stick to their learning plans, they usually fail to reach fluency. It happens because their learning lacks meaningful practice, but also because one hour a day is not enough for language acquisition. Our brain needs some time to tune in to a new language. And finally when the mental switch from one language to another happens, class is over already.

Instead of dedicating more time to memorizing vocabulary lists and grammar rules, I would suggest redefining language learning itself. Before you start to learn a new language, you might have some ideas about what for you need the language. You wanted to achieve something with your new language, you probably needed the language for some reasons. Why substitute practical, meaningful goals with forced and artificial learning milestones?

Think what resources you are possibly overlooking. For example, if you are learning Russian, think about how you could use it. If you are of Russian descent, search for the information about your distant relatives in Russia. There are interesting historical documents published online, so your research may result in reuniting with your family. I found some interesting pieces of information about my relatives that were considered lost for decades. If you are a gamer and play video games online, you may enjoy reading gamers' forums in Russian and eventually chatting with other gamers. Make a list of resources that you can use for practicing Russian - your friends, your Russian grandma, your Russian neighbors, a Russian shop or a restaurant in your city, interesting Russian blogs and online communities. You may be surprised to see how many opportunities you've been missing.

When it comes to languages, learning shouldn't be academic. The more fun you have while dealing with a new language, the sooner you'll achieve fluency. Make your learning meaningful and less formal, and your new language will cooperate with you!

Monday, January 18, 2016

Learning vs. Acquisition

This is how people in early XXth century imagined future schools

During my scholarly life, I have learned many languages – English, German, French, Bulgarian, even Latin and Old Slavonic. The only language that I practiced outside the classroom was English. No wonder the only second language I can actually speak is English.

How is it that that despite learning German, French, and Latin for three years at school, studying six hours a week for each language, I have never managed to become fluent in any of them? Was it because of my teachers? I don't think so. My German teacher was from Bavaria, and my French teacher was very academic with a degree in French Grammar. Was it just me? Oh, no! I had the highest score in all the languages I'd ever learned. But still, I speak neither German, nor French, not to mention Latin.


The reason why I never was able to speak those languages was that I learned them in the way I learned algebra, or physics, or any other school subject. School treats language classes the same way it treats anything else: there are some rules and concepts for students to be comprehended, and tests that reveal how well a student grasps those concepts. Language is a skill rather than a theoretical knowledge; thus it should be learned differently.

The summit of the “language for learning, not for speaking” approach for me was reached when I took my classes of Bulgarian. As a student of linguistics and Slavic languages, I had to learn one spoken Slavic language either of Western Slavic or Southern Slavic branch. I picked Bulgarian, because it seemed easier to learn. The course of Bulgarian was designed for linguists. Its only goal was to show students what's common between two Slavic languages, and where exactly Bulgarian grammar differs from the Russian grammar. It was a course of Bulgarian linguistics, but not the Bulgarian language. By the end of the year, I could read a simple text in Bulgarian and translate it (using a dictionary sometimes). I could also speak for fifteen minutes (in Russian) about the category of definiteness in Bulgarian and how it was lost in Russian. I couldn't build a simple sentence in Bulgarian though, because I had never practiced doing this in the language.

Eight years later, I met a Bulgarian woman in an American airport. She needed help. Her flight was overbooked, so she had to wait for another flight, however, her luggage was sent separately. The airport staff didn't speak Bulgarian, and she didn't speak English, so she was about to cry thinking that she had lost her luggage forever. Luckily I was there and I managed to explain to the lady that everything was fine with her luggage; moreover, she would be able to get a seat on the next flight to her city. She spoke a little Russian, so I could help. I couldn't recall a single word in Bulgarian when I needed to.


English was another story. First, I learned English in school in a pretty traditional way: vocabulary lists, grammar rules, and unbearably boring texts to memorize. Then I started listening to the British and American rock music, and it changed everything. I was no longer limited to the classroom, and so my English started progressing rapidly. I overcame the language barrier when I finally realized that I can express my thoughts in this language.

The real breakthrough happened when I started working in a global company where English was the only spoken language for a highly diverse team of reporters. I stopped learning English, and I started using it as a means of communication. When I immigrated to Canada five years ago, my English improved even more. English surrounds me 24/7, and I started picking up those little things that I couldn't polish while living in Russia. Today, I don't spend a second learning English, however, I learn something new about the language every day. I find myself using some grammar forms that I was never taught, but that I picked naturally. “It just sounds right” is the sweetest feeling that can only come to a student when he or she stops learning and starts acquiring a target language.


Language is, on one hand, a combination of a grammar system and vocabulary; on the other hand, language is everything people say in the language. Learning is about focusing
on grammar. There is nothing wrong with this approach, but it will never lead you to fluency. You will never start speaking, if you learn grammar and don't learn how to speak language.

Language acquisition is all about communication and practical use of language. The modern guidelines for language teachers suggest a healthy balance of 80% the time to be spent speaking a target language and 20% focusing on grammar and details of word usage.

Acquisition takes different approach. In terms of learning goals, “I want to practice x one hour a day” is a goal that wouldn't work. Pretty soon you'll find yourself busy with other – more urgent – things. “I want to read this book” is okay. “I want to make a self-presentation for a job interview” is even better. Think about what you want TO DO with your new language – and start doing it.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Q&A: Russian Case System

I find myself struggling with the cases. Could you please tell me some tips or something? Thank you
Hi! You are not alone! My students often ask me to explain the Russian case system and it is one of the most frequent questions here on this blog.

The concept

Cases in Russian show the relationships between words. In English, you can see who did what by the word order. In Russian, you can tell the subject from the object by different endings.

Example: Bob sees Masha. We know that Bob is a subject, it is he who sees. We don’t know if Masha sees Bob, but we know that Masha is a direct object here, she is being seen. We can assume who sees whom because of the word order. Bob goes first, he is the subject. In Russian, it is not that simple.

Боб видит Машу. - similar to English.
Also correct:
Машу видит Боб.
Боб Машу видит.
Видит Машу Боб.
Машу Боб видит.
Видит Боб Машу.

Each sentence above adds something to the basic sentence: we can emphasize that Bob sees Masha, not someone else, that Bob can see Masha, but can’t hear her, that it is Bob who sees Masha, not anyone else etc. Russian does it with the different word order. We still can tell who sees whom - because of the endings. Боб is in the Nominative case (like in a dictionary) -> Subject. Masha is in the Accusative case in all the sentences -> Direct object.

Each case may have more than one meaning, but here are the most common ones:
  • Nominative- for subjects,
  • Genitive - for possession, or parts of, or negations,
  • Dative - for directions “toward”,
  • Accusative - for direct objects,
  • Instrumental - for means or comparisons,
  • Prepositional - for indirect objects, topics.

Russian cases basically do the job of the English prepositions - they help to build a sentence and to show how things relate to each other within one phrase.

The only way to memorize when to use which case is to practice. I would suggest writing short essays and posting them on lang-8 for Russian native speakers to correct them for free. It’s a great language learning start-up. I wholeheartedly recommend it to all my students. It is free and it has that wonderful cooperative atmosphere than makes language learning pleasant (at least, my experience with this website has been very positive so far).

Memorizing the endings

In Russian, there are three groups of nouns called declensions.

First: mostly Feminine nouns ending with -a/-я, also some masculine proper names and some masculine terms for relatives.

Second: masculine nouns ending with a consonant sounds or the soft sign (ь), + all neuter nouns.

Third: Feminine nouns ending with the soft sign (ь).

Many teachers prefer to group nouns by their gender - feminine(=1), masculine (=2), neuter (=2) and special soft-feminine nouns (=3). If it is more convenient for you, you can use this system.

Each group of nouns has its own set of endings for different cases. For example, Genitive for a feminine noun would be -ы/и, while Genitive for a masculine noun would be -а/я:

У меня нет сестры. У меня нет брата.

I would suggest having a grammar table with endings somewhere near your desk or at any place where you can easily check it. Here you can find a noun declension grammar table I developed for my students. Here are some more details for each declension type. You can also buy a grammar table bookmark set from my shop on Etsy and have all the tables handy.

Good luck!

Photo by Steven Mueller

Friday, January 1, 2016

Q&A: How To Memorize Russian Alphabet

Hey so I was recommended to you about Russian alphabet learning tips and such. I'm trying to learn Russian and the alphabet is just giving me a lot of trouble, I've tried flashcards but they just don't work with me. Do you know of anything else?
First, I would suggest to draw all the 33 letters - each on a separate sheet of paper (half or quarter of a letter size sheet should be fine). While drawing, you’ll learn how the letters are built - it’s a very good, deep practice! And it is fun.

Then divide the letters into the following groups:
  1. Very similar in Russian and English (A, O, T, M, K, E)
  2. Specifically Russian letters; they look exotic and represent unique sounds or the ones that are made up of a combination of letters in English (Ы, Ц, Ш, Щ, Ж, Ч, Я, Ю, Ё)
  3. Look different, but sound familiar (Г, З, Ф, П, Л, Д, Э, Й, И, Б)
  4. Look familiar , but sound differently (У, Н, Х, В, Р, С)
  5. Mute letters (ъ, ь)
Now when you have the letters grouped, take a look at each group and figure out, which one gives you the most troubles. Focus on this group, learn about the history of some particularly difficult letters (it may help you to understand “the personality” of those letters). I would bet, the 3 and 4 are the most confusing, right? It is approximately ½ of the alphabet, which means another half is almost done!

Practice more with the letters that confuse you by memorizing Russian words for the international vocabulary, such as:
Банк, танк, Интернет, компьютер etc.
You wouldn’t need to memorize new words - just the letters in those words. Little by little, you’ll internalize the alphabet and start reading.

Writing letters and words by hand is extremely helpful - you’ll involve more of the neuron chains for that than when simply typing, and memorizing will go easier.
Here are a few links that you might find helpful:

- Russian alphabet at Russian For Everyone
- Reading practice at
- A special Russian Alphabet course at Memrise
- A slide show I created for my students
- Global Logos written with Russian letters

I don’t know for how long and how intensive you’ve been trying to learn the Russian alphabet, but I want to tell you one thing: it is okay if, after months of training, you still confuse some Russian letters from time to time. My students sometimes confuse some letters that look similar - л (L) and п(P), Latin B and Russian В etc. It’s fine! It should not discourage you from learning!

And, finally, consider these bookmarks. Visual aid really works, proved by my students.

Good luck!

Photo by Steven Mueller