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 There are interesting historical documents published online, so your research may result in reuniting with your family.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 RT.com
- 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