I had always had a fascination for the vast country of Russia. I had read some Russian novels in translation as a teenager, and have always thought it would be cool to be able to read these in the original Russian. The language sounds lovely, as if spoken from the depths of the legendary mysterious Russian soul.
As a foreign student in France in the 1960s I even once selected Russian as my compulsory foreign language. At least I did so for a while until I realized it wasn’t going to be easy. The writing system and the grammar discouraged me. This was largely because of how the language was taught. In any case, I switched to English to improve my grade point average. I was going to have enough trouble doing all my studying, and writing all my exams, in French.
About 12 years ago I started learning Russian on my own, and I stuck with it. Today I can read novels in Russian, understand movies, radio interviews, and speak quite comfortably, although with mistakes. I have made presentations in Russian to language learning conferences in Russia, via Skype, and have been interviewed in Russian.
One of the motivations for learning Russian this last time, was to test out my approach to language learning. In my view, traditional language instruction makes much too much of a fuss about grammar. By explaining the language to a learner before the learner has had any experience with the language, these well meaning language instructors just throw up a big obstacle to what could be a more enjoyable interaction with the language. If the teacher actually expects the learner to produce the language correctly, based on a bunch of grammar rules, this just compounds the problem.
I had ignored grammar rules while learning Mandarin Chinese and Japanese. Could that approach work for learning Russian? I wanted to test that out. The result was that it worked. No, grammar can’t be ignored when it comes to Russian, but it can be treated lightly. There are things we need to be vaguely aware of as we listen to the language and read it. But we don’t need to nail anything down until much later. At least that was my experience.
I was so pleased with my foray into Russian, that I subsequently have taught myself Czech, Korean, Portuguese, Romanian, Polish, Ukrainian, Greek using these principles, and am now working on Arabic.
So let’s look at same general concepts that we should be aware of if we plan to tackle learning Russian.
The Russian Writing System
It is no surprise that the Russian writing system is almost parallel to the Latin alphabet, since both the Russian and Latin alphabets come from the Greek alphabet. There are a few letters that are unique to Russian. There is also a soft sign (Ь) and hard sign (Ъ) which I essentially ignore but need to know when writing. (I use a spell checker to make sure I get them right.) Similarly there are two letters [Шш and Щщ] that apparently are pronounced differently, but to me sound the same.
There are some letters that look the same as Latin letters, but they are in fact pronounced differently. The old Soviet Union was written CCCP which would have been SSSR in the Latin alphabet. Sometimes these letters that resemble different letters in the Latin alphabet are the most difficult to get used to since they are hardwired in our minds.
So the only advice on the alphabet is to get started on it. You’re going to be able to start reading with difficulty within a few hours, and then the more you read, the better you will get at it. However, as I found when I started learning Czech, it’s always easier to read in your own alphabet — always.
Cases are a bit of stumbling block, at least at first. Some people don’t know what cases are. I do, because I had Latin at school. In Russian there are six cases, the same number as in Latin, although somewhat different.
Cases refers to the fact that the form of nouns, pronouns or adjectives changes depending on their function in a sentence. The difficulty with cases is not the concept itself, but trying to remember the different endings for the different cases. This is made more of a problem when we have gender. In the case of Russian, there are three genders, masculine, feminine and neuter. Don’t ask me why. Case endings vary depending on gender and number. Learning all of this is a gradual process. It is part of getting used to the language.
Let’s look at this for a noun like book. I we say “The book is on the table”, then book is in the nominative because it is the subject of the sentence. If you do something to the book, “I read the book”, “I give the book”, now the book is in the accusative because it is the object of the verb. If I give the book “to my brother”, both “my” and “brother” are in the dative. Russian also has a prepositional case, which is basically about where something is “On the”, “At the”, “In the”, sort of like a location-type case. The term prepositional case is confusing since most prepositions in Russian don’t take the prepositional case, but that is another matter.
There is also a genitive case which is used to denote possession. So “Of the book” would be in the genitive. And they have a thing called the instrumental, “By the book”, “By my pen”, anything that implies what instrument or agent you used to do something. In that case, in the sentence “I went by car” the car would be in the instrumental.
Conceptually it is not difficult to understand why cases exist. However, the specific explanations of why we use one case or another can be confusing. For example, this from a Russian grammar book “The genitive case is used after words expressing measurement and quantity…”. That’s fine, “…but if it’s one of something it’s the nominative singular. If it’s two, three or four of something it’s the genitive singular. If it’s five or more it’s the genitive plural.”
Now, if that were the only rule you had to learn you could probably deal with it, but there are a lot more. “The genitive case is used in a positive sense to express an indefinite incomplete quantity.” Okay, good for you. If you go on to the accusative, “The genitive case is normally used after negated verbs in the following instances: When the negation is intensified by another word; when a positive sentence is negated.” Of course, I don’t know what all that means. I have to look at the examples. “The dative is used to express the logical, blah, blah, blah.” I mean it just goes on and on.
The vast majority of prepositions don’t take the prepositional case, they take the genitive. Also, the same preposition will sometimes take the genitive and sometimes take the accusative. The endings, the tables, I’ve looked at those tables so many times. You can kind of half remember it for a day or two and then it’s gone, even if you understand the explanations after lots of examples.
What I’ve found is you just have to read and listen so often that certain phrases start to sound natural with their endings. It was much the same learning tones in Chinese. Trying to remember the individual tone for each character was very difficult, but with enough practice you eventually get better and better.
Most learners of Russian are going to have trouble with the cases. Perhaps someone who attends a class and is studying it formally does better than I did. I was spending an hour a day listening, most of it in my car, or while exercising. It was out of interest that I learned Russian, not to pass a test. However, I must say, given that I spent five years at an hour a day, a lot of people study it very seriously in class and don’t get as far along as I did and, besides which, I can understand so much. I also think that when I have the opportunity to speak a lot of Russian, to interact with Russians, to read and listen a lot, my accuracy in the use of cases improves naturally.
Being less than perfect in cases doesn’t prevent you from understanding the language. Rather it is usually the lack of words, vocabulary gaps, that prevent me from understanding, and even from expressing myself the way I want. I learned all of the Russian vocabulary I know on LingQ. In fact that is where I learned the language. Some things remain a little bit fuzzy, but the important thing is that I can understand and enjoy the language.
Whereas in English we rely on word order to understand who is doing what to whom. “The man bit the dog”. Russian has cases which clarify who is doing what to whom. When we add the fact the Russian does this without articles, we discover that Russian can do away with the kind of word order issues that we have in English. We say “This is a book”, in English. The Russians don’t worry about articles so they just say, “This book.” (Это книга). In English we say “I read a book, or “I read the book,”, the Russians don’t bother with the article and just say “я читаю книгу” “I read book”. But you could also say “я книгу читаю”,”I book read” so the word order can be kind of shifted around.
You will find that you quickly get used to the flexibility of Russian word order. However, it is verbs that can be a bit of challenge.
Verbs of motion
Russian doesn’t have a mess of verb tenses like English. Instead the language pays a lot of attention to verbs of motion. Depending on whether you regularly go, go and come back, go on transport, go around to several places etc. the verb will be different.
It is not just “go” but also “carry”, “come”, “fly” and “swim”, and more. I have found this concept difficult to get a handle on and to actually be able to reproduce. It doesn’t prevent me from understanding the language, but it is very difficult to use the correct verb when speaking. It doesn’t bother me since I am able to communicate fine, if not as accurately as I would like. No amount of studying rules and tables on these verbs has helped much. With enough exposure I gradually improve.
Aspect of verbs
Russian has another surprise in store when it comes to verbs. That is the aspect of verbs, described as “perfective” and “imperfective”. I have read the definitions and explanations many times. “If the action was completed, was supposed to be completed, might have been completed or was never going to be completed, then you use one form. But if, in fact, it was completed or might have been completed, except for the other exceptions, then you use this other form”. Here, again, I find that in the end it is only massive exposure that will eventually help me. I can’t be trying to go through all these logical explanations while speaking.
Now, the good news, Russian is fascinating. It’s a beautiful language. The culture and history are fascinating. The people are warm, and rarely dull. They tend to speak their minds, say what they think, but that’s what makes them so much fun to be around. Perhaps Russians are less inclined to compromise. Maybe that’s how they approach artistic creation or sports. Maybe that’s why we see so many outstanding ballerinas, musicians, athletes and scientists.
So my advice is to be aware of some of these grammar issues, and watch for them as you discover the language. But rather than trying to nail these things down, or worrying about your inability to nail them down, try to enjoy the language. Read, listen, watch movies, talk to people when you can, and just immerse yourself. You will find yourself going back again and again to explanations and grammar tables when you are curious. To some extent this will help, but mostly it will be your involvement with the language, engagement with the language that will teach you, as your brain gradually gets used to it.
Originally published at blog.thelinguist.com.