Reflecting on Russian: Tips from a Seven-Year Veteran


Reflecting on Russian: Tips from a Seven-Year Veteran
Don't worry, teaching materials have come a long way since this 1694 ABC book. Karion Istomin's alphabet book, letter П, Wikimedia Commons

Russian is not an easy language to learn, despite what you may have heard.

Like most learners, I assume, I didn’t have Russian language experience until I was older. In high school I took Spanish. In my dad’s words: “No one in this house is learning any goddamn French.”

A decade later and I have yet to lead a strike, take up mime, or understand modern art, so that’s good, I guess. And, growing up in California, I found that Spanish was by far the more useful tongue for day-to-day life.

All this is to say that, when I started learning Russian as an undergrad, I knew more French than Russian, and I didn’t speak French. Ceci n’est pas un Russophone.

Fast-forward seven years. I finished college, worked for a couple of years, and now I’m back to learning Russian as a Masters student. Despite some of the best teachers, I’m still not fluent, but I can get around decently well. I’d label my skills “proficiency.”

Below are a few of my reflections on learning Russian: what I found challenging, interesting, or amusing. My hope is that others will be encouraged to take up Russian, too: it's been a fulfilling skill to cultivate, one I wish more people would try.

Disclaimer: Neither I nor Russian Life should be held responsible for your language-class grades. We make no promises that these are academic panaceas.

1. Don’t Sweat Letters

Being able to read Cyrillic script (the Bulgarian, Ukrainian, and Russian alphabet, among others) is a cool party trick. But it’s easier than people think it is. A third of the letters are Latin, anyway: A is A, T is T, K is K.

Others are Greek: ф is F, г is G, н is N.

Then there are the seemingly ex nihilo ones: в is V, я is /ya/, ж is /zh/.

And, of course, the diagraphs: ш for /sh/, ч for /ch/, ц for /ts/. If you’re feeling fancy, there’s the щ, /shsh/, as in “fresh sheets”, with the cute little tail. Is there an audible difference with ш? Not really (to an American ear, that is). Will you get docked on spelling quizzes for using the wrong one? Probably.

Can’t forget the parallel vowel phenomenon. Each “hard” vowel has a “soft” equivalent. A — я (/a/ — /ya/), O — ё (/o/ — /yo/), у — ю (/oo/ — /yoo/). 

The funkiest of these is и (/ee/), which has its parallel ы, pronounced, as my old Russian professor used to say, “like you’re being goosed.” (/’oi/) might be the best way to spell it. It’s basically just a glottal stop with an /ee/ after it.

Lastly, the two letters that don’t actually make a sound; instead, they modify the letters before them, making them softer or harder, respectively: ь and ъ. More useful than you'd think.

(An anecdote: Due to Russian phonics rules, my name, “Griffin,” is almost always pronounced /Greeffeen/, since there is no short /i/ sound. On my last journey to Russia, my hosts instead opted to call me “Greenfield,” after a popular English tea that was inexplicably easier to pronounce.)

All in all, though, you’ll learn the letters in a week or two. They’re no biggie. And, fortunately, Russian words are almost always spelled as they sound. Oh, and be sure to learn the cursive: it’ll make your writing swift and smooth for those hand-written essays.

2. When In Doubt...

“/Yay/ it out.” I still remember where I learned this one: two hours before a test, cramming in a study group in my undergrad Commons. I don’t remember how I did on the test, but I do remember this trick.

Russian is based on the concept of cases: words change depending on their use in the sentence. “I read a book with a dog” is made up of constituent parts: “I”, “read”, “book”, “with”, “dog” (there are no articles in Russian, so we can ignore them). Individually, these translate to: я, читать, книга, с, собака.

However, because the book (книга) is the object of the sentence, and I, in this sentence, am with a dog (собака), these take on the accusative and instrumental forms of the word, respectively, to become, as a whole sentence: Я читаю книгу с собакой. There’s about a half-dozen cases, and exceptions and special rules can pop up where you least expect them. It’s a lot to keep track of.

However, female nouns decline to end in “-ой” (/oi/) and “-ей” (/ei/) in a couple of cases. So, if you’re staring at a feminine noun on your Russian final that needs to decline, try to /yay/ it out with one of those endings.

Also, pro tip: If you’re in Russia and are speaking with someone but can’t quite remember what your noun ending should be, you can mumble it a bit. Chances are the native speaker won’t notice, and you’ll sound a little like a cosmopolitan, fast-talking Muscovite (Don’t tell your Russian teacher I told you this one, but it works).

3. Some Words Are Very Literal.

Russian words usually mean exactly what you’d think they’d mean when you break down the word.

Take aircraft, typically guided by a летчик (/lyotchik/, pilot). There are two basic kinds: вертолет (/vertolyot/) and самолет (/samolyot/). One is a vertical-flying-thing (/vert/, vertical, plus /lyot/, a root meaning fly), while the other is a self-flying-thing (/sam/, self, plus /lyot/). Intuitively, these are helicopters and airplanes.

There’s also, of course, the холодильник (/kholodil’nik/), from /kholod/, cold, and /nik/, which is essentially a suffix meaning “thing or one that does.” So literally, that’s a “thing that does cold,” or, as we say in the States, a refrigerator.

Then there’s the adjective for modern: современный (/sovremenny/). /s/, with; /vremeni/, time. Or international: международный (/mezhdunarodnyi/). /mezhdu/, between; /narod/, nation.

This isn’t just for nouns and adjectives. If I can’t make the documentary tonight, I might say that I have to walk my dog: Мне необходимо выгулять собаку. That second word, необходимо (/neobkhodimo/) is one of the Russian passive-verbs made up of a few parts: /ne/, negation; /ob/, a prefix meaning around; and /khod/, meaning to walk. I can’t get around taking my dog out; I’ve gotta do it.

4. Sometimes You Just Gotta Memorize

Russian is tricky. Some rules just take practice. Here are a few examples of things that are much harder than they need to be:

  • Verbs of motion. Russian doesn’t really have a single verb for “to go”. Want to say “I went to the store” in your Russian 101 class? Hold off until next semester, or the one after that. My head still spins when it comes to all the iterations.
  • Numbers. I have four apples: четыре яблока. Five apples: пять яблок. 21 apples: двадцать одно яблоко. 81 apples: восемьдесят один яблок. Why? No idea. Some historical linguistics thing, probably. Every time I feel like I have this down, I find out I’m wrong. I’ll be surprised if I didn’t mess it up above.
  • Genitive plural. The bane of any Russian language student, the weirdest of the Russian cases. Dropped letters, bizarre rules, lots of exceptions. Buckle up.

The best way to combat linguistic vertigo is to read news articles, watch videos, and listen to things in the language to get the hang of it and figure out what sounds weird and what doesn’t. And a little review never hurt anyone.

5. Russian is Rewarding

If you’re considering studying Russian, go for it! If you’re a Russian veteran, keep it up!

Yes, Russian can be a beast to learn. But aren’t all languages? And with Russian, there’s a certain satisfaction that comes from nailing just the right case, and getting your point across with an effortless declension feels like a slam dunk every time.

Don’t let me scare you. With enough practice and patience, worksheets and exercises, you’ll start to get the hang of it (especially if, like me, you land some excellent teachers). And then you’ll be able to really unlock the strange yet remarkably consistent logic of the Russian language. And who knows? Maybe if you make a good enough Russian friend, you’ll find yourself in a uniquely Russian adventure: banya, shashlik, or sanatoriums.

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