If you’d asked me six months ago whether I thought that I would know how to read the Cyrillic alphabet by December, I would have laughed and asked which planet you were from.
Yet, here I am:
Navigating my way around Moscow, asking about prices, and (occasionally) surprising my ESL students by calling them out for using Russian words (that I’ve learned) in class.
Russia hadn’t been particularly high on my to-do list prior to my move here.
I had some visa issues and was running out of time in the Schengen zone, so I decided to look into the world’s largest country and see what the fuss was all about.
Shortly thereafter, I scored a contract to teach for 9 months and was on my way before I’d had the chance to research the average temperature. 🙂
My prior apathy about Russia aside, after just a few short months of living in Russia I have already been forced to seriously reconsider every Russian stereotype that I’d previously held.
Except one. The language!
It is difficult.
That said, it’s not impossible and I’ve been able to progress to a point where I can co-exist with my Russian speaking colleagues and companions in relative comfort within a few months.
Here are my initial thoughts about the Russian language.
Included are some tips and useful sites/information that I have stumbled across during my frantic attempts to find my way in this magnificent and mysterious country:
1. You should learn some language before arriving.
Everyone has their own opinion about the level of English in capital cities around the world, but I can say, with confidence, we can agree that the level of English in Moscow isn’t high.
The fairly reputable EF index has my back here with Russia’s most recent English index being categorised as “low”.
With that in mind, my typical Aussie “she’ll be right” attitude and I arrived in the Moscow region suburb that I now call home with a basic understanding of how to read stop signs and not too much else.
Needless to say, I was met with blank stares when I asked anyone local whether they spoke “английский” (sounds like uh-ngleeskeey and translates to English).
If I’m completely honest I’m usually a reasonably happy-go-lucky person.
But for the first month of my life in Russia (prior to my experience-salvaging Russian lessons starting), I wanted to quit and move away every single day.
The isolation and fear that come with not knowing or understanding anything was palpable and almost unbearable most of the time.
Once, I caught the wrong электричка (electric train) because I couldn’t read the signs or ask for help and ended up in tears when the ticket inspectors were asking me about my incorrect ticket and again when the barrier guard wouldn’t let me out with the offending ticket.
Thankfully an English speaking Russian came to my rescue!
I implore you to get your head around the basics before you arrive.
Here’s the minimum you should aim for:
- Counting to ten thousand (and being able to comprehend spoken numbers up to ten thousand)
- Being able to read and sound out the alphabet
- Please, thank you, may I, and the wh question words
- Formal and informal greetings
- Basic phrases to get around the city (getting train tickets, basic directions)
- Food and drink vocabulary
2. You will need to learn the grammar.
Russian grammar is tough going at the beginning.
My favourite titbits that I’ve picked up so far are:
You can turn statements into a question by adjusting the intonation, not the word order.
This does exist in English (e.g. You don’t speak English?), so it isn’t an entirely alien concept but it was a bit of a surprise.
Conjugating the verbs is a nightmare.
This website provides a list of common verbs with their conjugations in past, present, and future.
The site, or something similar, will become your best friend while you come to grips with the conjugation.
I don’t have any tips to help with learning it aside from repetition and exposure.
You’ll get there! 🙂
There are, of course, some lovely genders to contend with.
Russian has masculine, feminine, neuter (and plural) genders.
The human brain is a remarkable place and I have traditionally seen grammar as an optional extra.
That said, Russian has absolutely humbled me and I have found learning the grammar helpful for the small amount of Russian that I’ve managed to conquer thus far.
I recommend that all beginners have a sniff around the Internet to get a feel for Russian grammar.
My recommendations are:
There are some University of Dalarna lectures that you can listen to via the iTunes U or Podcasts app (depending on which version your phone is supported by) that discuss the basics of Russian grammar in an interesting and relatable way.
The Foreign Services Institute Russian course.
This course is dry (read: boring as heck!), but I found it to be set out in manageable steps and in a logical order.
It’s a good resource if you can stomach it.
3. Showing respect is important
Russian does have formal pronouns that can be used to show politeness.
You should learn these and use them as soon as you can.
It’s similar to the formal pronouns in German (and a few other languages that I’m not familiar with), in that the plural “you” pronoun is used to highlight formality and respect.
Any verb that follows will have to be conjugated accordingly!
Additionally, Russians have a patronymic middle name that can be used in particular circumstances to show respect.
The patronymic comes from their father’s given name with either –ovich or – evich tacked onto the end for males or, -ovna or –evna for females.
These are typically used when Russian people address their teachers, professors, bosses or other older people whom they hold with particular respect or esteem.
4. Don’t despair! It isn’t all doom and gloom with Russian language learning.
Fortunately, the Russian language threw us non-natives a few bones when it comes to learning the language!
Here are the few that I have discovered thus far:
- There are only three tenses, so you don’t have to contend with continuous forms of verbs.
- Using intonation to create some questions means that you don’t have to remember sentence structures to form Yes/No questions.
- Russian is standard across most of its speakers, so you don’t have to adjust your ear or your vocabulary based on where you are.
- The word order is pretty flexible, so precision with regard to the order of words isn’t a high priority for language learners.
- The “be” verb doesn’t exist in the same way. So you can simply say “I Stephanie” in Russian, instead of “I am Stephanie”, or “that house red” instead of “that house is red”.
- Russian doesn’t have articles (a/the). I have also heard whispers that phrasal verbs (like “get off” or “put off”) don’t exist in Russian. I haven’t learned enough language to know whether this is true or not, but that would certainly be a welcome surprise!
- They do have two aspects that can be used in the past and future tense, so it wasn’t much of a bone.
5. Motivation will be a crucial factor with regard to your success
As a native English speaker, I have found that other Germanic languages can be tackled with a combination of tuition and intuition.
With Russian, however, I have discovered that my intuition is useless at best and a hindrance at worst.
This, coupled with (occasional) despair about the Russian grammar, has made it difficult to stay motivated at times.
Recently, my (non-Russian speaking) boyfriend asked me about a particular green herb while we were in the supermarket.
I didn’t even bother attempting to read the label.
It wasn’t one of the herbs that I had memorised at that point, so it didn’t seem worthwhile attempting to decipher it. After checking with Google translate, he announced that it was oregano.
I would have been able to confirm that on the spot had I bothered to read the label because it’s the same in Russian.
I had that thought that I’d learned my lesson from this experience, but there have been a few instances between then and now that I have just not bothered trying to solve something easily solvable in Russian because it seems too difficult.
Which brings me, finally, to my point about motivation:
It is tough to stay motivated.
I receive daily reminders that I have so much left to study, and sometimes it seems like such an insurmountable task that it doesn’t seem worthwhile.
You will need to remind yourself every day that it is!
Every second you spend studying will allow you to understand more of the world around you.
Also, for any teachers/nannies/governesses who are learning Russian, I get some instant gratification when I can understand the ESL kids in class.
That gives me a daily burst of motivation, and will hopefully help you as well.
For those of you who aren’t able to get instant gratification from children, watch a kid’s song in Russian on YouTube or something similar if you really need something to help highlight your progress!
6. Have fun and make time for experiences
Any time that you can get out and experience anything in Russia, you will be exposed to Russian.
Don’t feel bad about going shopping instead of studying all afternoon.
You’ll have to order a coffee or a doughnut with a combination of mime, your poor Russian and the staff member’s English.
You’ll pick up on more words this time around, or perhaps you’ll learn something new.
It doesn’t matter!
There is a reason being surrounded by the target language is the best way to get to know the target language.
Finally, here is a list of all the resources I have been using to transition through the tricky absolute beginner stage.
Recommended resources for beginners:
- Russianpod101 – sign up for premium access if you can justify it. They often have a trial sign up period with a very affordable rate, which I strongly suggest taking advantage of.
- Duolingo is a wonderful resource, but I don’t really recommend it unless you have a language teacher or adoring friend to explain the grammar to you in detail. The lessons on Duolingo themselves don’t adequately cover the why of what you’re learning.
- Learn the Russian alphabet in 3 hours (an iPhone app) is a really comprehensive and user-friendly resource. I did indeed learn a lot of the alphabet during my lengthy flight to Russia. There isn’t a great deal of pronunciation practice, but it was wonderful for letter recognition.
- SFI Russian Course – As outlined above, dry and tough, but there is a wealth of information in there.
- The University of Dalarna Russian for Beginners lecture series is available on iTunes. I love the lecturer, whoever she is! The series is very easy to follow and contains a heap of useful phrases and pointers. It is delivered in English too, so the explanations are comprehensible.
- Open Russian has some really useful vocabulary lists for beginners, including colours, clothing, and body parts.
- A good teacher or a language exchange buddy – trust me, you will want someone to help you with pronunciation, intonation and some explanations. I’m all for learning the vocabulary on your own time, but get someone to help you with the rest (see italki).
Now, hopefully you’re feeling confident enough about the language learning to start enjoying the rest of the ride in Russia!
This post was written by Stephanie Ford.