23 March 2009

Learn Russian in Only Nine Years!

Russian friends often ask how Larissa and I communicate. This question is hard to answer as sometimes our talk at home is strange. Let me tell you about that confusion, and also about Larissa's efforts, and mine, to get me up to speed in Russian.

Often when we are home , I speak English and Larissa speaks Russian in reply. Or it can be the reverse, or we use one language for a while. If we have a Russian visitor, we keep to Русски... if the visitor is English speaking, we speak American English. If it's mixed company we use Русски.

We still have misunderstandings. Often they are solved by examining what we thought the other person said. At other times things can sound not right to a non-native speaker... such as saying when instead of enough when someone is pouring tea for you. I like the double entendre in when, while Larissa thinks it's stupid.

Now it's sometimes easier to remember a noun in the second language than the first. I use Russian nouns more than any other parts of speech.

We had a third language at the beginning. This was when, for example, Larissa said something in English and I thought it was a Russian word I hadn't heard before. I would add it to my Russian until we eventually discovered that it was just a mispronounced English word. The reverse happened, too. Sort of a crazy mirror within a mirror.

While still in the States as a Jersey Guy, I started my Russian study with an alphabet and consonant blend book that Larissa's mom sent. The sounds were foreign for an English speaker, so I needed daily review.

A few months later in early June 2000 we landed in St Petersburg. After getting settled, we started working through Жили-были [Jeely-Beely 28 Lessons], which is an excellent basic text with great cartoons. [Жилт-Былт means something like Once Upon a Time...] At this point I started to realize that Russian was going to take some years to learn to understand and speak.

Russian is rated as more difficult than German but easier than Chinese. A lot depends on your ability in languages, how similar your native language is to the Slavic family, and how consistently you study. Classic literature, the internet, and now blogging often distract me from learning at a quicker pace.

My Text Recommendations

The first is a thin volume with a great title... I Know and Love Russian Verbs by Krevonosov and Redkena. The second is 500 Russian Verbs, by the dean of the Russian School at Middlebury College, Thomas Beyer. Finally, my favorite, and one I still study, has two titles... 
Speak Properly (Russian title) and Survival Russian (English title). Looks like the publisher wants to hit both the Russian and American markets! This last text has an optional CD but if you are lucky enough to have a Russian wife, she will help your pronunciation more than any recording!

In the summer months of June, July, and August, we live next to a lake connected to the Volga. It's rural life at its best! With no internet or telephone and few people who speak any English, each summer has been a great opportunity to improve my Russian. My summer friends are my neighbors in the small village, along with the workers who come from the surrounding towns, the Ukraine, and Azerbaijan. In June I look forward to applying my progress in Russian since last August, and in having some great conversations and improving my language skills.

So after 9 years of intermittent, sometimes haphazard and other times enthusiastic study, where am I now? I am happy to say I can now initiate a conversation and understand much of what I hear on the street and on TV. 

The hardest aspect of Russian for me to understand is padejay, the rules on changing subject and object word endings.  I let a formal study of this alone after much frustration, and moved on to verbs.  I hope osmosis will eventually help me apply padejay correctly.

So... if you have 9 years to spare, consider tackling Russian!

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