Language learning is an endurance sport, and we all need a little encouragement along the way.
If you’re in a rut, struggling to move to the next level or just need a gentle push to start your study session for the day, let my Tao of Language Learning set you on your way. “A good traveler has no fixed plan, and is not intent on arriving.” – Laozi
If you are learning a language, listen to it, observe it, quietly, until you notice the patterns, phrases and words.
The language is like a forest, with trees, branches and leaves. These are the patterns, phrases and words of the language.
If you are in a forest, stop to hear the branches move, listen to the rustling of the leaves, and observe them, quietly.
Do not talk while you are observing the forest or you will miss something. At first you cannot discern the subtlety of the language, you do not hear, you do not notice.
But you must continue, not resisting, but patiently waiting until the branches, twigs and leaves become clearer and clearer, until the language reveals itself to you.
You do not need to rely on teachers. Your experiences as a learner will teach you all you need to know.
Before you can speak, you must listen, and you must listen a lot, without resisting.
Absorb the language. Feel its essence, its rhythm and flow.
Feel the power of the language, more and more, limitless in its ability to express the grandest or the most sublime meaning.
We are small compared to the forest, and small compared to the language. We are just visitors. We should be humble.
Do not be in a hurry or you will never reach your goal.
Do not seek to hack the language. You cannot.
Do not seek to master the language. Do not fight the language or it will defeat you. If you devote yourself to the language, you will be rewarded.
Just enjoy feeling its wisdom and expressive power grow, the power of ages.
If you hurry you will be delayed. If you tarry you will reach your goal. You will know when you are ready to speak. There is no need to rush.
If you are in a hurry to speak, a few days will seem too long. If you respect the language, three years will be too short.
The fewer ambitions and fears you have, the sooner you will learn.
Forget who you are and where you came from, the language does not care. Let the language sink into your mind, in all of its variety and richness.
Do not try to speak until you are ready. You will know when you are ready. The language will tell you.
When you speak,take pride in the language and just let it come out.
Only a vain fool strives for perfection.
Whatever language you are learning, it is everywhere. You can find it without going outside your door. You can bring your language with you wherever you are.
You do not need to ask others how you look. Don’t wait for others to correct you.
Continue to learn with the intensity of a child at play.
Accept what you have achieved and you will achieve more.
As someone who speaks 16 languages and has had a successful business career, language learners often ask me: if I learn another language, what can I do with it? What is the relationship between languages and work or a career?
The biggest benefit of speaking languages I’ve seen in my career is that it increased the opportunities that came my way. You do have to have other things working for you too, of course. You have to have other skills, like knowledge of a specific sector or market, the ability to do business and the ability to be a reliable, energetic person in any number of fields.
In my own case, there’s no question that leaving Montreal as an Anglophone, studying in France for three years then writing my Canadian Diplomatic or Foreign Service Exam in French helped me be selected into the Canadian Diplomatic Service. So here’s a profession where languages count. They want people who are fluent, at the very least, in the two official languages of Canada. Writing the Foreign Service Exam in French as an Anglophone probably put me in a select group, so I had a better chance of being selected.
When I was in Ottawa in my year-end training with the Trade Commissioner Service, I heard that the government was preparing to send someone to learn Chinese for a position in Hong Kong. I wanted to be selected for the role, so I started taking Chinese lessons on my own. My aim was to go to the director of personnel and say: I hear you want to send someone to learn Chinese because Canada is about to recognize the People’s Republic of China. I’ve already started; I just want you to know that.
I wrote the English Foreign Service exam after a year of study from 1968 to 1969, and then worked in Hong Kong and China promoting Canada’s trade interests and helping Canadian business people. I first visited Beijing in October of 1970. I am glad I did. It was a different place than now.
I was subsequently posted to Japan, where I picked up Japanese quite quickly. I made a lot of contacts in the forest product sector while working at the Embassy in Tokyo, so when a Canadian company needed someone to set up their representative subsidiary, I was given the job. Obviously, my knowledge of Japanese enabled me to communicate at various levels in the Japanese lumber trade sector, and not just those trading company people who spoke English, but a wide variety of people.
The next major language learning spurt for me was 1987. I had been hired by a company that did business in Europe and I so I decided to learn German. I spent a month scouring the secondhand book stores in Vancouver finding books that had text and vocabulary lists for each chapter because I just didn’t want to look every word up in the dictionary. There were no online dictionaries, so I found a whole pile of excellent books and audio cassettes for learning German and did a lot of listening and reading.
Well, it turned out that in the 1990s I did a fair amount of business in Germany. We were selling wood from Canada into Germany and so I had visitors from Germany and I traveled in the country. Once you got past the main lumber agents, a lot of the consumers, wood processors and different customers for our products were much more comfortable speaking German than speaking English. I think it helped me do business there.
Thereafter, we started doing business in Sweden, which became a big supplying country for us, and so I again started learning Swedish. I had some background in the language because I was born there and lived there for five years. I had forgotten Swedish, but then I spent a summer there as a 16-year-old and decided I’m really going to learn this language. Again, I got lots of audio books and textbooks.
I ended up doing a fair amount of business in Sweden, and I think I had better relations and developed a better relationship of trust with my suppliers because I spoke Swedish. When we had meetings and they wanted me to explain the Japanese market to them in front of their production people, the fact that I was able to explain what the customers’ requirements were, the market and how it was structured in Swedish definitely helped.
When I set up my own company in Vancouver, we did some business in Spain in the early days. I was able to contact people via the phone and had some Spanish customers come through, so being able to speak Spanish certainly helped. We have a very good customer in France with whom I speak French exclusively. My business, once I set it up, was primarily marketing to Japan, so the biggest payback was my Japanese language skills, which helped me develop a market position there.
Knowing more languages increases the number of opportunities that are going to come your way. It increases your opportunity to connect with people and understand them better. You never know which languages are going to come in handy and when.
I’m going to combine how I went about learning French and Spanish because they both came at me at the same time in my life and were really quite instrumental to me getting involved with language learning.
I was in Montreal in the 1950s at a time when the city was what they called the two solitudes. You had a million English-speaking people and two million French-speaking people. The workplace was English. In the stores everything was English. So as an English-speaking person growing up in Montreal it was really not very different from living in Toronto or Chicago, as far as languages were concerned. Of course we had French in school starting in grade two and we had the 16 verbs that take ‘et’. We studied it to pass the exam and I did well, even though I wasn’t very interested in the topic. Everything they did in school made it uninteresting.
After school I went to McGill University in Montreal and had an excellent professor who made French civilization and French culture interesting. As a teacher you have only one job, to turn on the student – easier said than done. Once the student is turned on you don’t need the teacher. Whether it was that professor, the university environment or the textbook – I still remember it had these lovely pictures of paintings by Watteau and the different eras of French culture and civilization – but all of a sudden it became interesting. At the same time I became interested in the Nouvelle Vague movies.
So I didn’t only enjoy what I was studying in class. I was just fascinated by the discovery of Voltaire, Rousseau, Manon Lescaut etc. Then I started reading the local newspaper Le Devoir. In Quebec at that time there was fervor over Quebec wanting to be “maitre chez nous” because the economy was controlled by the English. Even though the Quebecois were the largest group and controlled the provincial politics, there was a lot of corruption and the church had tremendous influence. Quebec was the only province in Canada that didn’t have a provincial Ministry of Education. Instead they let the church run the education, so there were lots of notaries and priests.
This was all changed by politicians like Jean LeSage, René Levesque and, of course, Pierre Trudeau (although he ended up being more interested in federal politics). All this stuff was going on, so it was very interesting to read about it in the newspaper and go and see French theatre, even if I didn’t understand it. It was my French period, so I got totally into it. As I say, once you’re motivated it’s easy enough to learn.
I ended up going to the L’Institut d’études Politiques in Paris. I got my diploma there and had three wonderful years in France as a student. I lived in Paris. I had a bicycle. I lived on the fifth floor of a building that was built in 1789, so the toilet was on the third floor. I had a big aluminum basin I bought that I would fill with water and sit in to wash myself. It was very cold in the winter, but I had a great time living there.
That was obviously very good for learning French because everything I had to do I had to do in French. It convinced me that I could transform myself into someone that could comfortably speak another language. Part of the problem language learners have is they can’t really visualize themselves fluently speaking another language. It’s like climbing a mountain but you don’t know where the peak is and so you don’t think you can reach it. That’s a major problem that many language learners have who have never ever learned a second language. So French was a big deal for me.
I was first introduced to Spanish at McGill where I took a course in my first year. It was one of the electives I took and, fortunately, the professor got us into reading stories right away. We didn’t spend our time in class role playing, talking to each other, playing games, making slideshows and all this stuff that they seem to do now. It was “here’s a book, it has a glossary, read it.” I can’t remember the names of these stories, but they took place in places like Valencia. We read them and accumulated vocabulary. It was painstaking, but that was the course and I passed it.
There were a lot of people living in Montreal who had fought on the republican side in the Spanish Civil War at that time. They would sit at a local cafe playing dominos and I’d wander in. I thought I was a really cool guy at 18 years old. I’d order a drink and watch all these Spanish guys play domino and hear them swearing in Spanish.
When I first arrived in France, I used to hitchhike every holiday. My favorite destination was Spain, so I’d go into what was then Francois Spain any chance I got. Spain was unbelievable in those days. People were so friendly and foreigners were a rarity. The first night I arrived in Barcelona, I was on a bus going out to the youth hostel and I started talking to people, bumbling in my Spanish. I would sit around with locals pouring wine out of this container that had a great big spout. The hitchhiking and hours and hours of sitting with truck drivers and other people who picked me up gave me lots of chances to speak Spanish.
I always think when you’re learning any language a major point is when you have read your first book. I’m not talking about reading on the computer with online dictionaries; I mean reading it. Ignoring the words you don’t know and reading it. The first book I read in Spanish was about the myths of origin of different peoples in Europe. It’s a subject that fascinates me. I believe a lot of this idea of ethnic identity is largely imaginary and elective, and you can choose to belong to whichever group you want to belong to. It was a fascinating book.
I keep emphasizing reading. Now, some people don’t like to read, they like to watch TV. Fine. You’ve got to do what you like and I always emphasize that in language learning. If you want to be successful with learning French and Spanish, you’ve got to like the language. You’ve got to like what you’re doing. You’ve got to put in the time. Reading is still the most effective way of building up your vocabulary, and then when you are confronted with the need to speak, as was the case with me in Spain, slowly, slowly, slowly the words start to come out. You hear them and you relate to what you read, so you build up your vocabulary. If you have a vocabulary, if you’re attentive to the language and try to listen to how things are pronounced, you will learn to speak.
As I’ve said many times, it’s the same with literacy in your own language. Reading is key. I look at my grandchildren and if they’re reading a lot, which they are, I’m happy. Whatever else happens in their school work, if they read well they’ll do fine and the same is true in language learning.
About nine years ago I started learning Russian and if it has proven anything, it is that learning a language is a long, long road. It’s also an enjoyable road because you never get to the end of it. If it ended I’d be unhappy, so I’ve been at it a long time. Let’s trace why I even started with Russian.
When I started studying Russian I spoke eight or so languages. I had had a brief fling with Korean, but I discontinued because the content that I could find wasn’t very interesting. (But I will go back to Korean one day.) So I bought Teach Yourself, Living Language, and whatever I could find down at the bookstore and just went through them. As I’ve said before, listening, reading, and acquiring vocabulary is the best and most effective way to learn a new language.
That was about the time we made Russian available at LingQ. We have a series of stories like ‘Who Is She?’, which is 26 episodes long, in all the different languages we offer. At that time, I had two Russian employees, so I had two Russian versions of ‘Who Is She?’ made. The original recording sound quality wasn’t all that good, so I had it done again. I listened to that so many times and I painstakingly went through the texts at LingQ. My aim was to get to a Tolstoy within about two or three months.
There were two reasons why I decided to learn Russian. One was because everyone said you can’t learn Russian with your approach, my approach being one of not ignoring the grammar, but treating the grammar lightly: grammar light, words heavy. You can’t do that with Russian I was told, so that was a challenge. The other thing was I have always enjoyed reading Tolstoy, particularly in English, so I wanted to read a Tolstoy in Russian. I thought that would be an amazing thing to be able to do. The first novel I went at was The Kreutzer Sonata. It’s shorter, not like War and Peace which is two huge volumes.
The other reason I began studying Russian was that we had business in Riga, Latvia. So when I went to Riga, I went to find a Russian bookstore and bought a lot of of audiobooks, including an audio book of The Kreutzer Sonata.
I can remember in those days LingQ didn’t work as well as now. It would take three or four seconds to save each word, everything was clunky and more difficult. But I still did it. I found more and more audio books and, typically classics. I can remember reading The Stationmaster’s Daughter by Pushkin. I must have listened to that 10 times. At that time, I was training for a ski race in Sweden called the Vasaloppet where I would have to run 90 kilometers. I trained I don’t know how many hours, but I put in about 400 kilometers of training of cross-country skiing. A lot of that was done listening to Russian.
I read many other audiobooks: Yama by Kuprin, which is just a phenomenal story, Doctor Zhivago by Pasternak. One of my absolute favorites was a radio presentation of Fathers and Sons by Turgenev as well as The Master and Margarita, The Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina and War and Peace. I read this book by Edward Radzinsky on Stalin, which is amazing.
There’s a store here in Vancouver called Russkiy Mir where you can buy Russian DVDs, so I bought a bunch of those. I watched Ирония Судьбы (The Irony of Fate) and Жестокий Романс, which is a lovely movie. Those are some of my favorites, I still have them. To me, videos, I’ll only watch them once, maybe twice, so it doesn’t have the value of the book that I might read and go back and read again or audio books, for that matter.
So that was the first year or two. I made a couple of YouTube videos, you can still find them, of me speaking Russian after six months, after a couple of years and so forth. Then I remember around August 8, 2008, I discovered Ekho Moskvy and it just happened to coincide with the Russian-Georgian War. So at Ekho Moskvy, as I’ve mentioned many times, every day you can find 10 or more new interviews. Both audio and text are downloadable, so I take the audio and the text and import them into LingQ. I still make mistakes when I speak Russian, but I understand most things.
Once I hit Ekho Moskvy, basically, I was listening and reading articles every day. Throughout that period, LingQ became a little smoother and so I was able to cover more ground more quickly. But, I’ve been at it for nine years and I still make mistakes. There are still some things I don’t understand. But, by and large, I understand most of what they’re saying in any interview on Ekho Moskvy. There might be five percent words there that I don’t know. So that’s kind of where my Russian is.
Then I decided to go after Czech for several reasons. One is the low-hanging fruit theory of language learning. I know Spanish, therefore, I can learn Portuguese. I put a lot of effort into learning Chinese characters, so I’m going to learn Japanese and, eventually, Korean, so I figured I’d go after Czech. Surprising to me, the grammar and the structure of the language are very similar to Russian, but the vocabulary is not as similar as I thought. Apparently, only 40% of words in Czech are either the same as or recognizable as similar to Russian. So, obviously, between even Spanish and Italian, there is a much greater similarity.
So I also managed to find a Teach Yourself Czech that I had bought some years ago, and I went through that. А number of our members at LingQ had created a bunch of beginner content and I went through all of that. At first, it was all a blur, then gradually the language became clearer and clearer. Then I found Czech Radio, which is a tremendous, tremendous resource; it is my Ekho Moskvy. It’s different in nature, but they have their daily news items with audio and text for download.
Czech Radio have a whole history collection called Toulky Ceskou Minulosty, which I’m now going through. It’s phenomenal. There you can find the audio and the text of the most recent ones and they’re extremely well done. The quality of the sound when you’re listening to a foreign language is very important. I discovered, too, that they had a free downloadable audiobook of The good Soldier Svejk. There’s a Czech bookstore, so I ordered this online. The audio doesn’t match word for word, but I’m going to try and read through the book and then listen.
It’s going much faster in Czech than in Russian. I think firstly this is because I know Russian grammar is less of a struggle; it seems less strange to me. The second thing is that it’s written in the the Latin alphabet, so that’s more comfortable. I do still listen to Russian. I’ve downloaded five interviews today. I especially like to listen to Victor Shenderovich. There are certain people I like to listen to at Ekho Moskvy too, so I have to find the time to listen to them, as well as listening Czech.
I guess the big message is, obviously, I enjoy doing it. Not everybody enjoys learning languages. I like to do it in a way that I find enjoyable and try to move from the beginner text onto authentic text as quickly as possible. I’ll go back to easier text just to give myself a little bit of confidence. At times, it seems you’ll never make sense of this language. In Czech they say things differently from Russian. I won’t go through the details, but it’s different so you’ve got to get used to it.
At times, it seems like you’re not going to get used to it, but I know from experience that you will. Having done it many, many times, I know that you will get used to it and I enjoy the process, that’s another big advantage. A lot of people don’t enjoy the process. I enjoy it and, of course, I enjoy it much more now that I can understand a lot, certainly in Russian and increasingly so in Czech.
When I go after Turkish, which I intend to do, or even going back to the Korean, it will be more work, less pleasure, in a way. Although, that pleasure of taking on a task which is difficult but which you know you’re going to be able to get through creates a great sense of satisfaction. There was this Hungarian-American who spoke of flow, in other words, there’s a great sense of satisfaction in taking on something that is difficult, but you know that you can, in fact, cope with it. Perhaps, just to finish off on that, I think that’s where a lot of language learners get frustrated. Yes, you get better at it the more languages you learn, but I think we can all learn.
French was my first love when it comes to languages. In fact, there’s an expression in French: “On revient toujours a son premier amour.” It means you always go back to your first love. I love French; I love all the languages that I learn, but I have a special affection for French.
Though I studied French at school, I couldn’t speak it at the age of 16. Then I went to McGill University and had a professor who turned me on to French and to the French civilization. To learn a language you’ve got to really love the language, be committed to the language and want to be part of that community of people who speak it. That’s what happened to me. I got very keen and I ended up going to France for three years where I studied Political Science at L’institut d’études politiques in Paris.
I highly recommend learning French. There’s a whole world that you can access so much better if you speak French. The language is spoken in other countries like Canada. It’s spoken in eastern Canada in Quebec and New Brunswick. It’s spoken in many countries in Africa. Not to mention Belgium and Switzerland. So it’s well worth the effort.
Here are some features of French for beginners about to set off on their language learning journey:
French is fairly difficult to pronounce. It isn’t like English, Swedish or the tonal languages. French tends to roll along in a fairly monotonous range of tones. Also, there are the nasal sounds and then the way the sound is carried on to the next word. These are things you have to get used to as a beginner.
One thing I recommend insofar as pronunciation is concerned is to get used to making the ‘ur’ sound. There are lots of ‘ur’ and ‘aw’ sounds in French, and you kind of have to pick up on that as soon as you can and have it flow through your pronunciation. It can be tough to pick up on these sounds in your listening. The French slur words together, as we do in all languages.
2. Positive statements, negative statements and questions
You have to get used to what in English we call the ‘w’ words: what, where, when, why, who, how: quoi,où , qui , quand , pourquoi , comment. You should get used to those at the beginning of your studies as they are essential for making statements and asking questions. Try google translate to see what the corresponding words and structures are in French.
You can save these on LingQ, which I very much recommend you do because the system will give you lots of examples. The examples come in two sections on LingQ, either from our library or from a lesson you have already studied. The advantage of looking at examples from lessons you have already studied is that you probably know the words. Very often, if you’re reading in a grammar book you look at examples, but you don’t know the words. That’s not so very helpful.
3. Gender and number
There are languages, like Japanese, that have no gender and no number. French has both. In French pronouns and adjectives have to agree, even verbs have to agree. This can be difficult to get used to, but we have to have the confidence that we will eventually.
Very soon you’ll discover that whereas in English we say I go, you go, he goes, only the ‘he goes’ changes, in French every form of the verb changes, depending on the person. You’ve just got to get used to it. It’s very difficult to remember these conjugations. You can spend all kinds of time pouring over conjugation tables. In my experience it’s a very unsatisfying thing to do because you forget them. You might remember them for tomorrow’s test and then you forget them, so you constantly have to refer to them and see them in context. If you’re on the computer, just Google “French conjugations” or “conjugation” of any verb and you will find what you are looking for. The same is true, by the way, with pronouns, adjectives. Anything you want to look at, you just Google and it will be there.
The big bugbear in French for beginners is the tenses. Like with all grammar, the key to “getting it” is to simplify. I own a series of grammar books published by Dover. None of them is longer than 100 pages; they’re very short descriptions of the grammar. That’s the kind of book you need to have so that you can refer to the grammar from time to time, because in most grammars there aren’t that many issues. In fact, I think there’s probably 10 or so.
There are things like the conditional which we also have in English: “I will go tomorrow”, “I would go if…” etc. The French do the same in their conditional. You have to learn the endings by regularly reviewing them in tables, seeing them in context and so forth.
Type some “if” “then” sentences in English into Google Translate and then grab those sentences and import them into LingQ. Then you can look for them in your regular listening and reading.
The subjunctive is also a bit of a bugbear in the romance languages. All that means is there are certain expressions that describe the speaker’s attitude, like “you have to go”, “I want you to go”, “although you went” etc. At first the subjunctive won’t make sense, but once you’ve seen enough examples, it will start to make sense and slowly you’ll develop the habit of using the subjunctive form of the verb at the appropriate time.
8. Relative clause
There are some things they do differently. The French are not hungry or cold, they have hunger and they have cold. There are a few other things like that. Largely, it’s a matter of getting used to it. Try using Google Translate and type in a few English sentences with relative clauses and you will see how it works. Google Translate is a valuable tool, especially where French for beginners is concerned. Use it!
Even though I went through very quickly some of the issues of grammar, the grammar can be a bit of a stumbling block. Don’t let it be, get past it. Go past the grammar, enjoy listening and reading. Build up your vocabulary using LingQ, which I recommend, and go back and visit the grammar from time to time. Once you have some experience with the language, you’ll find that gradually, with enough exposure, some of these things start to become natural.
The biggest mistake people make in language learning.
The biggest thing that prevents people from succeeding and becoming fluent is that people stay with the beginner material for too long. They stay with the beginner book, course or lesson and never get beyond it. This is quite unnecessary.
If you buy a beginner book, which I think is a good thing to do if you embark on learning a new language, you can use it for a year. Keep on going back to it, but don’t try to master it. You don’t have to learn or remember the dialogues, the vocabulary, the grammar rules, nothing. It’s just an initial guide; something that you go back to regularly. You have to get away from the artificial environment of the beginner textbook, or whatever your teacher has you doing in class, as soon as possible. You have to get beyond it and into real language.
Take my experience with learning Czech as an example. I kept track of the initial stages. I started using LingQ’s Bookmark, a quick import system, to bring in articles from Czech newspapers two weeks after I started studying. Fighting my way through these, of course, clicking on every word, saving the words to my database, not really understanding it. I kind of picked my way through maybe 30–40%, most of it unclear to me, but I kept on doing it.
I had brought in something like 161 newspaper articles over three months. I started bringing in The Good Soldier Švejk and then I discovered Radio Prague. So I’ve read the equivalent of two books in Czech of adult authentic material intended for native speakers. Do I understand it all? No. Do I know all the words there? No. But I know a lot of it because now when I bring in a new text to my account in LingQ I can see that the New Words percentage is smaller. That’s just by reading,listening and not expecting to understand it all. Even though I listen two, three, four times, read it two, three, four times I don’t understand it, but it is all helping my brain get used to Czech.
The majority of people get the beginner book (I’ve got a beginner book handy here somewhere) and they never leave it because they never feel comfortable. They don’t feel they’ve learned everything in it. The beginner book is like that step into the swimming pool and then you’ve got to start swimming. So the biggest mistake people make in language learning is that they stay with their beginner material.
It doesn’t matter whether you can use the language. It doesn’t matter whether you can speak or write yet. What matters is how much can you understand, how many words you know, how familiar you are with the language and to what extent the language is starting to become a part of your brain.
So the biggest mistake people make in language learning is they stay with the beginner book for far too long. Within a month or two or three, depending on the language, you’ve got to get into the real language and ease your way in. I use LingQ to do this. It works for me.
So there’s my advice, don’t stay with the beginner material. The sooner you get into the real stuff, the faster you will learn. The objective is not to fully understand something after one or two months. The objective is to understand a lot after eight or 10 months and in order to do that, you’ve got to push yourself past that comfort level of the beginner book.
In this the second part of the series, I wanted give more tips for learning Russian. I’ll explain about the writing system, cases, verbs of motion and aspects of verbs.
The Russian writing system is almost parallel to the Latin alphabet. This is no surprise because both the Russian and Latin alphabets come from the Greek alphabet. There are some letters that are unique to Russian, [IЖж] and then there are two characters that are both pronounced [Шш and Щщ]. I can’t tell the difference, and I’ve never worried about it.
There are some things that differentiate the Russian writing system from its Latin counterpart. Russian uses a little B flat sign [Ьь ], which softens sounds. There are some letters that look the same as Latin letters, but they are in fact pronounced differently. What looks like a P is actually an R, and since it’s very much hardwired in our minds that that’s a P, it takes a while to get over that. It takes a while, but it eventually happens.
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 get at it. However, as I found when I started studying to Czech, it’s always easier to read in your own alphabet — always.
Word order is another aspect of the Russian language that takes some getting used to. Russian is very flexible and different in some ways. You can say “This is a book”, in English. The Russians don’t worry about articles, “This book.” [Это книга. You say “I read a book, the book, a book”, [я читаю книгу], but you could also say [я книгу читаю], so the word order can be kind of shifted around.
It isn’t word order you need to worry about when you want to ask a question in Russian, though. Then you have consider intonation. The words used are the same, but intonation often determines if it is a statement or a question.
These aspects of the language are minor in comparison to the three big bugbears in Russian: the cases, verbs of motion and the aspect of verbs. Everything else you can kind of get used to, but those three I’m still struggling with.
Some people don’t know what cases are. I had Latin at school and we had to decline latin noun bellum (war) as fast as possible. In Russian there are six cases. Latin has the vocative, which the Russians don’t have, although the Czechs do. With cases the concept is quite straightforward. If a noun is the subject of a sentence, “I go”, “The book is on the table”, then it’s in the nominative.
If you do something to the book, “I give the book to you”, “I give the book”, now the book is in the accusative because you’ve done something to it. If I give the book to you, I’m giving it to you, dative, donation, give, that’s the dative. Then they have a thing called the prepositional case, which is basically where something is “On the”, “At the”, “In the”, sort of like a location-type case. In that case, the noun will have a different ending. Then they have the genitive, which means to belong to something. 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. So those are the six cases.
With the cases, as a general overview, the concept is not difficult, but the specific explanations of why we use one case or another are extremely confusing. I’ll read from a Russian grammar book I have you will see what I mean. “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 was the only rule you had to learn you could probably deal with it, but there’s 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. It’s extremely different. 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.
I should say that I always use this grammar book as an example of how horrible grammar explanations can be. I have another book that I bought in Moscow which just has examples and with enough examples you can start to see it. However, 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.
So, cases, that’s number one. You’re always, in my view, 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’s an interest thing, I’m not passing 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.
This is another thing. When you don’t understand or you don’t know the cases it doesn’t prevent you from understanding, if you have the words. I learned all of the Russian vocabulary I know on LingQ. Some things remain a little bit fuzzy, but the important thing is that I can understand and enjoy the language. Learn about the country, the culture, even though you haven’t really nailed down the grammar.
What I tended to do was I listened to simple content to begin with and then I moved on to more difficult texts. Someone asked me on one of my YouTube videos, is it worthwhile listening to stuff you don’t understand? No, get stuff where you can access the text. If you can access the text, the transcript,import it onto LingQ as I did, save the words and phrases and you will eventually understand more and more of it.
Verbs of motion
The words “to go” in English appear like this “I go”, “I go tomorrow,” “I always go” etc. not in Russian. The verbs have tenses, change for tense and change for person, but that’s a minor problem.
The bigger problem is “you go”, which is multidirectional, “you go all the time”. If “you go and come back”, that’s one verb, but if you are “going there”, that’s another verb. If “you go on a means of transportation”, that’s another verb and that also has its multidirectional and unidirectional form and that’s just for “go”. Then there are “carry”, “come”, “fly” and “swim”, very difficult to get a handle on and to actually be able to reproduce. It doesn’t prevent you from understanding the language, but it is very difficult to nail it down when you’re speaking.
Aspect of verbs
I have read these definitions so 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”. I don’t understand it. I’ve read them so many times. Here, again, it’s just exposure because you can’t be trying to go through all these logical explanations while you’re speaking. To my mind, you have to expose yourself to a lot of the language and then eventually start speaking a lot.
I could get into other issues that are different, but they’re minor. Like in Russian there isn’t only “where” but also “from where” and “to where”, and they are actually different words. Those are minor issues. The big problems in Russian are those three bugbears, cases, verbs of motion and aspects of verbs.
Now, the good news, Russian is fascinating. It’s a beautiful language. The country is fascinating. The culture and history are fascinating. The people who appear somewhat stoic are, in fact, very warm. They tend to speak their minds, say what they think and not worry too much about the details, but that’s what makes them so fun to be around. I would say, too, that in Russia there’s no compromise. I think that’s how they approach even artistic creation or sports. That’s why we see a lot of artistic creation in Russia, outstanding ballerinas, musicians and scientists. Certainly in hockey I find the Russians are just magicians. They’re artists and so they have a tendency to really commit themselves in one direction.
When I think back 50 years ago when I was studying Chinese, the idea that I could just get online and talk to someone through some magic computer was inconceivable. Nowadays there are a number of sites that offer the opportunity to connect with teachers. Some are free; in other words, just a pure language or conversation exchange. On some sites you hire a teacher or someone to speak to. If I can find a tutor on LingQ, I use LingQ, but when I can’t I’ll go to italki, which I find to be a great resource.
In order to take part in language or conversation exchanges, you need to be at a certain level in the language. Until I have reached that level in the language, I don’t enjoy the exchange. Very often I’ll start at 15 minutes or half an hour and then as I progress in the language I’ll get up to an hour. I want to make sure I understand what the person is saying. That’s absolutely number one. Even if I can’t express myself well, I want to understand what the other person is talking about. I also want to be able to express myself well in the language because it’s actually quite stressful to talk over Skype. Even when we’re speaking well, it’s a more stressful way to communicate with someone than sitting with them across a table; It’s more stressful and I find that it’s a little bit more exhausting, too.
I’ve started speaking with a Ukrainian tutor twice a week and I still speak to my Russian tutor, and at the end of an hour I’m kind of exhausted. Even though I’m a proponent of input-based learning and that’s how I spend most of my time. For example, with my Ukrainian I speak two hours a week, but I’m constantly reading. I’m reading about and listening to Ukrainian history, and I often listen to Hora Más Que radio. So input is king, but the output is necessary. These conversation and language exchange sites like italki and what we have at LingQ are a very good way of getting that output experience.
As an example of how that works, I spoke to Deni from Russia who commented on one of my YouTube videos asking if we could talk a bit about learning Japanese. It was quite a long discussion because it’s very difficult to keep these things short, but we spoke in three languages: English, Russian and Japanese. We talked mostly about learning Japanese, first in English, then in Russian and eventually in Japanese.
What’s very interesting in this video, if you have the patience to follow it, is that I couldn’t get my brain out of Russian. I’ve been speaking and listening to mostly Ukrainian, then I had an hour of Russian with my tutor and after that I spoke with to Deni in Moscow. Even though my Japanese is stronger than my Russian, I really struggled to switch over to Japanese. It’s the first time I’ve had that difficulty. Normally, I can move over quite easily. Maybe it’s because I’d just had that hour of Russian beforehand and because I find the language exchange via Skype on the computer a little more stressful than just a casual conversation.
Do you ever find it difficult to switch your brain over to a different language?
In my opinion, the best way to memorize vocabulary is NOT to memorize vocabulary. I have always found that trying to memorize vocabulary is an extremely low-efficiency activity. No matter how hard you try, some words are going to stick and some words will not stick until much, much later. I believe that the best way to acquire vocabulary is through lots of exposure and meeting vocabulary items in different contexts.
The more content you consume through listening and reading, the more likely you are to encounter vocabulary items again, and every time you encounter them, you encounter them in different contexts. This makes the whole scope of the words’ meanings clearer each time. You get a better sense of which words they are used with. You really start to experience these words in live settings, and in settings that are high resonance.
Our three LingQ Academy Live students, Hanna, Emily and Tamás, are finally here in Vancouver. I had a short meeting with them and I explained my vision that, basically, we’re in a new world of language learning where learners are teachers, teachers are learners and we learn from the world around us. That’s essentially what we’re going to be doing over the next three months, learning from our environment and from each other.