After writing about my experience with learning Russian and understanding the Russian culture, I wanted give some important tips for learning Russian.
First I’ll explain about the writing system, then some interesting things to remember about Russian verbs of motion, aspects of verbs and cases.
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.
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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 learning Czech, it’s always easier to read in your own alphabet — always.
Word order is another aspect of to learning Russian, is that it 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 learning 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.
If you’re interested, check out the the article I wrote on understanding Russia!