Learning a Language Like Russian

This post is most immediately about learning Russian for native English speakers, but most of the principles apply to learning other languages as well.

A bizarre conversation with a psychologist

Here’s an excerpt from a bizarre conversation with a psychologist who kept frequently insisting I had “very few interests” well past the point that he gave the oddest body language in acknowledging I had master’s degrees bridging math and computers (UIUC) and theology and philosophy (Cambridge, England), and (it also came up) I had briefly studied French at the Sorbonne—and in all of this, he still alleged in undiminished force to have “very few interests”:

Me (trying another approach): I’m a philologist.

Him (looking to neutralize or dismiss it): What on earth do you mean by that?

Me: Languages are like Scotch: one is a good start; two is just about perfect; three is not nearly half enough.

Him:Me: I’ve dipped a finger in a lot of languages, but I’ve read the Bible in five or six languages.

Him (counting on fingers while guessing): English, French, German, Latin, Greek, Hebrew.

Me: A dozen translations in English, two translations each in French and Spanish, Latin, Greek, modern Russian three times in the Synodal version, and I’m working my way through the Slavonic…

Him: Russian is a tonal language, and it’s the second hardest language for native English speakers to learn after Chinese.

I don’t remember what I said next. Those were some of the most bizarre remarks about Russian I’d heard in my life.

At least one webpage I’ve seen about easy, medium, and hard languages for native English speakers placed Russian squarely in the middle of things to learn; the major qualification for difficulty is simply a vocabulary that doesn’t overlap modern English that much; I would guesstimate that the number of Russian words a native English speaker would easily recognize amounts to less than 10% of the words one would encounter. Beyond that, the grammar is not particularly slippery, or otherwise odd; the alphabet has strong and recognizable similarities to our own (compare CJK ideograms or even trying to see where one letter ends and another begins in Arabic for the un-initiated). It’s actually a lot nicer an alphabet to outsiders than the English use of our alphabet is. Learning Russian is moderately difficult, but it’s doable, and this page is here because I want to share what gleanings I’ve learned in my studies, and make things easier.

A preliminary note: the Russian alphabet

The first point I’m mentioning is the alphabet. In a word, it’s not a hard alphabet to learn; it’s just unfamiliar and takes practice. I learned it on an iPhone app named “Learn to read Russian in three hours.” Good old fashioned flashcards should work just as well, or for that matter having the alphabet below handy for cross-reference in reading. (Or a memory technique discussed below.) Also, don’t feel the need to make every sound. The Russian R sound is trilled; I’ve tried at length to learn a trilled R and don’t know how to make it. The H sound is a grated H, the kind that makes you sound like you are clearing your throat because you have a bad chest cold. I can sometimes make it, but I’ve heard native Russian speakers pronounce it as an English K, or an English H, so apparently both work. There is also a sound that sounds like an “sh” followed immediately by a “ch”; I’m working on this and sometimes succeeding at making it one sound without a break between the “sh” and “ch” sounds. Don’t sweat it overall; in most languages people will have some tolerance for imprecise sounds: if your worst liability is an inauthentic R or H sound, you’re doing well!

The Russian alphabet
Open just this image to print it

The letters you should pay attention to are those on the far left.

A first language-learning workhorse: A parallel Bible

I will try to cover a few primary techniques, but the main workhorse I’ve found, after a lot of other things, is reading a parallel Russian-English Bible. I found, to my irritation, that all the Russian-English Bibles I could track down on Amazon were made by the Russian Bible Society, which is a Protestant organization that omits certain books of the Old Testament that are present both in the Russian and English translations. (The Reformers at least included those books in an appendix!) The modern Russian translation you will be wanting is the Synodal Version (RUSV), which was translated into Russian by Orthodox Christians rather than Protestants. I wanted a nice leatherbound edition; there is also a nice but cheaper option (the only one really cheaper one I could find was a paperback edition).

Additionally, there is >at least one available parallel Slavonic-English prayer book I’m aware of. It could perhaps be better, but it’s not too many words to learn, and the words are often the same as at Liturgy. There is also a transliterated version of the Liturgy that displays the English version as you hover over the transliterated Russian.

No matter how much you may want to learn Russian, please start forays into the Synodal Version slowly, and ramp up slowly. As Orthodox mystagogy would have it, you don’t begin exercise by running a marathon. What I would recommend instead is reading the Gospel of John the Theologian, and start with the prologue.

The basic initial technique is to look at the Russian side for a single verse like John 1:1, and then see if you can make connections to the English side. And if you don’t on the first try, that’s fine. But try again an hour later. If you’re comfortable with a verse, move on to the next one. Before long you may be able to read a different verse each hour, and continue with hourly study. If you are comfortable trying to read one verse at a time, try reading two verses, and maybe not all the time. When you are genuinely comfortable reading two verses, move on to three. It is possible this way to get up to maybe a chapter: “Little and often fills the purse.”

But by all means, no marathons, nor stretching yourself as hard as you can for a short while. One detail about lawn care is that the kind of sprinklers that are great for children to play in should only be used for that purpose as they are terrible at watering lawns. What happens to a lawn used by the sprinklers is that the stream of water is shot high up into the air, and with the same force slams down into the ground. If you slam water onto parched ground, it isn’t absorbed; it can’t be. What each droplet of a fist does, instead of being absorbed, is hammer the ground into a beaten shield that repels further droplets. And you end up with a deceptive situation where there is water streaming in rivulets over the surface of the wet-looking soil, but an inch down the soil remains as parched as before it was watered. This is something you don’t want to do in educational situations, including learning a language. Little and often fills the purse.

One specific note to people who are in fact looking to learn classical Hebrew and/or Koine Greek: you can fairly easily find a good intralinear Bible, and to some people this looks like practically all language learning solved at once. However, I would pass on a caution: unless you have already learned multiple languages and already have that discipline, it’s not perfect and you can easily create a habit of your eyes jumping to the intralinear English words and not really spending that much time, or making much progress, with Hebrew or Greek itself. However, one bit of discipline that I am using now is as follows. Use an index card (or, better, two: one that is moved down the page to reveal line by line, and one that moves left to right to reveal word by word) to only let you see the partial or complete line in the ancient language, and don’t unveil to yourself the English term until you have stopped to ponder the ancient language’s term and tried to figure it out without (intralinear) help.

Mega Memory

I am here mentioning something that has served me powerfully in the past, and works with multiple languages, but may not be as much needed in our setting.

The Elements of New Testament Greek, the Greek textbook I was taught from, told you what you needed to learn in vocabulary, etc. Greek to Me does one better by providing a practical means to learn the vocabulary above rote memorization; it applies the classical memory technique in the first half of Kevin Trudeau’s Mega Memory (I have a much shorter page and training tool online in Memory and Prayer), and it has been a tremendous accelerator in offering a five-times-faster alternative to looking things up in an old-fashioned print XYZ-English dictionary.

The reason I consider this to be optional now is that there is a faster alternative to avoid repeatedly looking up a term in a thick paper dictionary. You can go to translate.google.com, set it to translate from Russian to English, and spell things phonetically, or set your computer to let you type in Russian, and maybe buy keyboard stickers (or just post-it notes) putting Russian letters on top of your keys. There are two major Russian keyboard layouts both of which should be supported; there is one that is the standard layout (stickers are available), and one that is roughly phonetic for English speakers (I couldn’t find any stickers). If you are going to Russia, you will want the Russian standard keyboard layout; if you are not intending to go to Russia, you will probably find the phonetic layout to feel easier and more natural.

That stated, the memory technique has its uses, especially in getting a new alphabet down. It acts as scaffolding; you first remember XYZ through a vivid mental image from what is called “pegging”, and then with repeated use the provisional mental image fades out of significance and you more quickly remember the word itself.

I will briefly comment that some people develop a strong initial impression that the memory technique is too much work for what it tries to do. I personally have found it not to live up to its hype, but I don’t know anyone who has become proficient and still retains the initial bad impression. I would place it as one tool among others, and less decisive given today’s technology offerings than it has been for me in the past.

A quieter memory technique

The business world has come to recognize that multitasking is not a good thing, and divided attention is needlessly diluted attention. (The Orthodox Church has known this for much longer.)

There is a less striking memory technique of, when you discover or rediscover something or come across something worth keeping, stopping and pausing for a moment to simply give it your full attention. No mental images needed: just the studious slow, focused, and present attention Orthodoxy gives to anything worth keeping. This memory tool is something that combines well with many other techniques and resources.

Language classes

Language classes aren’t available to all of us; but they can provide another tool. I wanted to take a course in conversational Russian, but it didn’t work out.

DuoLingo

There are multiple computer training systems; Rosetta Stone is far from the only option. I don’t have informed opinion about all of them, but DuoLinguo comes highly recommended, and I respect it myself.

Subtitles

I have had difficulty locating edifying Russian-language film or video with English subtitles. However, if you do find something, it can be worth its weight in gold to try to make connections between the Russian you hear and the English you read. However, please note that there is not a complete correspondence between speech in the video and subtitles in another language. (You can have a few people talking but only the essential part is relayed in subtitle.)
Two gems I am aware of are Ostrov and The Tale of Peter and Fevronia.

Conversations with native speakers (if available)

Having a conversation, on a very basic level, can be helpful.

One note from Wheaton’s Institute for Cross-Cultural Training: in dealing with a native speaker, you may be working and working and working on improving your language, and it remains just as hard to talk to that person.

There is a reason for this, and it is really OK. Some people who are sensitive to others’ imperfect language abilities simplify what they say to match the proficiency of the person they are speaking with. This may mean that when you start they speak very simply, but they simplify less and less when they see you become more proficient. You are making progress talking with that person; it just doesn’t feel like it.

Reading books in Russian

This is not a first step in working on a foreign language, but when you are able it is tremendously valuable to read books in that language. What may come to mind first are the proverbial nineteenth-century Russian novels, but beside them there is a vast collection of spiritual literature available in Russian. When you are ready to read books in Russian, reading books really pays off.

Listening to liturgical music

This also can be invaluable.

Experimenting

Different techniques work best for different people; what works best for one person may not be best for another.

This point is worth experimenting on, and it is worth being in some sense watchful by paying attention for what works and what doesn’t.

Enjoy!

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The Angelic Letters

Book Review: A New Face on an Old Ecumenism (The Orthodox Dilemma Second Edition : Personal Reflections on Global Pan-Orthodox Christian Conciliar Unity)

Doxology

Public Portions of the Divine Liturgy, in Russian and in English