In Soviet Russia, you don’t learn grammar. Grammar learns you!

So, time for a BHAG. Big Hairy Audacious Goal.

I recently decided that I wanted to learn another language (it will be my 4th) and couldn’t decide between Mandarin, Russian and Arabic. Having spent time recently in the Middle East using basic Arabic phrases, I liked the idea of learning it. The pronunciation sounds that some English-speakers struggle with when first attempting Arabic are mostly present in Irish (Gaeilge) so it was a pleasant surprise to be able to mimic the locals quite well while travelling around.

However, when I learn a language I like to be able to read and write in it as well as speak it and I just didn’t have the heart to take on the Arabic script. Beautiful as it is, it was just overwhelming. This was also the hurdle when considering Mandarin. I think it’s probably the most forward-thinking choice of the three as it has the most native speakers in the world and China is going from strength to strength. But when I heard Mandarin being spoken, I didn’t get that urge to learn it. That “hooked” feeling to draw you in.

My heart and head converged at Russian. I loved the sound of the language and when I tried out a few sample phrases, it was fun to speak. While the Russian script is not simple, it is far less intimidating than both the Arabic and Mandarin scripts. Another positive thing Russian has going for it is that it is the main language of five countries outside of Russia and is widely understood in many others. Many of the nations it is popular in are new entrants to the European Union, so they will doubtless be more on the radar in coming years.

I am still dithering about what software or texts to base my learning around and so far have stuck to the internet for help. This has been both good and bad.

The bad was having this as my very first introduction to the Cyrillic Alphabet.

Quite the acid trip. Apparently from a Russian version of “Sesame Street”, this video intimidated the hell out of me. There was too much happening. Colours, new letters, new sounds, so many pigtails. It was a baptism of fire.

It turns out, the internet does come in useful for stuff like this. I found a lot of very helpful Youtube tutorials on the alphabet (such as this one) and basic words and phrases and a whole online community for those learning Russian here. This website has video lessons, written lessons and hosts an online community. For free. It returns your faith in the generosity of people to share their knowledge, especially when you’re glibly eyeing up a Rosetta Stone programme, which start at €190 for the basic level 1 course.

Two websites I want to particularly recommend for anyone learning a new language are byki and duolingo. Byki is a language learning software available in a free express version or a deluxe version which you pay for, but which won’t break the bank. It works as a series of flashcards which are presented to you. You learn them, see the english translation and then are asked to identify their meaning when shown them again. For a free software, I have barely any complaints about it and am finding it very useful. The only minor gripe I have with it is when you are writing your answers, they are case and punctuation sensitive. For example, if the answer is “Good Morning” and you write it as “good morning” it may be marked incorrect. This can be rectified but was slightly annoying at first.

Duolingo is a beta site, meaning it is not fully available to the public yet. The reason I’m mentioning it is because I think it is one of the most innovative ideas I’ve heard in a long time. You sign up to the site wanting to learn a certain language and you get free lessons in your language of choice. In return, while doing the lessons, the translations you will be working on are real translations of online articles and libraries. The aim of the site is to make more information available to everyone, so even if you don’t speak Portuguese you will have access to the best of Brazilian journalism or you can read Russian news translated to English for you. It is a very new concept and has very few languages available at the moment but I think it will be extremely beneficial for everyone when it takes off and reaches full functionality.

My Russian journey continues. I almost have the Cyrillic alphabet down pat and the great thing about that is you can start to read Russian words immediately. I have been warned that Russian grammar is particularly challenging but hopefully this will be counter-balanced by the fact that a lot of Russian vocabulary borrows from French and other European languages I am familiar with.

After getting over the initial disappointment that my name isn’t that exciting in Cyrillic (Capa), I am looking forward to what lies ahead.

до свидания!


Posted on December 13, 2011, in LANGUAGE and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Интересно и хороший читает! Великий ссылки и идеи. Мне это нравится. Speaking of name translations into Cyrillic, apparently my name means “fox” in Russian…

    • Большое спасибо. I really appreciate it. Have you been learning Russian long?
      Capa (That still doesn’t look right…)

      • Сара,
        Пожалуйста. Нечего. (“It’s nothing”.)
        I am about six weeks into my very first Russian language class. Before that I tried to learn Russian on and off for a couple years on my own. As an English speaker, switching to reading Cyrillic is nuts, isn’t it? I plowed through about 30 pages of “Russian in 10 Minutes a Day”, reading and copying out the vocabulary to just absorb reading and writing this alphabet…I agree with you on the Russian Sesame Street version. It’s crazy. There’s a link on my blog to my favorite version of the Russian alphabet being sung by Russian children…

  2. I saw that version after the SS one, thankfully. Much calmer and more doable. Cyrillic has been okay actually, once I just took it on its own and stopped trying to make it make sense in a Roman alphabet. I actually can’t get on to your blog, did you change its URL recently? It’s saying your current one doesn’t exist. Would you recommend “10 minutes a day”?

  3. Сара,
    Whup! It should be “Russian Spoken Here”: I like “10 Minutes a Day” only if you get the version that has the accompanying CD. I got the book only, and it has no stress marks, and no CD, so there was no way to make sure I was reading and pronouncing (or even hearing the sound in my head) correctly. At the time I didn’t know there was a CD + book combo available.

  4. Great wordpress blog here.. It’s hard to find quality writing like yours these days. I really appreciate people like you! take care

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