Why and How To Learn Russian

Category: Culture, Language

About guest author Susanna Zaraysky: Susanna is a speaker of seven languages (Russian, English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Serbo-Croatian and Italian), with perfect or almost perfect accent. Her fluency in pronunciation came from exposing herself to these languages as much as possible outside of the classroom; music, TV, movies, radio and the Internet offer a plethora of opportunities to get into the flow of a new language without having to spend a dime on tutors or expensive overseas classes. Susanna is also the author of Language Is Music, a guide on how to learn foreign languages using music and the media. Find Susanna on her website or follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Picasa, and YouTube.

As a native Russian speaker who came to the U.S. at a very young age, I had Russian language lessons shoved down my throat by my parents who wanted me to have a connection to the motherland, even though we left the Soviet Union with no intent to return. As a kid in the U.S. during the Cold War, I didn’t want to speak in Russian. In my teenage years and adulthood, however, I’ve found my Russian language ability to be an incredible resource.

Why is Russian an important language to learn?

It’s spoken in all 15 countries of the former Soviet Union and it’s one of the six official languages of the United Nations. Russia is one of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China), an emerging economy with high economic growth rates. Beyond oil and gas, there are many business interests in Russia and other countries in the former Soviet Union.

Where to start?

Despite initial reticence, I am very thankful to my parents for forcing me to speak, read and write in the language. Now when I meet people who want to learn Russian, I realize the barriers they need to overcome to speak the language well. Without going into grammatical patterns and complications, of which the Russian language has many, I’ll just start with some basics.

It’s all about the music!

Each language has its own melody, its own musicality and in order to get into the flow of the language and speak with a good accent, you need to pick up on the music of the language. Music activates more parts of the brain than language does. Information memorized to music is more likely to stick in the brain than vocabulary lists memorized for a school test. As I explain in this interview on CBS, music and other media are easy, inexpensive and fun tools to learn languages.

LISTEN!!!

My principle in language learning is to first get used to the sounds of the language by listening before speaking.

“You cannot reproduce a sound you cannot hear.”
– Alfred Tomatis, French ear specialist and founder of the
Tomatis method for language acquisition and speech therapy

Would you start to play the violin before hearing what violin music sounds like? Most likely not. You need to get used to the musicality of a language before you imitate its sounds. Remember that as children we first learn to make sounds and then words.

Babies and toddlers listen to language before they say their first words at the age of 1 or so. They hear first, then they speak.

You need to first listen to Russian before attempting to speak. There are nasal vowel sounds in Russian that don’t exist in English. If you speak Portuguese, you are at an advantage because both languages have many nasal and “sh” and “zh” sounds. Listen for what sounds new to you.

“Sesame Street” in Russian

Being a child at heart makes almost everything in life easier and more fun. If you have children, learn Russian along with them. Beware, they might learn much faster than you. Even if you’re 60 years old, that doesn’t mean you can’t watch “Sesame Street” or Улица Сезам in Russian.

If you think watching “Sesame Street” in Russian is silly, think again. The Defense Language Institute of the United States Department of Defense uses Arabic language “Sesame Street” to supplement Arabic lessons for military personnel. So if GI Joe and tough soldiers are watching the Big Bird and Elmo to have fun learning Arabic, so can you!

As the Cyrillic alphabet is different from the Latin one, learn the Russian alphabet with the “Sesame Street” Alphabet song:

The Russian Alphabet Lesson explains the sounds of the Russian alphabet and the differences between letters that look the same in Cyrillic and Latin but have different sounds:

Here are some more Russian “Sesame Stree”t videos:

a. Ulitsa Sezam (Russian Sesame Street) opening songs

b. Fruits in Russian

You can find more Russian “Sesame Street” videos on You Tube.

Nuts and bolts of Russian pronunciation

Like I said, Russian has sounds that don’t exist in English. If you want an explanation of how to pronounce Russian properly, read Sounding Like a Real Russian with Proper Pronunciation by Andrew Kaufman, Ph.D., Serafima Gettys, Ph.D., and Nina Wieda.

The rolling R

If you’ve ever studied Spanish, Italian or any other language with a rolled “r” you know that it’s a hard thing for people to pronounce. Russian has many words with rolled “r”s . Roll up your sleeves and learn to roll.

Benny Lewis, of Fluent in Three Months, wrote a post explaining how to roll your Rs as though you were saying the English word butter. Maybe this will help you, too, if you find it challenging.

Have fun!

You must find something you like about the way the language sounds or the culture for you to be emotionally engaged with the language, or else it becomes a chore to learn. And who likes chores? Practically nobody. So have fun with it! Use your newfound knowledge with Russians you might know at home or at work, try to read Russian media online, or find a langauge-exchange program with a Russian speaker who is looking to improve his or her English. You can then start that follow-up to War and Peace.

Photo attributes: Susanna Zaraysky (self), Audrey (Red Square)