How can “criminal” music help you learn Russian?
Many of my Russian-learning students surprise me by saying they have never actually listened to Russian songs. Of course, Russian music is not the most popular in the world (probably with the exception of Russian classical music, but that's different). But for me, the thing that first interested me in the language was music! So, when I ask my students, "Have you heard any Russian songs?” the answer is usually, "No, I can’t understand them yet."
Fair enough. Next, I send them various songs by bands and singers that were popular in Russia throughout the 80s, 90s, and 2000s. In addition to the songs, I give them the lyrics and translation, which creates a sort of weird karaoke experience that proves to be surprisingly helpful when learning Russian. I’ll explain why.
Usually, when listening to a song in a foreign language that we are not very familiar with, we don’t get much of what’s being said. Occasionally, our ear will catch a word or two, but it won’t really make much of a difference. We will understand the emotion, but not the message.
Why do you think children learn so many things through poems at school? It’s because poems rhyme, and rhyming words are much easier to remember. It makes the learning process faster and more effective. Songs are even better than poems, because in addition to rhymes they also have a catchy tune and repetitive constructions. The music also plays a big role. It immediately exposes you to the culture and its various aspects: social problems, people’s attitude to certain things, a vision of life in general…Now that you think of it, it’s amazing how much you can actually learn from songs.
With Russian music, you could probably try and divide it into standard genres, such as pop, rock, alternative, jazz, folk, and so on. However, there always remains a large amount of music that cannot be defined. While listening to the start of a song when the lyrics haven’t yet started, you can sometimes recognize it as utterly and genuinely Russian. You get that “Russian feeling.”
For instance, take the heart-wrenching, yet strangely life-asserting prison songs, or so-called chansons. Many old school Russians (and certainly my uncle) would probably say they represent Russian soul. Or at least that's how it was in the legendary 90s. Indeed, they do tell us about the way life used to be back then, indicating which things were valued and which weren’t.
These songs can still be heard in smoke-filled shuttle buses or in typical Russian movies that tell us about the hardships of life and the importance of staying strong and living по понятиям, or by the Code. You’ll be surprised to know how many law-abiding Russians to this day consider the chanson to be beautiful and honest, even though most of the songs describe some fishy business.
However, Russia is not only about romanticizing a criminal lifestyle. It's about so many other things, both worldly and spiritual. To understand what I mean, you'll have to listen to a few songs yourself. For that, you will need a basic knowledge of the Russian alphabet, lyrics to the song, a device to play the song on, and a bit of a free time.
Here are five simple steps that will allow you to work with the songs:
- Find the lyrics and the translation. Print it and cover the translation with a sheet of paper. We don’t want to look at it yet.
- Follow the lyrics with your eyes while playing the song. If you’re alone, try to sing along. If not, then maybe wait until everyone is out of range so you don’t freak them out. One more thing: if you don’t like the song, stop right there and move to the next one. This only works with songs you like.
- Guess what the song is about. Take in the melody, letting it be your guide.
- Read the translation. See how right or wrong you were. Circle some interesting phrases. It’s better to use short rhyming ones, as you’re more likely to remember them.
- Listen to the song one last time. Now that you know what it means, it will be a different experience. When you hear the familiar words, try to see the pictures in your head. It’s good to put them on paper next to the words rather than the direct translations. Later, they can be used as triggers to extract whole lines from your memory.
After these steps, relax and return to your normal life.
Caution: Don’t do this before bed, otherwise you might be stuck with Russian phrases playing in your head over and over, accompanied by some annoyingly catchy tune.
But enough of the theory, let’s do what real Russians do and jump straight to practicing! We’re going to listen to a very popular song called Девчонка-девчоночка, performed by a “Russian Michael Jackson” of the late 80s and early 90s. This song has been used in the equally famous Russian TV show Бригада (which tells a story or four childhood friends turning into gangsters in an early 90s Moscow). Since we are going to follow the five steps laid out above, I won’t tell you what the song is about yet. Instead, I’ll combine the first two steps and give you the lyrics and link to the song. So prepare your ears and open your mind! Here we go:
Он не любит тебя нисколечко
У него таких сколько хочешь
Отчего же ты твердишь, девчоночка
«Он хороший, он хороший»?
Ты не знаешь его ни капельки –
Будет поздно, когда заноешь.
Только с виду он мальчик-паинька,
Никакой он не хороший.
Девчонка, девчоночка, темные ночи,
Я люблю тебя, девочка, очень,
Ты прости разговоры мне эти:
Я за ночь с тобой отдам все на свете
Про него порасскажут всякое –
Просто так не болтают все же,
А ты ходишь за ним послушная,
Повторяешь: «Он хороший».
Не был я никогда советчиком,
И советовать здесь негоже.
Я сегодня с ним встречаюсь вечером –
Он получит свое «хороших».
Now that we’ve listened to the song, can you guess what it is about? If you’re an active learner of Russian, you might’ve already recognized a few words and have a general idea. If not, use your imagination. It might help to answer these simple questions:
- What is the tone of the song? It’s definitely not sad. It sounds fervent and even a bit arrogant.
- How does the singer sound? Same as above. His voice is young, but a bit husky, with slightly hysterical undertones. A typical bad boy from the streets.
- What might he be singing about? Let’s say you already know a bit of Russian. In any case, the word that is repeated throughout the whole song is девчонка or девчоночка, which means a “girl” or a “chick.” So it’s likely that our guy is singing about his feelings for a girl. That raises another question...
- Does he sound happy? Not really. He seems to be a bit whiny. I’d assume they have problems in their relationship.
Well done! You can ask yourself more leading questions or you could move to Step 4 with me.
Let’s look at the translation and find some interesting words or phrases.
He doesn’t love you a bit
He has a lot of chicks like you.
So why do you keep saying, girlie,
“He’s a good guy, he’s a nice guy”?
You don’t know him at all,
It will be too late when you regret.
He only looks like a golden boy–
He’s anything but nice.
Girl, girlie, the nights are dark,
I love you so much, girlie,
Forgive my words,
But I’ll give up everything for a night with you.
They will tell you all kinds of things about him–
People don’t usually gossip just like that.
But you keep following him, obedient,
Repeating, “He’s a nice guy.”
I’ve never been known as an advisor,
And there is no need for advice here.
I’m meeting him tonight–
He’ll get what he deserves.
So, now that we finally know what the song is about, it’s time to look at it more closely and learn some new vocabulary:
Нисколечко and ни капельки: these two words sound similar, and they turn out to mean the same thing. The literal translation is “not a thing,” and “not a drop.” They can be used in informal conversation to demonstrate the absence of something. Here is an example:
- Костя, у тебя есть деньги? Kostya, have you got any money?
- Нет, нисколечко. А у тебя есть водка? No, not a bit. Have you got any vodka?
- Нет, ни капельки. No, not a drop.
Мальчик-паинька: this means “golden boy” or “mummy’s boy.” In Russia, a мальчик-паинька is often considered a wimp and not respected by “real guys.” The girl in our song, however, is attracted to this type of man, which causes an immense displeasure for her secret admirer. According to him, a мальчик-паинька is nothing but a lie. Here is an example:
- Говорят, что Миша – мальчик-паинька. They say Misha is a golden boy.
- Неправда! That’s not true!
- Миша – хулиган и бандит. Misha is a hooligan and a gangster
Я за ночь с тобой отдам все на свете: this means, “I’ll give up everything for a night with you,” or, more accurately, “For a night with you I’ll give up everything in the world.” It’s very good pick-up phrase for guys who don’t like to wait. It doesn’t work on all the girls, but it definitely makes you look romantic. Here is an example:
- Девушка, вы прекрасны! Я за ночь с вами отдам все на свете! Young lady, you are gorgeous! I’ll give up everything for a night with you!
- Уходите или я вызову полицию. Leave, or I’ll call the police.
Он получит свое хороших: this means, “He’ll get what he deserves,” or simply, “He’s gonna get it.” This expression is especially interesting, because its literal translation is, “He’ll get his good ones.” By “good ones,” our enamoured singer means a violent physical interaction including a lot of punching, hitting, and probably kicking. The phrase is often used as a threat and aims to make your opponent realize you mean serious business. Here is an example:
- Витя, Костя опять выпил твою водку и назвал тебя дураком. Vitya, Kostya drank your vodka again and called you an idiot.
- Ну все! Сейчас он получит свое хороших! That’s it! He gonna get it this time!
So here we are, Step 5. How do you think this exciting story will unfold? Who will win: an honest and simple singer, or an insidious golden boy? Make your bets and let’s listen to the song one more time. You won’t forget it any time soon.
If you enjoyed this exercise as much as I did, you can find more links to popular “gangster” songs below:
БИ-2: This band has many wonderful songs in different styles. However, after recording a soundtrack for a famous gangster movie Brother, they became more associated with some serious and extreme topics. Who writes to the colonel? Why should the stupid girl keep dancing? Listen and find out.
Звери: This is the band from my teenage years. Their songs are extremely catchy and very emotional. Also, they can teach you a great deal of bad boy things: how to make drinks stronger, how to make words shorter, how to be the first guy on the block, and how to turn rain into a pistol. You watch out!