I am almost sure that if I asked you what is the most difficult language to learn, you would probably say Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or Arabic. Also, I am almost sure that if I asked you which language comes next, you would probably say Russian.
There are indeed fair reasons to say so. Russian is a highly inflected language, which means that the words change constantly. On the one hand, the nouns and adjectives are found in six different forms (known as cases) depending on the role they play in a sentence. On the other hand, the verbs require different endings or suffixes, and sometimes a change in the stress can completely change the meaning of the word.
To top it all off, Russian has an entirely different alphabet. The pronunciation of certain letters (i.e. Ж, З, Ш, Щ, Ч, Ц), and the handwritten form of the language (Russian cursive) can make even the most enthusiastic of us give up. The question is how we can learn Russian in a way that keeps us motivated, that allows us to memorise better, and that makes the learning process a little bit more fun.
From my experience, I have found that the single most important element that someone needs to learn Russian, or indeed any other language, is love. There are different ways in which someone can fall in love with the Russian language. For example, there are those who dream of reading Dostoyevsky in the original language. Others are attracted by Russia’s history and influence in world politics.
The Russian language can open new horizons in different spheres of interests, like arts, cinema, culture, travelling. In my case, I loved the Soviet films with people rushing to work on a tram on a winter’s day. I loved the innocent Russian cartoons with their didactic meanings. I enjoyed the Russian hospitality as a ‘Couchsurfer’. I loved reading Russian poems until late into the night with my Russian friends in Moscow.
For each one of us, the starting point and way of immersion are different. It is very important that you find your own love and genuine interest for the language. This will increase your motivation and help you overcome any obstacles throughout the learning journey.
I am sure you can not wait to get to the meat of this article and dive into the five effective techniques that I promised to you. The following techniques go further than conventional academic studying and stimulate our memory by using multiple senses. Most importantly, they are universal and can be applied not only to Russian, but to any language or discipline. For those of you who prefer watching to reading, you can also find a video of myself explaining the techniques below at the Oxford University Russian Society here.
Technique #1: Learn Russian through films using an optimal screen setup
Learning through films is a very powerful method as it involves images, sounds, and emotions. The visual content is engaging and helps comprehension. The audio content will help you develop a general sense of the language sounds and improve your pronunciation.
The Russian language, unlike other languages, has a very wide range of sound frequencies which start from 100 and go up to 12000 Hertz. In other words, if we record a native Russian speaker and analyse the result in terms of sound frequencies, we will discover frequencies between 100 and 12000 Hertz. Most European languages use a far smaller range of sound frequencies. Hence, if you want to reproduce all those new unfamiliar sounds correctly, you need to be able to hear them first and train your ear.
Films are great in this respect as they introduce you to tons of real life dialogues. With regard to emotions, research in neuroscience has shown that information tagged with strong emotional value is more easily recalled from our memory. The stronger the emotion, the stronger the imprint on our memory. Films are extremely effective in evoking emotions (i.e. happiness for a couple in love, admiration for the main actor, empathy for a poor man, anger for the atrocities of war, etc.). Finally, films will help you immerse into the culture, history, and mentality of Russian people.
The optimal setup that has worked in my case is three windows opened simultaneously on the screen: the actual film with English subtitles, the transcript in Russian and a Google Translate window as in the picture below.
I suggest that you watch the film trying to understand as much as possible without looking at the subtitles. When you encounter an unknown word, press pause and look at both the translation and transcript. You can find the transcript of many Russian films on Vvord or here.
Google Translate is very useful for different reasons. First, you can confirm that you have correctly matched the translation with the corresponding word on the transcript. Second, you can easily copy and paste from the transcript and play back a phrase or word as many times as you want. Third, it points you to the initial form of a noun or verb which you can then look into in more detail. Finally, you can record your voice if you want to practice your pronunciation.
I understand that it would be too tiring, or even impossible, to translate every single unknown word. Hence, feel free to skip through so your learning has a flow and you feel happy. Remember that learning is effective only if you are in a state of happiness and calmness. In the beginning, just focus on the words that you manage to guess, or the ones you find interesting. You can always watch the film again and pick up more of them.
At the end of this Live Diversified article, you will find the links to some popular Russian films which you can watch using this technique.
Technique #2: Walk and speak Russian loudly
Imagine you walk home after work. You probably spend this time thinking about your busy schedule, tomorrow’s meeting, the bills you have to pay, etc. Instead of doing that, why not start a conversation with yourself loudly in Russian? Maybe you want to practice the days of the week, the verbs you learned yesterday, or talk about your plans for the evening. If you are a beginner, take a chance to look around you and describe what you see.
For example, you can say things like:
- Что это? (What is this?)
- Это большой дом (This is a big house.)
- Это красная машина (This is a red car.)
- Сегодня хорошая погода (Today, the weather is good.)
- Люди идут по улице (People are walking on the street.)
This is an example of a multisensory learning method which involves visual, auditory and kinaesthetic elements. You see an object in real life and you pronounce the word loudly while you walk. Research has shown that it is very effective to pair a word with the actual object the word represents. This process is similar to learning a word by associating it with an image. At the same time, you improve your pronunciation as you are forced to speak the language.
Also, you can make this method even more powerful by adding an acting element. Pretend you are an actor, or a teacher. Change the tone of your voice, speak dramatically, whisper, shout with surprise! That will stimulate your auditory and kinesthetic senses even more and help you memorise better.
When we walk, the heart pumps faster, circulating more blood and oxygen to our brain. Experiments have shown that people perform better on tests of memory and attention when they walk. Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells and increases the volume of the hippocampus, a brain region crucial for memory (a nice article here). While you walk you can practice not only Russian, but also anything else you want to learn.
If you do not walk to work, you may cycle or drive. I often practice Russian on my bike speaking loudly or singing songs by the traffic lights. Do not be embarrassed by the people around you who may think you went crazy. People do not care about what you do; they care about their own lives. If someone makes fun of you, it is because they feel embarrassed to do what you do, even if they know it is right.
Now, think about this. How do kids learn? They use all their senses. They look at something, they touch it, they bite it. They do that at home, in the restaurant, on the street, everywhere. They ask their mum how something is called and repeat a word multiple times. They listen to their voice. Why do you have to learn Russian in silence on a desk? No! Try to learn the way kids learn. Instead of asking your mom (who most probably does not speak Russian), you can ask Yandex Translate or Google Translate on your mobile phone (both are great mobile apps) to remember or learn a new word while you are on the move. That is all. Keep walking and speak Russian!
Technique #3: Learn Russian through visualisation
Visualisation is the process of creating mental images with a certain purpose. Top performers know very well the importance of picturing themselves succeeding in their minds before they do in reality. Michael Jordan always used to take a last shot in his mind before he took one in real life. Muhammad Ali always visualised knocking out his opponent well before entering the ring.
Visualisation can be applied to language learning too with astonishing results. Suppose you have just learned a new word замечательная (wonderful). Now close your eyes and imagine a real-life dialog between you and another Russian speaker in which you use this new word.
One example follows below between you and Olya:
Olya: Привет! (Hi!)
You: Привет! Как дела? (Hi! How are you?)
Olya: Хорошо, спасибо! (Good, thanks!)
You: Ты не работаешь сегодня? (Are you not working today?)
Olya: Нет! Я отдыхаю сегодня! (No! I am resting today!)
You: Как здорово! Пойдем в кино? (How nice! Shall we go to the cinema?)
Olya: Да, это замечательная идея! (Yes, this is a wonderful idea!)
Visualisation is effective as it forces you to pay attention. Ed Cooke, a memory champion, says that attention is the single most important thing in memorisation. In the above example, you need to focus to synthesise all the information, the dialog, the environment, the actors.
When you visualise you should involve all your senses. Maybe a mental image is more closely related to the sense of sight. However, next time you stumble over the words хлеб (bread) or скрипка (violin), you will see that you can easily visualise the nice smell of freshly baked bread or the beautiful sound of violin.
Also, feel free to exaggerate with your imagination. Think of unusual images which will make your visualisations and memories last longer.
Visualisation can be even more powerful when it engages you emotionally. In our example above, you are filled with joy as Olya accepts going to the cinema with you. Visualise yourself speaking fluently in Russian and being confident. That will certainly take you a step closer to the goal!
Technique #4: Break the word down
I remember when I first came across the word следовательно (therefore). No matter how many times I tried to memorise it, I kept forgetting it! I realized I had to find a different way to get it into my head. “It is a long word,” I thought, “Let’s try to break it down to see what happens…” But, how do you break a word down if you can not spot any other known words in it? Google Translate is a powerful tool for this purpose because it provides instant translations as you type. So, if you start typing следовательно, you gradually get the following results:
If you pay attention to these four words, you can easily create a story to link them all together. For example, I can see here an investigator who follows the footprints and, therefore, finds out the truth! That’s it! Now, it is impossible to forget the investigator who solved the mystery! You have just managed to easily learn four words instead of just one. More importantly, these words are strongly connected with each other.
The good news does not stop here. After this process, you have more chances to remember a root word or connected phrase that you initially did not think of. In our case, the word следовательно probably is not the most common Russian word, but the expression:
- На следующей неделе (next week)
is one that a beginner probably sees quite early in their learning process. The adjective следующий (next, following) has the same root след as следовательно. You have just created another link between the four words and an expression you already know.
Alternatively, you can use Wiktionary to find related words. In our case, for следовательно, there is a link to следовать under the section “Related Terms.”
Similarly, for следовать, there is a link to след. Hence, when you come across a long word, always try to break it down to simpler ones. The extra time spent on this process will help you memorise the targeted word easily, bring more associated words to the surface, and build strong connections in your head.
Technique #5: Put the grammar cases into grammar sacks!
As mentioned earlier, one of the most difficult things in the Russian language is the grammar cases. I suggest that you do not learn all these different cases in one go before you move on with your learning. Instead, follow a backward and more exploratory approach. Study all these cases as they come to you through the process of reading, listening, and immersing into the language! Carry on with your learning, pay attention to comprehension, and each time you come across a noun expressed in an unfamiliar form, only then track it back (i.e. masculine, singular, dative case, instrumental case, etc.)
You can imagine the grammar cases as sacks in your memory. Each sack contains nouns or adjectives of the same type expressed in a certain grammar case. For example have a look at the picture below.
We have three sacks. The first (left) contains feminine nouns expressed in the accusative case. The second (right) contains masculine nouns expressed in the accusative case. The third (left) contains feminine nouns expressed in the prepositional case.
Try to focus on patterns based on the endings of the nouns. Every time you come across a noun or adjective form, try to remember something similar you have seen and put them together in the same sack. If you come across something completely new, put it aside and wait until you see something else that looks similar, so you can group them together in the same memory sack.
As a final word, I would like to stress that each one of us learns in a different way. I suggest that you experiment with the above techniques and focus on the ones that suit your learning style best. Feel free to switch between them if you get bored. Make your learning diversified and keep your motivation high. Finally, of course, do not forget your italki practice! A good idea is also to record your italki lessons (for more info on this read this Live Diversified article).
If you have any questions or feedback, please feel free to contact me at [email protected]. I would be happy to hear from you and help if I can! Enjoy learning Russian! Удачи!
Angelos has recently released an e-book about learning Russian. It can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Learn-
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