See – I told you Michael Erard was nice. He responded to my review of his book, which got me thinking about how I learned Russian and how other people have learned Russian and all that.
On the first day of Russian class, we started learning to read and write the Cyrillic alphabet. Russians always write in cursive, and cursive Cyrillic differs slightly from printed Cyrillic, so it can be quite confusing at first. My professor said he emphasized learning cursive because if you don’t write in cursive, people will think you are illiterate. I hated cursive at first because it confused me, but then I got used to it (after a while).
However, I think my experience differed a bit from my classmates’. You see, I had already learned the Russian alphabet before I ever set foot in class. I taught myself over the summer and learned to read it from politicians’ names (Дмитрий Медведев – Dmitry Medvedev) and political slogans (Вместе победим! – Together we will win!). This was 2008, so Russia had just held presidential elections. Stuff like this was so helpful, though it was quite a while before I understood the grammar concerning the verb used in the “Together we will win” poster.*
Still, even though I may have had a slight advantage over my classmates, first-year Russian was still really, really hard. I am glad now that I had this excellent foundation, but at the time, I remember being very frustrated. We had at least an hour of homework every night, class every day (and twice one day of the week), and so many exams. It probably took me a good eleven months or so before I could read Cyrillic with as much fluidity as I read the Latin alphabet. (Memorizing and knowing an alphabet is quite different from actually putting the letters together to form words.)
So, the question remains: is it wise to throw all this new stuff at beginning students all at once? It depends. For full-time students and those who need a solid foundation quickly, I say to go ahead and take the plunge. Learn vocabulary, reading, and writing all at once. (Trust me, it is possible.) For adults with real jobs taking a Russian class for fun, doing all of that could be a lot to handle, so there would not be any harm in going at a slower pace.
To be honest, I don’t know if it’s normal to start off doing cursive right away. My professor is very dedicated and very intense. He’s a native speaker, passionate about teaching others his language. I do know that I learned more Russian from him than my American friend C I met during my study abroad. At the time, C had studied Russian for as long as I had (in fact, even longer because she did a summer program and I did not), but I spoke it better than she did, which I think was due to having a very intense professor teaching me.
One valid criticism Erard had in his book was how the material was boring. I had that same problem: our textbook was not that great. The dialogues were kind of stupid and inane sometimes. Luckily I was interested in the language itself – it helped to have a goal in mind, which for me was to read Russian literature in the original – and my professor engaged us by teaching us things not in the textbook.
It is very interesting for me to think about this because I’m considering becoming a professor. Someday, I could be teaching a Russian class (that would be SO much fun), so I’ve enjoyed thinking about how I would approach it.
*If you’re interested, it’s due to imperfective vs. perfective in Russian. Победить is the perfective form of the verb because we’re talking about a one-time action here. For Russian learners, the imperfective form is побеждать (remember, you should always try to learn both aspects of the verb!).