Russian Word of the Day: гнездо [gnezdo]

A couple Fridays ago, while having a nice relaxing afternoon, I realized I hadn’t done much intensive study of Russian grammar recently. Now, I read in Russian every day and listen to podcasts regularly, but I hadn’t done any of the focused that I used to do. I immediately had to rectify the situation, so I looked up the declension of a noun that I was unsure of. (Longtime readers may recall this post in which I explain what exactly makes Russian nouns so… frightening to English speakers.) The noun in question is гнездо [gnezdo], which means nest in English. So let’s study some Russian together. First, here’s the declension. I always found declension tables useful while learning Russian, so I’ve put one together here. (As an aside, why are tables so difficult to make in HTML? To me, they’re just not intuitive. It’s like someone invented them in 1990 in a completely illogical fashion and the code hasn’t changed since then.)

падеж [Case] ед. ч. [Singular] мн. ч. [Plural]
Им. [Nominative] гнездо [gnezdó] гнёзда [gnyozda]
Р. [Genitive] гнезда [gnezdá] гнёзд [gnyozd]
Д. [Dative] гнезду [gnezdú] гнёздам [gnyozdam]
В. [Accusative] гнездо [gnezdó] гнёзда [gnyozda]
Тв. [Instrumental] гнездом [gnezdóm] гнёздами [gnyozdami]
Пр. [Prepositional] гнезде [gnezdé] гнёздах [gnyozdakh]

The stresses in Russian are marked with bold letters because I couldn’t figure out how to get those nice accents over the letters the way I did with the transliterations. I’ve put transliterations in Latin characters in case you can’t read Cyrillic. (Though if you can’t read Cyrillic, I definitely think you should learn!) Before doing this exercise, I also hadn’t realized that гнездо was irregular in the plural with that stress shift. As an avid bird lover, nests are a pretty important thing for me to talk about, so I’m glad I found that out.

Now, for the fun part: some related words.

There’s a verb form гнездиться [gnezditsa] that means to build a nest or to live in a nest. It conjugates as follows:

  • Я гнежусь [Ya gnezhdus]
  • Ты гнездишься [Ty gnezdishsa]
  • Они гнездятся [Oni gnezdyatsa]

(I am too lazy to code another table with the full conjugation. Those three forms should be enough to show the verb’s conjugation. 🙂 )

Have you ever heard of the Swallow’s Nest castle in Crimea? Crimea was a favorite vacation spot of the Russian imperial family and other nobles and this crazy castle belonged to a Baltic German noble at one point. In Russian, it’s called Ласточкино гнездо [Lastochkino gnezdo]. Here’s a picture of it. It’s amazing and absurd-looking!

Source. Click to see larger.
Source. Click to see larger.

See how much you can learn when you dive into reading about just a single Russian word? I’ve barely even scratched the surface here. There’s a lot more to this word than I’ve talked about here. There are adjectival forms, different verb forms I don’t fully understand, and (probably) a lot more nuances to the word. Now you understand why I had to spend hours and hours studying Russian in college. Imagine going through this declension exercise on a whole group of nouns for homework.

If that didn’t scare you off… stick around for more Russian-related posts. And if you enjoyed that, consider studying Russian! The whole language is complicated like this! 😉

The Hard Work Of Learning Languages

You guys, this article, How I Rewired My Brain to Become Fluent in Math, means everything to me. I discovered it earlier today and it’s written by a woman who’s an engineering professor at a university. However, before she became a professor, she learned Russian in the Army (at the Defense Language Institute, no less). One of my favorite things about this article is that she talks about the hard work and rote memorization that you have to put in to learning a new skill, whether it’s math or a foreign language.

Something that bothers me about the language learning blogosphere is that language learning has to be “fun” all the time and that the rote memorization you have to do to learn many grammar concepts or vocabulary words is useless because it’s not enjoyable. This article belies that fact, because even though there are a lot of interesting aspects about learning a foreign language, there are parts of it that are just really, really hard. Sometimes, you have to just sit down and memorize the declension of a noun or the conjugation of the verb, and that isn’t always the most fun thing. I can remember many an afternoon during my freshman year sitting for hours at my desk, declining nouns and conjugating verbs, and then having to do it all over again the next day. I’m not trying to scare anyone off from learning a foreign language—just trying to say that it’s not something you can just do for a few months and become fluent with little effort.

Anyway, here are some of my favorite parts of the article. You really should read the whole thing because it contains some excellent advice for learning languages (and learning in general!).

As a young woman with a yen for learning language and no money or skills to speak of, I couldn’t afford to go to college (college loans weren’t then in the picture). So I launched directly from high school into the Army. I had loved learning new languages in high school, and the Army seemed to be a place where people could actually get paid for their language study, even as they attended the top-ranked Defense Language Institute—a place that had made language- learning a science. I chose Russian because it was very different from English, but not so difficult that I could study it for a lifetime only to perhaps gain the fluency of a 4-year-old. Besides, the Iron Curtain was mysteriously appealing—could I somehow use my knowledge of Russian to peer behind it?

After leaving the service, I became a translator for the Russians on Soviet trawlers on the Bering Sea. Working for the Russians was fun and engrossing—but it was also a superficially glamorous form of migrant work. You go to sea during fishing season, make a decent salary while getting drunk all the time, then go back to port when the season’s over and hope they’ll rehire you next year….

I began to realize that while knowing another language was nice, it was also a skill with limited opportunities and potential. People weren’t pounding down my door looking for my Russian declension abilities. Unless, that is, I was willing to put up with seasickness and sporadic malnutrition out on stinking trawlers in the middle of the Bering Sea.

[…]

What I had done in learning Russian was to emphasize not just understanding of the language, but fluency. Fluency of something whole like a language requires a kind of familiarity that only repeated and varied interaction with the parts can develop. Where my language classmates had often been content to concentrate on simply understanding Russian they heard or read, I instead tried to gain an internalized, deep-rooted fluency with the words and language structure. I wouldn’t just be satisfied to know that понимать meant “to understand.” I’d practice with the verb—putting it through its paces by conjugating it repeatedly with all sorts of tenses, and then moving on to putting it into sentences, and then finally to understanding not only when to use this form of the verb, but also when not to use it. I practiced recalling all these aspects and variations quickly. After all, through practice, you can understand and translate dozens—even thousands— of words in another language. But if you aren’t fluent, when someone throws a bunch of words at you quickly, as with normal speaking (which always sounds horrifically fast when you’re learning a new language), you have no idea what they’re actually saying, even though technically you understand all the component words and structure. And you certainly can’t speak quickly enough yourself for native speakers to find it enjoyable to listen to you.

[…]

As I forayed into a new life, becoming an electrical engineer and, eventually, a professor of engineering, I left the Russian language behind. But 25 years after I’d last raised an inebriated glass on the Soviet trawlers, my family and I decided to take the trans-Siberian railway across Russia. Although I was excited to take the long-dreamed-of trip, I was also worried. I’d barely uttered a word of Russian in all that time. What if I’d lost it all? What had those years of gaining fluency really bought me?

Sure enough, when we first got on the train, I spoke Russian like a 2-year-old. I’d grasp for words, my declensions and conjugations were all wrong, and my formerly near-perfect accent sounded dreadful. But the foundation was there, and day by day, my Russian improved. And even with my rudimentary Russian, I could handle the day-to-day needs of our traveling. Soon, tour guides were coming to me for help translating for the other passengers. When we finally arrived in Moscow, we hopped in a taxi. The driver, I soon discovered, was intent on ripping us off—heading directly the wrong way and trapping us in a logjam of cars, where he expected us ignorant foreigners to quietly acquiesce to an unnecessary extra hour of meter time. Suddenly, Russian words I hadn’t spoken for decades flew from my mouth. I hadn’t even consciously known I knew those words.

I will say this, too: I’ve largely left the academic study of Russian behind for a career in an unrelated field, but I hope I never forget my Russian. I think I’ve been doing a pretty good job of maintaining it it, considering the circumstances. I read and listen to it every day, so that’s an accomplishment (I think). Now if only I could find a group of Russian speakers to practice with…

Maybe I Should Be A Language Blogger After All…

I used to blog about languages more than I do now and I’m starting to think I should return to language blogging again. I’ve been getting quite a few hits this past week or so from an iTalki article. Yes, an article from the popular language learning website iTalki linked to this blog! The article has some good advice if you’re a language learner, so you should go check it out. Then go check out my post that it links to. It’s an old one from 2013, but still relevant, I think!

Update On The Russian Resources Page, Part 2

Remember that Russian resources page I talked about a while ago, then forgot to update you about? Well, I finally remembered I haven’t posted an update about it since February.

In the past month, it has ballooned into a rather large document. In fact, it has become so large that I’ve made a decision not to publish it as a page on this blog. It’s just going to be too long! Instead, I’m going to make it a little ebook instead. Right now, it’s at an awkward length where it’s too long for the blog, but not necessarily a full-fledged ebook, hence my characterization of it as a little ebook.

I’ve wanted to publish an ebook for years now, so I’m really excited about this. I know how to format it for various online ebook stores. The only obstacle will be getting a cover for it because I’m laughably bad at visual design. (If you have graphic design talents or know someone who does… don’t hesitate to drop me a line.)

Anyway, I’m still working on actually finishing the post ebook. I didn’t realize how much I had to say about learning Russian until I began to write it down!

Regaining My Motivation For Russian

I experienced something rather odd recently. I realized I wasn’t studying Russian much. I’ve studied Russian seriously for such a long time that it felt strange not to be studying it.

I couldn’t figure out what the problem was. Usually, I desperately want to study Russian, even when I have stuff to do at work. My motivation was gone and I couldn’t figure out why. I searched on the internet for advice, but none of it helped.

Then I realized something: I didn’t like the Russian TV series I was watching. I watch a lot of Russian TV shows and documentaries to keep up my connection to the spoken language. (It’s the best I can do in my circumstances. There aren’t exactly many Russian speakers where I live, and coordinating Skype conversations with native Russians can be a nightmare due to time zone differences and my inability to get on Skype for large stretches of time during the workday.) The series I was watching at the time was Likvidatsia (Ликвидация), which means Liquidation. I expected to like it, but it just turned out to be bad (in my opinion). In fact, even though I wouldn’t admit it to myself, I disliked it so much that I actively avoided studying Russian because I didn’t want to keep watching it!

So, problem solved. I stopped watching that series and watched a few interesting historical documentaries. Suddenly, Russian was interesting again. Moral of the story: it’s important to have fun in language learning, or else you’ll just end up skipping it in favor of more fun activities.

And if you’re wondering, I’m still working on that Russian resources page, I promise! I’ve had a lot of stuff going on in my life recently, so I haven’t been able to work as consistently as I’d like, but the file I have is slowly growing longer.

Update On The Russian Resources Page

Remember that Russian resources page I talked about? Well, it is in progress. I’m making very slow progress on it—mainly because I’ve been working on other things, like violin and knitting and writing, not to mention some stuff for work.

But never fear, the progress is slow but steady. I’m going to keep working on it and I promise to let you know when it’s finished…

Coming Soon: Russian Learning Resources

Dear friends, I am creating an exciting new resource that will be posted to this blog soon. I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, but I figure I need to just go ahead and do it. I want to create a page with resources for people who want to learn Russian.

Let’s say someone decides to learn Russian and realizes she needs a lot of practice listening, so she wants to download some podcasts. That’s an excellent idea, but the average person probably doesn’t know where to get Russian podcasts. And even if our hypothetical learner finds a bunch of podcasts, how will she know which ones are decent?

It’s a problem you can face with any aspect of language learning. Even if you are taking a class, you’re still going to have to do a lot of work on your own if you want to be fluent. That’s what I would like to help people with. I’ve been learning Russian for a long time and I’ve discovered a few tips and tricks along the way. 😉 I know a ton of good resources and I’m working on preparing a nice document to share with you aspiring Russian speakers out there.

Even if you aren’t learning Russian, some parts of this project will apply to language learning in general. I’ll be working on putting this together and I’ll let you know once it’s actually posted live on the blog. In the meantime, you can check out my Russian Log page, which has a list of Russian things I’ve watched and read.