How To Return To Language Study When You’ve Been Neglecting It

It's like someone on the internet made this image just for me! ;)
It’s like someone on the internet made this image just for me! 😉

Dear friends, I realized something terrible yesterday: I have not been studying enough Russian as of late. Things really became clear when I went to post a short sentence in Russian on Twitter and couldn’t remember how to spell the past tense of the Russian verb for to watch (the infinitive is смотреть, if you’re wondering, and the past tense I needed was смотрела). It was then I realized that I need to step up my Russian studying or risk forgetting basic things that every competent speaker should know.

If you’ve ever been in such a situation with your language study, here’s my advice for what you can do.

Don’t panic.

It took a while to learn the language, right? It will take a while to forget it, too. What I mean is you aren’t just going to wake up and say, “Hey, I can’t speak Russian/German/French/insert your language of choice here.” The learning was gradual, and so is the forgetting. That’s good news, as it gives you a chance to halt any forgetting immediately when you realize it’s started to happen.

Just do it.

I don’t know about you, but when I haven’t done something for a while, whether it’s language study or playing violin, sometimes the hardest thing is starting. I’ll feel bad that I haven’t done it in ages, then I sort of psych myself out of it as I think about how bad I’ll be when I eventually do start again. This is all pointless and just leads me to continue putting it off and feeling bad.

Here’s the thing, though: all you have to do is dive back in and do one small thing. For me, it was watching a short (about thirty-five minutes) documentary in Russian I had saved in my YouTube account. I understood most of it as I watched and after I started, I immediately felt better.

It doesn’t have to be perfect.

Remember when I just said that I understood most of the documentary I watched? It’s true that I didn’t get every word or every sentence. But that’s okay. At least I was watching, listening, and learning new phrases and sentence structures. I’m just going to keep watching videos and reading articles and going over things from my language notebook.

Don’t worry about “catching up.”

If you’ve been neglecting your language study for even a short amount of time, there’s probably going to be some regression. Maybe you don’t remember some vocabulary, or you forget how a certain grammatical concept works. Or, like me, you forget how to spell a basic verb. This is normal. Don’t worry about getting yourself to your previous level. It’s more beneficial to build a language study routine into your day and just go from there—for example, watch ten minutes of video and write down ten new words in your language notebook every day. It may not be much, but if that’s all you have time for, it will add up and in a year, your language abilities will be great.

Have you neglected your language learning? How did you get back into it?

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A Pumpkin For The Season

I saw this fabulous pumpkin at the grocery store recently and couldn’t resist taking a picture. It was huge!

Click to see larger.
Click to see larger.

Keep in mind how big it is in relation to those flowers in the top right. The thing was almost $150!

Pumpkin in Russian is тыква [tykva]. My Russian professor told me that pumpkin pie isn’t really a thing in Russia; however, I’ve managed to find a few recipes* in Russian for тыквенный пирог [tykvenniy pirog] (that means pumpkin pie). Maybe in the Soviet era no one ate pumpkin pie and things have changed. After all, my professor left Russia many years ago. Or maybe it wasn’t a regional thing where he lived.

Anyway, I’m trying to learn more Russian vocabulary and I thought it would be fun to share it on the blog. Hopefully it’s interesting to readers, even if you aren’t learning Russian!

*Note: no, I have never made anything from a Russian recipe. I’d love to but the recipes from there always use the metric system and we use a different system in the United States.

Extinct Language: Ubykh

Sometimes I read about random languages on the internet. Usually I stay within the Slavic family (it’s strangely satisfying to read about the obscure grammatical concepts in Slovak, for instance, and actually understand what that means by virtue of knowing Russian grammar), but sometimes, I venture away from Slavic languages, away from Indo-European languages, and read about random languages hardly anyone has heard of.

One of these languages is the Ubykh language. It’s a language that was from the North Caucasus. I say was because it’s extinct now. The last native speaker died in Turkey in 1992. Luckily, linguists were able to talk to him before his death and record him speaking Ubykh, so at least the sound of it isn’t lost forever. Still, I think the idea of languages going extinct is very sad.

The Ubykh language has the distinction of having eighty-four consonants, the most in any language aside from one with clicks. What makes this even stranger is it had only two vowels—I can’t even imagine how to pronounce words in it, as they must be so consonant-heavy.

The Ubykh people lived on the eastern coast of the Black Sea until 1864, when the Russian Empire drove them out. They found their way to Turkey, where they assimilated with the Turkish people and spoke Turkish. This gradually led to their language dying out, as many members of the subsequent generations born after the migration did not learn the Ubykh language.

As I wrote above, linguists have done some work on the language and some Ubykh people have allegedly shown interest in reviving the language.

Thank You!

Last Thursday, I wrote a blog post about the Russian language. I’d been thinking of writing it for some time, but hadn’t really sat down to do it. I had immense fun writing it and hoped that at least some people would like it.

Well, some people did like it. In fact, that’s a bit of an understatement. A lot of people liked it. I’ve had some of my best days for page views since publishing that post, and it’s all because of you, my readers. Some person (or multiple people) shared that post on Facebook and then a ton of other people must have shared it because I had an incredible amount of hits on Friday, the day after I published it. Though Friday was the peak day for my page views, Saturday and Sunday haven’t been anything to scoff at.

Thank you for sharing my writing. It really means a lot to me. I was happy to see the positive response to that post because it was a bit of an experiment I wanted to conduct. (Not in a mean way, like the Facebook emotional manipulation experiment.) Namely, I wanted to see how my blog traffic did if I wrote a heavily foreign language-focused post—and I can see now that it did pretty well. I’m not talking viral like tens of thousands of hits (I’ve never had that many hits on any blog, ever), but it was a decent amount compared to what I usually get.

This all means that I’m going write up some more language learning stuff. It won’t be the only thing I write about—if there’s one thing you’ve noticed about reading this blog, it’s that I have multiple interests!—but there is more I want to post about language learning in general and Russian learning specifically. So stay tuned for more awesomeness. 🙂

And to any new readers who may have found me through that post: welcome! Or, as we say in Russian: Добро пожаловать! [Dobro pozhalovat!]

What Does It Mean That Russian Is An ‘Inflected Language’?

Obligatory picture of Red Square.
Obligatory picture of Red Square.

Before I started learning Russian, a lot of the sources I read said it was hard. Not only does it have a completely different alphabet, they warned, but it’s an inflected language. A quick search of this term—inflected language—revealed that Russian nouns change depending on where they are in a sentence. That is, nouns have different cases. Changing the case is called declining. The names of the cases used in Russian are nominative, accusative, dative, genitive, prepositional, and instrumental. This post will deal with nominative (used for the subject of a sentence), accusative (used for direct objects), and dative (used for indirect objects) in more detail.

To understand case in general, take these sentences in English: The cats eat and I love cats. In the first sentence, cats is the subject, while in the second, it is the direct object. It’s the same word, though. It may function differently in the sentence, but it doesn’t change spelling or acquire an ending or anything like that.

Russian is different. Those sentences in Russian would be: Кошки едят [Koshki yedyat] and Я люблю кошек [Ya lyublyu koshek]. I’ve made the word for cats bold in both the Cyrillic and the transliteration so you can see that it differs slightly. In the first word, it’s in what we call the nominative case. In the second, it’s in the accusative case.

As it turns out, every noun in Russian has different forms like this. A few foreign words don’t change (this is called being undeclinable or indeclinable—I’m not sure what the correct English term is) but for the most part, every Russian noun has six endings for the singular form and six for the plural. These follow a pattern, so it’s not quite as hard as it sounds at first (though it does take a bit of practice to get used to lopping off endings and adding new ones while speaking out loud in conversation). Some words change irregularly, though, and these must be memorized.

What this means is you can do all kinds of things with Russian sentences that simply wouldn’t be possible in English. You can change the word order a bit and even leave verbs that give a noun its case when these verbs would be understood. Take the following example that I found on a patriotic Russian’s Twitter bio. I liked it so much I had to save it. Unfortunately, I cannot find the person who had this, so maybe he changed his bio since then.

Душу-Богу. Жизнь-России. Честь-никому.

The transliteration would read: Dushu-Bogu. Zhizn-Rossii. Chest-nikomu. It means “I give my soul to God, my life to Russia, and my honor to no one.” But technically, there are no verbs present in the bit I quoted above. The verb “I give” (Я даю [Ya dayu] or even just Даю [Dayu]) is implicitly understood, and the inflection of the Russian language helps us see this.

In the first part, душу [dushu], which means soul, is in the accusative case because it is the direct object of the implicitly understood “I give.” The nominative case of this word is душа [dusha]—note how the ending differs! The next word, Богу [Bogu], is the dative case of Бог [Bog], which means God. Dative is used for indirect objects, i.e. the recipient of something given. So you can see that the cases of the words in the first part show that the subject is giving his soul to God.

The second and third parts work in much the same way. Жизнь [Zhizn] means life. It’s also in the accusative case. In this instance, the nominative and the accusative look exactly the same due to a grammatical rule in the Russian language that I don’t want to go off topic to explain here. России [Rossii], the second word, is the dative case of Россия [Rossiya], which means Russia—hence the meaning of this second part: “I give my life to Russia.”

In the third part, we have another word in the accusative case, as you probably guessed: Честь [Chest], which means honor. Like the word жизнь [zhizn], it is the same in the nominative and the accusative case as well due to that grammatical rule.* The next word, никому [nikomu], is the dative of никто [nikto], which means no one. So it means “I give my honor to no one.”

Of course, when I translated this bit above I took a bit of license with the source text. I cut out the repetition and phrased it in a way that flows in English: “I give my soul to God, my life to Russia, and my honor to no one.” This is not the only accurate translation—it’s just the one I personally like the best. If you wanted, I suppose you could split the sentence into three separate sentences. It’s up to you.

If you’ve ever wondered if Russian is difficult to learn or not… well, you’ve probably got your answer now. I don’t like it when people lie and say a language is easy when it’s actually quite complicated. So I won’t lie: Russian is hard. You won’t be learning it in three months. (Sorry!) You probably won’t be learning it in a year, either. (Though I suppose in theory if you did nothing else and were able to spend some time in a Russian-speaking country, you could pick up quite a lot.) There’s so much good stuff to read in it that all the effort is worth it.

Plus, all that grammar is just fun, isn’t it? I’m not even joking here. I could talk about Russian declensions all day long. If you’re confused by any of my explanations, feel free to ask questions in the comments. Please don’t ask me to explain English grammar terms, though. That stuff ought to be taught in school—and if you haven’t learned it, you should go learn it on the Internet because a little bit of grammar study never hurt anybody. 🙂

*Note: Fine, I’ll explain the grammatical rule briefly because I’ve probably made you curious. Certain nouns called third-declension feminine nouns have the same form in the nominative as they do in the accusative. And all masculine inanimate nouns also have this feature. Confused yet? 😉 This is why I spent so much time studying in undergrad—it takes time to learn this stuff well!

What Is Passive Listening?

In a prior post on language learning, I talked about active listening. I mentioned passive listening but didn’t elaborate on it, so I thought I’d talk about it a bit now.

Passive listening is listening to your foreign language of choice in the background as you do something else. You basically tune into a radio station (talk radio works the best for this) or a nice long video (again, a sort of talk show format is preferable) and let it play while you do something else. I started doing passive listening during my second year of Russian when I realized I had a ton of trouble understanding native speakers even when they were talking about the simplest things. (Shout out to Voice of Russia, the station that helped make my Russian learning possible.)

This leads me to my next point: if you’ve tried active listening and haven’t had much success with it, the problem could be that you haven’t had enough exposure with passive listening. I didn’t start doing anything remotely related to active listening until I had done about a year and a half of passive listening. That’s a year and a half of listening to Russian people talk and talk on the radio for hours nearly every day. After enough of that exposure, everything clicked in my brain and I could understand spoken Russian.

Now, passive listening is not a panacea for language learning problems. It’s not the only thing you should be doing. You still need to study vocabulary, study grammar, study pronunciation, and speak the language out loud to real people. Passive listening is just one thing you should do on your way to fluency.

I still engage in passive listening. I bring my headphones to work every day and listen to Kommersant FM or Ekho Moskvy or, if I’m feeling adventurous, Golos Stolitsy (the third option is a radio station based in Kiev, Ukraine that broadcasts in both Ukrainian and Russian). As I said, it’s not the only thing I do related to Russian—but it’s an integral part of my routine.

Igor Strelkov And I Have The Same Taste In Music

Or, how I’m employing a new strategy in my language learning to help improve in Russian

Remember Igor Strelkov, the GRU/FSB/Russian military spy dude who was heavily involved with the pro-Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine? I blogged about him once back in August. And I have reason to blog about him again because I just watched this short video of him answering random questions people have asked.

The video is in Russian and is pretty easy to understand. (So if you’re learning Russian and looking for native material, this is a pretty good choice because the vocabulary isn’t too terribly difficult.) At the 1:00 mark, he begins to answer the music question. After saying that he often likes silence or the sound birds make in a forest, he says he likes Vivaldi “and other classical music.” He also likes some Russian songs, too.

So, yeah. I’m not sure what it says about me that I have similar musical tastes to a 44-year-old ex-FSB colonel who lives in Russia, but there you go.* I’m patting myself on the back over here for having understood a good ninety-nine percent of that video. I’m good at listening comprehension in Russian, but I want to get better, which is why I have started doing what I call active listening. Active listening differs from passive listening, which I have done a lot of, in that I re-listen to things if I miss them, jot down new words and phrases in my language notebook (you do have one of those, right?), and think in the foreign language about what I’ve heard.

For example, while watching this video, I may have written down words like:

  • Ещё раз здравствуйте – Hello again
  • близкие – literally means “close ones,” usually used to mean family and relatives

I actually knew those before watching, but those are the only examples that came to mind. 🙂

I’ve watched the video once now. I’ll probably watch it again to make sure everything is cemented in my brain. An important thing to note for active listening is the length of the recording or video. You’ll notice this video is only fourteen minutes long. I think that’s a good length. I certainly wouldn’t go any longer than this. Shorter is generally better because you can focus on small details without going crazy. If I were to scrutinize a thirty-minute video in-depth, I’d probably get tired before finishing, get frustrated, and not learn as much. So, shorter is better—but only to a certain point. I don’t usually use this method with anything shorter than a few minutes because in something very short, there isn’t enough detail (usually).

*Note: It probably means I’m an anachronism who was born in the wrong century. Never fear, I feel like every historian experiences this feeling at least once in his or her life.

I Finished Another Russian Book

The book I just finished
The book I just finished

I finished another book in Russian. I haven’t read all that many books in Russian, so this is an accomplishment. The book is called Катынское дело: проверка на русофобию [The Katyn Affair: A Check For Russophobia] by Viktor Ilyukhin, a former prosecutor and Communist Party deputy until his death in 2011. The book was interesting because it’s the first nonfiction, history-related book I’ve read in Russian. If you look at my Russian Log, you’ll see that I’ve mainly read novels so far.

And it’s on to more novel reading now. Remember when I wrote about those science fiction novels about a conflict between Russia and Ukraine? Well, I’m finally reading one of those. I’m starting with Fyodor Berezin’s Война 2010: Украинский фронт [War 2010: The Ukrainian Front]. I started reading it on my Kindle last night and so far, I really like it. It’s already giving me some ideas for my own fiction (as if I need any more ideas!).

Language Lust

It’s happening again, everyone. Language lust. I really, really want to study a Romance language. Why? Because knowing a Romance language will round out my Indo-European language knowledge so beautifully. Think of this: I already speak a Germanic language (you’re reading my blog in this language right now), I’m at a pretty decent level in a Slavic one (in fact, Russian is the most widely spoken Slavic language, which makes me feel like I got more bang for my buck, so to speak), so what major branch am I missing? Romance, of course. Yes, I know there are other branches in this language family, but the Germanic, Romance, and Slavic branches contain some of the most widely spoken languages in the world. In fact, of the top ten languages by number of native speakers, four of them come from those three branches I listed (and six of them are Indo-European).

Spanish, here I come? 🇪🇸