I don't speak Russian. I actually mean that this time. Aside from "yes," "no," "please," and "thank you", I know maybe half a dozen words, all of them food. I have some minimal knowledge of how the grammar works, and a decent enough idea about the names to twitch when TV gets it wrong. I do know the Cyrillic alphabet well enough to read things aloud. Russian spelling is roughly phonetic, although not quite one-to-one; if you see it in print, you can take a pretty good stab at the pronunciation, but there are sometimes ambiguities in how you can spell something you've only heard. It doesn't help that Russia traditionally celebrates bloody regime changes by fucking with the orthography.

Despite this, I'm persistently mistaken for a russophone. When it happened in Arizona, I just chalked it up to general ignorance, but then I moved to Boston and got the same thing from several native speakers of Russian. Inquiries get the answer that I'm apparently just very good at imitating the accent. Growing up in a Spanish-speaking area, I've never had any problems with trilled Rs, nor with the truly creative array of fricatives that the Slavic family has developed, and I can clearly hear the difference between hard and soft consonants -- although I did have to look that up to see whether it was considered a phenomenon attached to the consonant or the vowel in Russian. Palatalization happens also in a few select cases in Japanese, where キア [kia] and キヤ [kiya] are both distinct from the compound character キャ [kya].

I've been meaning to pick up Russian for a while now, but without some particular subject in which to base my vocabulary, it hasn't really latched on very well. Few if any random word lists are interesting enough to stick without me having something I want to read with them -- this is why my vocabulary is so scattershot and bizarre in my non-fluent languages, if any of you wondered. Language texts tend to start with basic food, which is, frankly, not the most scintillating topic of conversation ever invented. I already read well enough to know which menu items say 'vatrushka' and 'syrniki', thank you. (Helpful hint: Pretty much everything made with tvorog is good. It's like mascarpone, except it's coagulated with the native lactic acid in sour milk instead of citric acid from juice. Add a double handful of sugar and maybe some fruit, and it turns into something between the filling in a cheese danish and very dense tiramisú topping. Russian chefs do not believe in lowfat or low-calorie anything.) I could try working with dance, but I don't think that's quite enough; the Russians do have a long and illustrious history of ballet dancers and choreographers, but mainly how they did that was stealing the art from the French and then whacking at it with great Russian stubbornness until it became even better. As in English, a lot of the dance vocabulary is borrowed French.

I don't have a lot of audio material in Russian, unfortunately. I do have some... I was going to say music, but it's a bunch of t.A.T.u. that Moggie 'borrowed' ("This would go faster if you would just give me your hard drive for a couple of hours.") from a college roommate, and whatever Russia has submitted to the past few years of Eurovision, so that point's probably debatable.

(Russia's 2013 entry was in English -- "What If", by Dina Garipova. She did not win. I don't half wonder if it had something to do with Eurovision being very big in a lot of former Soviet bloc nations where they might be a bit nervous of cheerful Russians singing things like "What if I had the power to decide? / What if I could make us unified?" They did that once, and it wasn't very fun.)

Boston Public Library, of course, has Russian language lessons on CD. BPL has one of nearly everything. I am delighted to find that they have a lot of the Pimsleur CD sets, several of which I fed to the computer the last time I was avoiding people in Copley Square for a few hours. Most language teaching methods, particularly the audio-only ones, have an irritating tendency to assume that I am three. Not only that I am three, but that I am a normal three-year-old, as opposed to the kind of precociously brainy three-year-old I actually was. They want you to repeat things by rote, assume that you will respond to new words by going 'waaaahhh! I can't remember all this!' instead of 'yes, but how do you say this other similar thing...?', and proceed in general as if you had the brains of a Silly Putty egg and couldn't possibly conceive of saying anything in your new language beyond what they have printed in the word list. I can only tell people what country I'm from and ask when the next train leaves so many times before I get the urge to throw the book at the wall.

The Pimsleur method, in contrast, presumes you have some kind of ongoing neural activity. It gives you a bunch of words, some structure, and then challenges you to snap the two together into something that makes sense. It encourages you to skip the parrot stage -- which is soul-crushingly boring for me -- and go straight to creative, generative language use. That's the part where I actually learn and retain stuff, mainly because that's the part where I can fold, spindle, and mutilate language rules until it starts to entertain me.

Pimsleur is also rare, if not unique, in that it specifically uses native speakers of the target language for both the target language and the English explanations. I wish more programs did this. I've spent much more of my life translating things from English-with-a-heavy-Japanese-accent than I have translating anything from Japanese. Americans are particularly lousy at dealing with any accent other than their own, even if the accent in question is overlaid on perfectly fluent English. God help us if we're exposed to a legitimate English dialect that involves idioms we don't know. You have no idea how many Indian support techs have been hung up on over things like 'thrice' and 'do the needful'.

I also, out of sheer curiosity, copied off the Pimsleur set of ESL for Russian speakers. I don't know how well it will work cold -- I may need a certain minimum amount of basic Russian before I can pick apart the explanations -- but as they do seem to have a native speaker of Standard American English for the English bits, I assume they follow pattern and have the same SAE speaker do the Russian instruction. The contrast between an American speaking excellent Russian and an actual Russian speaking excellent Russian should be enlightening. The Russian instructor on the English-based set does have an identifiable accent when doing the English instruction.


  1. Ooh, this is relevant to my interests! I've wanted to learn Spanish for quite a while, and Pimsleur sounds like just what I need. I did try evening classes, at a respected language school - but the learning level was aimed at people who wanted a little tourist Spanish to get by on their summer holidays. Having at that point studied French to UG degree level, and done a super-intensive course in Italian that went from no-previous-knowledge to fluent-and-reading-literature-in-Italian in one year flat, it was *painful*. I'd be all, "reflexive verbs, oh look, typical Romance structure, almost identical to Italian, yep, got that" in ten minutes flat, and it would take the rest of the class 2x90 minute classes to catch up; I spent as much time tutoring classmates as the teacher did, and skipped every other class from sheer boredom. ...Wow, that's expensive. Wonder if I can get it from the British Library... *plots*

    1. I'm apparently also just wired for this. During my second German class ever, a classmate asked me how long I'd lived in Germany. I've never been to Europe, and never spoken anything but English at home. (At least not to other people. I tend to mutter to myself in... whatever language seems appropriate at the time.) It's not that I never need any practice in pronunciation, it's that no one part of language makes any sense without all the others. I occasionally do psych experiments at Harvard and MIT for petty cash, and I get some very funny looks from the linguists, because 1) I still codebreak languages exactly according to their model of childhood first language acquisition, which is not supposed to happen in adults, and 2) I know so many languages and so much of my native language, I confound a lot of experiments that are supposed to involve coming up with "non-words" -- almost any utterance sounds kind of like a word in something to me.

      Also, if for some reason you wind up getting Pimsleur lesson CDs from the US distributor, make sure you get European Spanish. New World Spanish as taught in texts is usually a genericized version of Mexican Spanish, which lacks an entire pronoun (it misses the vosótros of European Spanish and the corresponding vos from Argentina), and while a lot of New World accents lisp, none of them lisp the same way as Castilian does (Mexican Spanish lisps on T/D; Honduran and Puerto Rican Spanish confound medial R/L; Castilian lisps on C/Z/S and distinguishes R/L clearly).

    2. Yeah, I always pick up the right pronunciation super-fast, too - faster than the grammar and vocab, actually. In general, I think language learners would be so much better at pronunciation if language teachers bothered to explain that different languages require different ways of moving the mouth and lips, and the mechanics of that; it really doesn't seem to be something that most people grok unaided. I had great fun last week helping a Chinese student with his English pronunciation, "You have to put your tongue between your teeth to make the L sound, yes, really, no, it isn't rude here if people can see the tip of your tongue when you're talking, NO HONESTLY... there, see, you made the right sound!"

      And yeah, I was gonna go for Pimsleur's Castilian Spanish. Being in Europe, it's likely to be the most useful to me (my parents have a mobile holiday home in France, about 30 miles from the Spanish border, yay Catalunya!). When I watch Mexican films, the pronunciation differences are very obvious; I hadn't actually noticed the absence of vosotros, I'm generally busy picking out the bits I do recognize and comparing them to the subtitles for accuracy...


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