I was grateful to give a talk on how to learn Russian with effective techniques at Oxford University Russian Society a few weeks ago. Hope you enjoy it! Also, feel free to subscribe here and I will notify you when my new ebook ‘Learn Russian the smart way’ is free to download on Amazon.
There is no language learning without actual communication with a native speaker. This is the ultimate goal of your learning: to be able to speak the language. However, this doesn’t mean that you have to wait until you speak perfectly. Start practising from day one!
Italki is an online language learning service where you can find teachers or native speakers and enjoy real language practise at a very low cost as opposed to traditional private lessons. You can search by teacher location, session price, availability etc. You can also see the teacher’s rating and testimonials from other students. Russian learners can choose between a wide range of tutors as Russian is spoken in a few countries like Ukraine, Latvia, Belarus etc. After you create an account, you top it up with credit-points. Each time you book a session, depending on the session’s price, the relevant points are deducted from your account. You can then connect with your teacher on Skype and begin your private lesson.
In Russian, nouns are assigned a gender; they can be masculine, feminine or neutral. It is very important to know the gender of the noun as it determines how the cases of the noun are formed. The rules are the following:
- Words like ‘father’, ‘mother’, ‘uncle’ etc. relate to physical gender. Hence, ‘father’ (папа) and ‘uncle’ (дядя) are masculine whereas ‘mother’ (мама) is feminine.
- If the last letter of the word is a consonant, or ‘й’, the word is masculine.
- If the last letter of the word is ‘а’ or ‘я’, the word is feminine.
- If the last letter of the word is ‘о’ or ‘е’, the word is neuter.
- If the last letter of the word is a soft sign ‘ь’, then the word could be either masculine or feminine.
From the above rules, you can see that the only tricky words are the ones ending in a soft sign -ь. How can we easily remember the gender of those nouns?
Learning through films is a 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 100Hz and go up to 12000Hz. If you want to reproduce all those unfamiliar sounds correctly, you need to listen a lot to the language and train your ear. Films are great in this respect as they will introduce you to tons of real life dialogues. With regard to emotions, research in neuroscience has shown that information that is tagged with strong emotional value is more easily recalled from 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 the Russian people.
But how can we watch a film in a ‘learning mode’? The setup that has worked in my case is three windows opened on the screen: actual film with English subtitles, transcript in Russian and a Google Translate window like below:
The single most important element that someone needs to learn good Russian, or any language, is love. Do you get filled with joy when you listen to Russian? Do you want to listen to more Russian even if you don’t understand a single word? Do you admire someone that speaks Russian? Do you listen to a Russian song and start dreaming? If your answer is yes to the previous questions, you will certainly learn good Russian very quickly.
There are different reasons one can fall in love with the Russian language. For example, there are people who wish to read Dostoyevsky in the original. Others are attracted to Russia’s history and influence in world politics. In my case, I was fascinated when I first saw the Cyrillic alphabet and its unusual typewritten letters. Then, a Red Army Choir CD fell on my hands and introduced me to beautiful classics like ‘Moscow nights’ and ‘Katyusha’. As a mathematician, I came across the works and life of Andrey Kolmogorov and other renowned Russian mathematicians.
For each one of us the starting point and way of immersion are different. Different starting points can help people achieve the same end, i.e. to speak good Russian. It is very important that you find your own love for the language. That will increase your motivation and help you overcome any obstacles of the learning process.
A couple of months ago, I came across this BBC Business Daily Podcast. I quite often listen to podcasts but this one really struck me. The guests are trying to answer whether more money makes us happier, more motivated and more productive. The findings are astonishing and totally counter-intuitive.
Economist Carol Graham from Brookings Institution says that income correlates with how people evaluate their lives as a whole. I make more money; thus, I am more successful. However, when we measure daily quality of life, this correlation vanishes. More income does not necessarily mean that you smile more often, you enjoy your friends more, or you are less worried. Very poor people may experience stress as their daily existence can be a struggle. However, once certain basic needs are met (food, home, etc.), the relationship income/wellbeing becomes very weak. Carol says that people who do not have many choices and feel that they cannot substantially change their lives tend to focus more on the daily experience of wellbeing: ‘I have my friends, my family, enough to eat — I am OK!’ She also says: ‘The happiest people care least about money and a lot about learning and creativity. Least happy people care mostly about money, but even if they earn more money, that will not make them happier.’
Psychologist Dan Ariely from Duke University ran an experiment to determine whether money incentives make us more productive. He told three groups that if they did certain tasks well, they would get a bonus of 1-day, 1-week or 5-month wages respectively. It turned out that as the reward increased the performance went down. People of course cared about the money, but the high incentive increased their stress which then damaged their productivity.
Psychologist Dacher Keltner from the University of California in Berkeley finds that poor people are better judges of human emotion. He ran an experiment showing an image of a starving child to people from different social classes. It was shown that lower class people had a stronger ‘vagus nerve’ reaction which is associated with empathy and compassion. He explains that people who live in an environment where everything is scarce around them tend to connect and empathise more with others.
The science has spoken to confirm what you already knew: money will not make you happy.
My name is Angelos. Five years ago, I left my country Greece that was struggling with unemployment, to start my professional career in London. I was twenty five and had a burning desire to succeed. The definition of success is different for each one of us and usually changes as we grow older. For me, when I arrived to London, success was to work in investment banking and make lots of money. However, I didn’t have any finance background or working experience and I knew my goal would not be that easy, especially at the onset of a global financial crisis.
Within a month, I got my first job and became a Christmas tree seller! After the Christmas season, I was doing different things to make a living; I was teaching maths, setting up the Wifi in coffee shops and working as a musician in Greek venues. At that point, my financial situation was still tight and I had to keep costs to a minimum; I was living in a tiny single room, chasing the ‘2 for 1’ Tesco deals and commuting on my bike. It was not an easy year, but certainly a colourful one. I smelled so many Christmas trees, saw kids become confident with maths, enjoyed free carrot cake in coffee shops across the city and taught English people the basic steps of ‘Sirtaki!’ In the meantime, I was loyal to my goal of getting into finance. I was studying the mechanics of the financial products until late night and schmoozing every banker I was meeting. I even bought my first full suit!
After loads of unsuccessful interviews, I finally became a consultant in an investment bank. My wages instantly quadrupled. I called my Mom back in Greece to say: ‘I made it!’ I was not a trader or any ‘top-dog’ but still the professional environment looked fabulous to my eyes. I started to learn interesting things, read the Financial Times every day, and work long hours. Initially, I was enjoying my job and particularly my ‘daily-rate’ which was constantly increasing. Soon, I gave up maths lessons, music and even my bike (it was uncomfortable to ride in a suit…) I started a part-time postgraduate course in maths but I had to freeze that too as I didn’t have time to study. Also, I couldn’t stay late any more at my friend’s on a weekday as I had to be fresh and productive the following day at work. I entered a life routine, a fully-programmed schedule. I could only enjoy my weekends and I always had that strange feeling that time was passing so quickly. Eventually, I realised I had to change my life. However, although I knew I needed an exit point, I was constantly pushing that point further down the line: ‘Let’s wait until Christmas, let’s wait until Easter, let’s wait for another month so I have some more savings in my bank account.’ People kept telling me: ‘You can work for another ten years, buy a couple of flats and then you are sorted!’ Others would even scream at me: ‘Are you crazy? Do you know how many people would die to have your job?’ But, I knew that was all nonsense! How can you compromise your life so you start living it ten years from now? Only you know what makes you happy and no one else can live your life for you.
Eventually, after more than three years in banking, I decided to quit. I am now back to maths tutoring and music performances. In the last few months, I passionately started learning Russian, something I always wanted to do. After immersing into the language and experimenting with different learning techniques, I am currently writing a book with tips and methods for learning Russian effectively. At the moment, I see every day my savings go down while I am trying to make a living with different activities. Am I scared? Yes, I am. Do I doubt sometimes whether I did the right thing? Yes, I do. At least, I feel I was honest to myself and stopped something that was not making me happy.
Why this blog? I want to connect with people who faced similar challenges like the ones above and decided to follow their interests and live a diversified life instead of a monotonous one dictated by the social norms. I want to read your stories and learn from you. I hope you will learn too from my experiences and mistakes. Do I have any secret recipes or a magic answer? No. I have just scratched the surface and the ice is thick.