My week in Russian: 12- 18 Feb

I’ve been remiss recording my efforts so I will do a weekly round up from now on. In the style of Jessie from the Fast Show this week I have been mostly…

  • getting into a panic about the Basic Exam I plan to take mid-April. On the plus side, I am hoping my son will finally take his next level at the same time – therefore helping me conquer my fears of facing bureaucracy in an unknown place (SPBU) in a foreign language by accompanying me…
  • practising the Imperative. That’s the second person, the first person plural and the third person. My teacher told me about the song Пусть всегда будет солнце ,the whole refrain of which is third person imperative.
  • memorising another song. After grappling delightedly with aluminium cucumbers and three Chuchki wise men (Алюминиевые огурцы) I made a complete change and learned Ещё не вечер, a laid back song popular with the cabaret act at one of the restaurants we frequent in SP (I’ll reference it when I remember its name!)
  • getting depressed about not yet mastering cursive. I’m sure I read somewhere you don’t need it for the Basic Level A2 exam – but I need to find that information again…
  • continuing to work my way through the very thorough Motion verbs courses on the Tips4Russian site. I am doing Motion verbs 1 and 2 at the same time. Motion verbs 1 is fine as I am reasonably confident with them, so this course gives me a bit of a boost to continue with the Motion verbs 2 course which goes into such detail… my goodness, there are so many uses!! When I do eventually finish the second course , I am going to go right back to the beginning again and start all over again – maybe even a third time. ( I hope I am right in assuming I don’t need to be a 100% expert on all uses of all motion verbs for my exam)
  • Did I mention I was getting into a panic about an exam?

Moodle and Russian .. two worlds colliding

Not colliding really, more seamlessly blending together…

We’ve just finished the latest run of the Learn Moodle MOOC and as usual thousands of participants from around the world joined in, in their quest for a certificate of completion proving they know the basics of teaching with Moodle.

As usual with these MOOCs I am keen to engage with non-native English speakers, French, German  – and more recently Russian. Amongst the Russian speaking contingent was a large group from ITMO university in St Petersburg who all signed up to investigate the use of Moodle for teaching English for Specific purposes. At the end of the course, I was asked if I’d like to attend their ESP conference in April and talk about Moodle…

Perfect timing, since it fits in with  the plans for the Big Adventure. I’m all booked up now for three weeks in St Petersburg in April. I’ll be attending the ITMO during the first week, working as normal, studying and absorbing Russian during the second week and taking the Basic Level exam (registration permitting) during the third week. I’ve told the cat I am not coming home until I can speak fluent Russian – although since my return flight is booked for 24 April, I might have to qualify that statement somewhat..

Deep breaths: I’m looking forward to the conference and I am grateful that my Moodle job allows me to work from anywhere in the world. However, I do catch myself every now and then thinking “What on earth have I let myself in for?” Three weeks on my own in a country whose language I only started learning last year, where many of the locals struggle with English… the vanity  of taking an exam that I don’t need to do, won’t get any professional benefit from  and will stress about for another two months..

Me in April….

And then I remember… oh yes! I LOVE languages 🙂

Learning vocabulary with index-cards

As I persevere in my quest to master Russian (or at least get a tiny bit more comfortable with it) I’ve realised that I have been spending so much time on the grammar that I have somewhat neglected the basics of actual vocabulary learning. I can sometimes start to express myself, using a complex grammar structure and then get half way through the sentence and realise that, although I might know how to say it, I don’t actually know what to say, since I don’t have the words 🙂

I’ve been trying to remember how I memorised vocabulary when learning languages at school. We were given little blue vocabulary books and were tested on them. I only recall this in the early years though – in later years , the words just seemed to ‘stick’ the first time I encountered them. I’m still in the initial stages of learning a language though, and that’s not going to happen for some time yet.  I tried writing down new words from each lesson, doing the ‘look/say/cover/say/check’ method, but it gets tedious at times. I started a little notebook with the aim of adding new vocabulary in alphabetical order but that wasn’t successful. You just don’t learn languages in alphabetical order. I will sometimes learn lists of words on a topic -the current one is parts of the body and illnesses. That has more meaning, but what I am missing is the useful phrases that occur at random in conversations and texts – the ones you might not necessarily be given to memorise in lessons.

In my Masters course this semester we are looking at gamification. There are plenty of language learning apps out there that use gamification methods – Quizlet and Duolingo for example. I didn’t want to spend even more time practising vocabulary online, and it doesn’t help improve my handwriting either. They did inspire me to pick up an old method I have seen suggested by others: index cards. They work like online flash cards – only you have to write the words yourself 🙂 Of course you can computer generate fancy, colour coded index-cards,  but I need a simple solution that involves a pen…

I’ve got a bundle and each time I encounter a word or phrase I want to learn, I put the Russian on one side ad the English on the other side. Then every now and then I can test myself simply by flipping through the book looking only at one language and trying to retrieve the other language. This has the advantages of (a) being a quick, easy way to note down new vocab as I go along learning Russian and (b) not mattering what topic or letter of the alphabet it is and (c) adding a modicum of gamification to the learning. (For me, I think (a) is the most convincing reason! There’s also a (d) – the little book of index cards is handy to carry around and if I make a mistake, I can rip one out without spoiling the rest of a page.

Onwards, upwards (and other directions too) with Russian motion verbs

In the midst of facilitating our twice-yearly Learn Moodle Basics MOOC, I am persevering in my quest to prepare for the Basic Level TORFL exam. I’ve decided the dates; I just need to book the flight.

One aspect of learning Russian that is commonly accepted as difficult is Motion verbs. I already explored the basics of these a while ago via a book from Red Kalinka but I need to practise more and extend my understanding. So I was pleased to see courses on motion verbs on the Tips4Russian site, managed by Dr Curtis Ford, my YouTube hero and producer of the superb Russian grammar channel. I did the little test to gauge my prior knowledge (good) and signed up for Motion Verbs II. I’m working my way through the course now – not to mention along, forward, back, up and down… so here’s a personal review. (And no, I don’t know Dr Ford; I paid for the course myself and nobody asked me to review it. That applies to everything I review on this blog too.)

The course is interesting to me not only from a learning and teaching point of view (I’m learning a language as a language teacher myself) but also from the online teaching point of view: Tips4Russian seems to be a WordPress site with a simple learning platform plugin, learndash, allowing you to include video and quizzes. It is basic but has a clean look and is effective. In doing so much more, Moodle also has so much more complexity. Learndash looks a neat entry-level LMS, which displays nicely on a mobile as this screenshot shows:

Mobile view of tips4russian

I have to say though, I prefer to do all my learning on a computer or laptop!

So the course works in a very straightforward way: you watch some of the good doctor’s excellent videos (some from YouTube but many, as I understand it, new for this site) and you are then tested on your understanding.

One thing I appreciate about watching the videos is the little “comprehension check” feature you see every now and then, basically to check you’ve been paying attention 🙂

Comprehension check

Every now and then on the forums we get people asking how they can make sure students have watched their videos all the way through (and not just put them on, gone out for coffee and returned later.) The response is – you can’t – but you can include questions from certain key points, either during the video or afterwards, which they can only answer if they have absorbed the materials. The comprehension check does this, as do the mini-quizzes after the videos.

The mini-quizzes involve you actually having to type in the answer – retrieval practice!! That’s much harder than simple multiple choice, but of course it also helps you learn the structures better. I find I am having to repeat the questions sometimes, simply because I missed out a soft sign (Ь) but I absolutely should be made to repeat  them! With Moodle quizzes, you can set them up so that subsequent attempts retain your correct responses, so you only need to repeat the incorrect ones. However, as I discovered when doing the Russian quizzes from Red Kalinka’s virtual (Moodle) campus, it might be a drag having to repeat every single question, just because of a single missing soft sign, but it certainly makes you use your brain. So it is with these practice quizzes. I do like the fact there are only 7 or 8 questions though – not 10 or 20 🙂

Practice quiz

Another aspect of the course is the audio reviews. Here you are told (in English) to say certain phrases, a pause is left for you to do so and then the correct answer is repeated in Russian by a  native speaker. Nothing fancy, no gimmicks – just plain, accurate translation. Love it.  I chanced upon this blog post: Top 3 worst tips for learning Russian, courtesy of a tweet from tips4russian, and it reminded me about all this hype about learning a language like a child, only speaking the language, immersing yourself in the language… sorry but no.  Understand the structures, translate from your own language, practise and memorise – and then you’ll learn.

audio review

And again, although we don’t have a live teacher, we are made to generate the language, this time by saying instead of writing. It’s that retrieval thing I blogged about last year – very effective.

I like the tagline on the tips4russian site. It says “for people who really want to learn the language”. The “really” says it all. Well, I really want to master Russian. So I am off now to move forward with more motion verbs 🙂

Мы играем в монополию – Russian Monopoly

No – this isn’t some in-depth commentary about Russian political schemings – it’s that other Monopoly -the game – which my son bought me for Christmas.

Russian monopoly
Russian Monopoly

It’s a good way of practising a foreign language with something you are already familiar. It’s particularly useful with counting and dealing with money. For someone whose geography of Russia extends only to St Petersburg and Vladivostok (the latter purely because I saw it on the map whilst flying to Japan once) the game is also a handy intro to Russian cities. I’ve also picked up quite a few helpful phrases – although I’m not so sure how often I might need to “get out of jail free”, but if I do, I’ll know what to say!  Maybe I will come second in another beauty contest- I certainly understood that one!

Cards monopoly

Do we really need dictionaries?

Harrap's French English dictionary

I was pondering this the other day as I did my Russian homework. As a student studying French I pored over my four volume Harrap’s Standard French and English dictionary and when I began studying Russian “in anger” (that’s a phrase I picked up from the Moodle developers I hang out with) I bought the big Oxford Russian dictionary.

But I hardly ever use it. Why not?

First, because it is so much easier to check things using Google Translate on my phone. And before everyone screams in horror: I never take its pronouncements as Gospel. If I need to know a short phrase or correct declension/conjugation, I will often speak into my phone, look at what Google Translate offers and then reverse the process by saying the Russian to discover the resultant English translation.  Then if I am still not convinced, I will look at some of the alternative translations on offer, and most useful of all, I will type the phrase into a site such as Reverso which offers real life contextual examples. This final benefit is, I think, the main reason I have moved away from using dictionaries. While it is easy to find single words or verbs with a quick check online, that’s not helpful in isolation. We need to see the words in situations to be sure we’re using them appropriately. Good dictionaries offer examples, but they can’t compete with the internet. Sometimes if I am still uncertain about a phrase, having run it through Google Translate, reverso and the WWW in general, I’ll revert to my dictionary, but interestingly the last time I did that and went with the advice of the dictionary, I ended up with a not-quite-right sentence. The internet had been right after all.

And dictionaries – the paper kind – can’t pronounce words for you. Well they can highlight the stress and offer a phonetic transcript, but much better to hear real people pronouncing the words online. ( I confess I am slightly sceptical of Google Translate’s rather robotic readers, but they’ll do for me for the time being.)

In terms of verbs, at the level I am at so far, my 501 Russian verbs book serves me much better than a dictionary  because not only does it give me all the conjugations with some useful related expressions, but you can find words more quickly because you don’t have to sift through nouns, adjectives and other extraneous words!!

I see that in a couple of the exams I plan to be taking next year, you are allowed to use a dictionary. I  presume that will be a paper dictionary, avoiding the distractions and potential misdoings of an online equivalent. I will need to practise a bit with this  “old-fashioned” dictionary because one downside of using the internet for word-searching is that you don’t have to memorise the order of the letters in the alphabet! I used to be lightning fast finding words in dictionaries (Ok my known languages had alphabets almost the same as the English one) but on the rare occasions now I use my Oxford Russian dictionary, it takes me a while to remember whether to look near the start of the alphabet, the middle or the end. And how many times have I done a fruitless search for a word under в only to realise it is actually under б?

I am not at the stage yet in Russian where I would ask on the (rather scary) forums, as I have done when preparing presentations or training sessions in French or German, but if when that day does come, that will be yet another reason to forego the dictionary.

Perhaps if we’re somewhere with no internet access, when my phone and laptop batteries are dead, perhaps then I’ll need my dictionary? Apart from that.. well.. I’m not convinced..

Creeping quietly across the Threshold…

I haven’t blogged for over a month now. It’s because I have simply been getting on with the job of learning Russian,  working with Lilya on Monday, with the UCLAN group on Tuesday and now – just started last week – with an optional conversation class on Friday, also at ULCAN, this year with Vlad, from Ukraine.

I recall in previous posts I have bemoaned my (self-perceived) lack of progress, my (self-perceived) ongoing lack of fluency after ONE WHOLE YEAR of Russian studies 🙂 Yes, I know….

But then one afternoon I was composing my weekly homework ( including this time, an essay on the life of Viktor Tsoi) when I sat back, considered my paragraphs so far and realised I was, without thinking about it, using perfectives and imperfectives without a struggle, applying case endings without needing to look them up, relating anecdotes without having first to check everything on Google Translate… and it dawned on me I’d crept, quietly, across a threshold, or, paraphrasing Myer and Land, I’d gone through a Portal from which there is no return. I can’t unlearn this now. How could I have struggled so much with Perfective v Imperfective? How could I have not known genitive plurals? Since when could I  hold a conversation, in Russian, for almost an hour, as I did with Vlad last Friday? And he replies at normal speed with normal Russian – and I got what he said?   As Didau puts it:

.. For most of us, this dramatic shift goes unnoticed and unremarked; it just happens. But it transforms us..From then on we are incapable of experiencing […] without this knowledge….once we’ve passed through this particularly elusive, troublesome threshold, it all seems so obvious and changes us so utterly that we find it hard  to recognise a time before we knew how to [do this]

What does this mean for me? I no longer think I am not learning fast enough. My brain – my memory – has opened itself up so that words are becoming much easier to assimilate. Of course I still forget; of course I still make mistakes; of course I still have a lot of learning to do. But I can’t unlearn Russian now -the only way is Forward. Вперёд!

By way of a celebration here’s a song by my new hero, the legendary Viktor Tsoi:

Didau, D. (2015). What if everything you knew about education was wrong?. Crown House Publishing.

Meyer, J. and Land, R. (2003). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh.

Learning together vs Learning alone

This past week the Russian course at my local university started again. I’ve joined the Intermediate group along with a couple of students from last year’s beginners and some new students who have prior experience of learning Russian – a couple from Germany, interestingly.

I had a lovely time, I must confess – and not because I really learned anything new. The level is below that of my weekly private lessons but the benefits are more social and emotional: I get out of the house for a couple of hours (walking to the class in good weather is useful exercise) and it is nice to sit with others, know that the focus is not only on me but that others are required to put in an effort too and, occasionally, help my neighbours out by surreptitiously whispering answers. These classes serve as a welcome contrast to my private lessons by reminding me that I do actually know some Russian, rather than highlighting how much I still have to learn.

That said, if I am serious about making progress in Russian, my private lessons are 100% the Way to Go. I am very aware of how much more confident I have become in my speaking and understanding in the months since we finished the Beginners class in May and started the Intermediate course this week. All that by persevering with private lessons. Yes, I am on the spot for an hour and a half each Monday, yes I struggle to put sentences together and yes, I have to concentrate hard while my teacher  speaks nothing but Russian for 90 minutes -and yes -I  have literally hours of homework each week! It is a lonely and a hard life ( 🙂 ) but  ultimately it is paying off.

Participating in both classes makes a good balance for me and I look forward to another year of studies.

As for an exam? I am aiming to do the Basic Level (A2) in summer, probably in London. But don’t tell anyone as I reserve the right to back out 🙂

Up and Down in St Petersburg

I’m just back from my fifth trip in 12 months to St Petersburg. It was an Up and Down trip in more ways than one -because we took a ride in a helicopter 🙂


Flying in a helicopter above Saint Petersburg.

A post shared by Christian Cooch (@socialistdisco) on

And yes , it’s not cheap, but we got it at a much reduced price (2 for 1) thanks to my son’s Russian language negotiating skills. And that was the other Up and Down…

Up, for me, in that each time I go, I understand a bit more of what I hear. For example, I learned that our taxi driver was from Uzbekistan, that hed been in St Petersburg for 10 years, his children liked it here, all his family are here…. I also managed to have a mini conversation with the housekeeper of my apartment, telling her it was my favourite apartment, that I understood why she’d got out of breath climbing up the 4 flights of stairs – it was like doing sport! – that I had already been to the flat in June and that I hoped to see her again in a couple of months…

but the Down is simply, realising just how much I don’t know, just how much I don’t understand. Yet. On the first day we went into a shop to get me a local SIM card. I explained what I wanted, said it was because my UK SIM was too expensive here, but as soon as the Megafon guy started asking questions I had to rely on my son to interpret. (Although I did understand the question the guy asked  me in English “Do you want Big Internet or Small Internet“? 🙂 Big, every time!)

I had a two hour lesson with my wonderful teacher Lilya. We’ve been looking at motion verbs with prefixes  – до, по, при, вы,во, у… and although I am slowly getting there, it does seem much more a struggle than my other languages were. Yes, Russian is harder, but I am suffering from my own excessively high expectations. Once again, I wish I could just chill out a bit. I’ve come a long way in a year – but it’s still not far enough…

Learning Russian cursive – arrrghhh!

For one year now I have been handwriting Russian in its simplest, printed form. At first, I was glad merely to have mastered the alphabet. Now I can hand write Russian (much faster than I can type on a Russian keyboard) but every time I diligently do my homework I feel as if I am a five year old child, laboriously pushing her pen into the paper, pen held in her fist, tongue between her teeth, and each letter looking different every time she writes it. That’s me! But if I am to take any of the higher level TORFL /TRKI Russian language exams, I really need to learn cursive (joined up!) writing. It is, however still much of a mystery to me. b looks like d,d looks like g, t looks like m – and m looks like m as well, which doesn’t help matters. But I need to Feel the Fear and write it anyway.

Our lovely language assistant from UCLAN last year (and next week I’m signing up to another year) gave us a children’s handwriting book which is great – and actually quite relaxing. I haven’t worked much in it though yet.


I also found a couple of helpful videos on Youtube where we simply watch the letters being written, upper and lower case. Here’s the first one of the two:

Unfortunately I realise that practising cursive writing is going to significantly increase the length of time I spend on my written homeworks (hours and hours already!) but – there’s nothing for it, if I want to master the skill.

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