It just is. But of course. I knew that. I used to spend hours, weeks, months (happily) shut in my room obsessively absorbing French. With this new Russian study, it’s been interesting to see if my ageing brain has lost some of its retentive powers – and the answer is – a bit – but not enough to put me off. The main thing is that I’d forgotten just how much work you have to do to memorise, understand and retrieve/reproduce a new language. I try to do an hour a day – although according to Dukette and Cornish (2009)*, adults can only focus for twenty minutes before needing a break. I try to vary how I learn: a quick fix of Duolingo which I can do anytime, some reading out loud practice from a RedKalinka book, vocab learning from our UCLAN Blackboard course, another page of Talk Russian and a personal treat (yes, I know what you’re thinking) of grammar from my Russian grammar book. This way, although I’m doing an hour, I’m actually only doing ten minutes or so of one particular learning tool.
The most successful way I have found to retain the knowledge is to write it down or speak it. The act of handwriting (longhand!) forces your brain to generate words. Speaking is the same to – it’s that retrieval aspect again – but not just conversation classes which we have every Friday with a lovely Latvian native Russian speaker called Anna – but memorising spoken passages, songs and poems. I’ve written about this before, and in our class we’re currently tasked with learning parts from a Chukovsky poem: телефн.
All this IS hard work though – especially when you have a full time job or are a full time student, as some of my classmates are in our UCLAN course. The course is an elective, so they’re studying other, sometimes unrelated subjects and come to Russian out of interest and for a different experience. With my language teacher hat on, I’d say, even though it’s an elective, it’s still vital to devote time to learning, if only fifteen minutes a day learning the vocab or verb endings. And by that I don’t mean simply reading through the class notes. Languages when learned as adults do not permeate our brains through osmosis – we really have to make the effort.
The first hurdle to conquer is the Russian alphabet. It’s achievable, if you take the letters a few at a time. Verb endings, along with genders of nouns, shouldn’t be too difficult if you have any kind of memory of a language learned at school because at least you will have been introduced to the idea that in other languages, the endings of verbs change depending on who is doing the stuff and inanimate words can be masculine, feminine or neuter. (That’s NEUTER, not neutral, OK?) Possibly the hardest thing to master in Russian will be the concept of ‘case’, if you’ve never come across this before. Here, I’m unashamedly at an advantage, having studied both Latin and German, and so, if my grammar book tells me B takes the accusative case when it means ‘into or to’ and the prepositional case when it means ‘in or at’, I won’t bat an eyelid. Here is where the balance between me and my young student classmates evens out. Their brains are younger and more retentive than mine; my brain is already wired up for varying word order made intelligible by inflected words.
But, together, we’ll get there!
*Cornish, D. and Dukette, D. (2009). The essential twenty. 1st ed. Pittsburgh, Pa.: RoseDog Books.