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.

Across one threshold and facing another..

I’ve written before about those “aha!” moments, or Threshold concepts when the “penny drops” and suddenly you can do something/understand something and there’s no going back. I’ve been dutifully soldiering on with Russian for some months now, wishing a few pennies (or kopek) would drop and, oh Joy, last week the realisation that I was no longer looking up adjective and noun declensions in my book but could remember them from the table in my head sent a shiver down my spine. I was empowered! I can do it! I can string sentences together without having either to stop halfway and check the ending in my book or stop halfway and look cluelessly at my teacher in the hope she’ll give me the ending so I can continue my utterings. Russian suddenly became a language I might be able to converse in with, if not the same ease as French, at least the same relative ease as German. And I was much pleased!

It didn’t last. No sooner had I experienced the satisfaction of being able to remember case endings than my teacher gave me 23 pages of a chapter on perfective versus imperfective in the future and I realised I had crossed one threshold only to stall at another..

But that’s how language learning goes -and how threshold concepts go. I’ll get there.  однажды…


Russian numbers? Move your clothes onto the lower peg!

I’ve been learning about Russian numbers – I had to laugh out loud when I read back my notes:

  • If the number is 1 then use the nominative singular with  nouns.
  • If the number is 2, 3 or 4 then use the genitive singular except for 11, 12, 13 and 14 in which case you use the genitive plural
  • If the number is 5 or more (including 0) then use the genitive plural
  • If the number is 1 and you have an adjective with your number, use the nominative
  • If the numer is 2, 3 and 4 and your number is masculine or neuter, use the genitive plural for your adjective and the genitive singular for your nouns – except for 11 12, 13 and 14, in which case you use the genitive plural for the adjectives and the genitive plural for your nouns
  • If the number is 2, 3 and 4 and your number is feminine, use the adjective in the nominative plural and the noun in the genitive singular – except for 11, 12, 13 and 14, in which case you use the genitive plural for the adjectives and the genitive plural for the nouns.
  • If the number is 5 or more (including  0 ) you use the genitive plural for both the adjective and the noun. (HOORAY!!!!)

I was reminded of this Monty Python classic sketch about a schoolmaster giving instructions. Now, whenever I think of numbers in Russian, I’ll always think of moving my clothes onto the lower peg…..

Goodbye summer – TV serial language learning nostalgia

Yesterday I chanced upon a  14 short videos on Youtube called ДО СВИДАНИЯ ЛЕТО or “Goodbye summer”. They’re renderings of a TV series from a 1980 BBC series “Russian language and people”  Here is episode 10 which is based in St Petersburg, then Leningrad, and therefore close to my heart:

I watched the whole series yesterday  and learned quite a few helpful phrases. Although the rendering is quite poor, you still get a fascinating glimpse of Soviet Russia and 1980s life.  I remember those clothes! I also smiled when, about three minutes into the first episode they discussed smoking. It used to be a “thing” early on in textbooks and TV series from the 60s, 70s and early 80s that you would learn how to ask for cigarettes, ask for a lighter, ask if someone smoked.  There was some minor sexism in the programmes too – not specifically Russian;  it existed everywhere at that time. And of course, a love interest. Interestingly, in this Soviet story they didn’t all live happily ever after, because (as the narrator explained) that might be sad but that’s life..

I did enjoy following a storyline though, in simple Russian. It’s  a strategy that works well to motivate learners. A little bit each lesson – some new language, a new cliffhanger to keep you watching and learning.

When I taught French and German my students loved the  Extra! shows – based on the US TV sitcom” Friends”. Here is the archived (flash based) website for Extra French  and here is episode 1 of the French version as an example:

A couple of years ago when I wanted to brush up my Spanish , I enjoyed Mi Vida loca again by the BBC. The episodes are archived and here is  Mi Vida loca episode 1 This series incorporates a mystery, danger, excitement and reminds me of the 1968 TV series and books/records (yes I am that old!) I first learned Spanish with: Vamos a ver! That story involved bull fighting and extortion and taught  me at the tender age of 9 how to ask if someone smoked and if they had a lighter I could borrow..

Vamos a ver

On the Go with Motion verbs

I’ve just completed a great book of exercises explaining motion verbs in Russian and at last, with motion verbs at least, I feel I’ve crossed a threshold. I first learned about motion verbs in Russian last autumn, where I discovered that in slavic languages it’s important to make the difference, not only (as with German) between travelling on foot or by a vehicle but also between travelling one way or more than one way, between travelling now and regularly -and more! I’ve watched the excellent playlist on motion verbs on the Russian grammar channel and I chanced upon a practice book on Russian motion verbs by Red Kalinka. (And no, I am not paid by them!) The book outlines the conjugations and uses of verbs such as to walk, to run, to carry, to fly, to swim/sail – and gives exercises after each one. Of course, retrieval is important when learning a language but so is repetition, drilling – and these exercises drill thoroughly!  The exercises build on and build up your understanding as you go along. With each verb the exercises start with simple tasks for just that verb, then they mix up the tenses, then they mix up the verbs including previously practised ones.  By the final exercises in the book you are presented with questions on any of the verb pairs studies in any tense. I loved it! But more than that, I feel, after doing the 900+ questions they offer, that I am getting to grips with motion verbs and can put this into practice in my other studies. AND – of course, practising the root verbs might also mean I have a chance with the many prefixed verbs of motion that I will come across, too. Thanks RedKalinka for helping me through the motion verbs portal 🙂

‘Threshold Concepts’ may be considered to be “akin to passing through a portal” or “conceptual gateway”that opens up “previously inaccessible way[s] of thinking about something”
(Meyer and Land , 2003)MotionVerbs

Fillers – very important words in any language

Alongside the Russian grammar channel, another Youtube channel I have been regularly ‘tuning into’ (1) is Antonia Romaker’s Russian (and English) online. She recently posted one of the most useful videos I’ve come across: what to say when you don’t know what to say! Those “filler” words, which, although pretty meaningless, do allow native speakers to think for  a second before making their next statement.

So.. well.. basically.. anyone who is kind of serious about learning a language needs to be aware of fillers, for real 🙂

I used to share some with my GCSE French and German students, telling them to use some in the oral exams to add an authentic touch to their well prepared spontaneous conversations. I’m going to take my own advice now! I might be rather sparing though with my choice – some of these seem more suited to youth than near-pensioners such as myself…

1 2 3 4 5 6 8