Spelling Rules, Jacques, hot garlicky shrimps and the tsar

I love mnemonics! As a French teacher I’d introduce my classes each year to Mrs Vandertramp for revising verbs which take être in the perfect tense.

Since I began learning Russian I’ve been hearing often about the “Seven letter spelling rule “or the “five letter spelling rule” – or even, today the “eight letter spelling rule”. I’ve identified the letters but was hoping some kind soul had come up with some mnemonics to remember them. And indeed someone has! It’s a bit contrived, but then mnemonics often are. It’s fun anyway. Watch this video to get the story behind how “Crisp garlicky hot shrimp with fresh chips was chosen by Jacques for the tsar”…


Sleep on it: Retrieval versus Repetition.

In Dr Brett Andreatta’s book Wired to Grow, she outlines how it is the act of having to recall or retrieve something we learned, rather than repeating it, which helps us learn it. This has a bearing on language learning where you’d think writing out irregular plurals (as I have been doing) repeatedly would make them stick in your mind  – but no – it’s having to bring those plurals back out and into use that makes them stick. Retrieval doesn’t have to be via tests; it could be having to explain them to other people – or even to yourself (or blogging about what you’ve learned!) Conversation classes – which we’ve begun at UCLAN now – are a great example of retrieval in action.

She also says that research shows it’s best to have three retrieval sessions spaced with sleep. Sleep? Because ‘sleeping on it’ really does work – our day’s learning moves into long term memory during sleep.

Sleeping cat

Russian Grammar Heaven

I lovefrenchgrammar grammar. Of course I realise when learning a new language you need to communicate, practise speaking, gain confidence, absorb and retrieve phrases. But if you’re going to get to any reasonable level you do have to tackle grammar at some stage. Myself, I’ve always preferred to tackle it head on, from the start.  One of my most treasured books from my schooldays is the 1971 edition of Teach Yourself French Grammar (with a 45 pence price tag inside). I remember buying it and literally reading it from cover to cover  – in awe of its power. Then I read it again and again over subsequent months but the message shouted out to me on first encounter: master the grammar and you can master the language.

So I had high hopes of a similar experience when I ordered Teach Yourself Russian Grammar (You Really Need to Know) by Daphne West And I haven’t been disappointed! It’s much longer than its French counterpart, but in the few months since I began learning Russian I can see why. (If this is the length of the ‘Grammar you really need to know’ book, I wonder how long the ‘All the grammar that exists’ book is? 🙂 )

What I appreciate about the book is that everything is clearly explained with exercises for you to do at regular intervals. The exercises are short and although they are usually  of the matching, gap-fill or complete the endings types, I just did a crossword on irregular plurals – timely, as we did plurals in our Russian class yesterday.  I don’t think Russian plurals are any more challenging than German plurals really – and as for the irregular plurals – well – you just need to memorise them. End of.

russiangrammarAlthough it’s not essential to know why, for example, the word for sugar (сахар) changes when you have your coffee WITH sugar (c caxapom) or WITHOUT sugar (без сахара)   to me, it actually helps you retain the words if you understand the reasons behind the variations.

So I’m on page 26 of 274 (not including the answers to the exercises) Wish me luck 🙂

Learn Russian: Update on Duolingo and Red Kalinka

I blogged previously about my experiences with Duolingo and also about a book I’ve purchased from Red Kalinka. After another week of practice, here’s an update:

Out of the several tools and books I have to help me, I’m still finding Duolingo is the easiest one to motivate myself with, purely because of its bite-size chunks accessible from my phone. If my brain is too tired to tackle the text book or watch a Youtube video, it can still cope with a five minute quick fix from Duolingo -and often that five minutes extends -especially when I am told I have met my daily target, so the incentive is to beat my daily target.
bathroomI’m still enjoying the random phrases, but I’m getting more out of the app now since I began in earnest to read the comments against each sentence. (Not being one for reading instructions, I’d only actually discovered them last week.) I find if I have a query about why I got something wrong, the chances are others will have wondered the same, and it will be dealt with in the comments. Good! I guess my next stage is to add comments of my own when required.

Again I like the repetitive nature of the sentences and word groups. It makes it easier to memorise the many different endings if you keep hearing and having to type them in – even when you can’t quite remember which case that was.

One aspect I do miss, however, is the Speaking. I discovered this week that some languages do have that option, although unfortunately it appears that Russian doesn’t (yet) I wonder how good the speaking exercises are? I suppose I could sign up to the French one to find out, but I probably won’t. Anyway, I have the real deal with Svetlana every week at UCLAN 🙂

As for Red Kalinka, I’ve been working through the first couple of texts from their first reading book that I bought last week. I love the simplicity and clarity of the texts, and as I’ve been playing the sound as I read, I realise they are easy to memorise and I can usefully adapt them to myself and my own circumstances. The only thing I wish is that there were a space between each sentence to give me time to repeat , before the next sentence comes along, but I realise they are not really meant for that. I can just pause the sound though – and when I get a bit better, I can try reading along at the same time!

I hadn’t looked further at the Red Kalinki site until today when I discovered they too have an app, so I downloaded it just now to try.

They offredkalinkaer three new words a day: sounds like a good thing to add to my learning Russian box of tricks. I had to smile at my very first word from the app, though:
губы – lips

Nothing to do with the word itself,  but the fact that they’re obviously the lips of an attractive young woman, and in the short time I have been learning Russian and researching Russian teaching materials, I have come to the conclusion that all Russian language teachers are young, female, beautiful, and usually blonde! I plan to back up my conclusion with more research in a future post!
There’s also a weekly dialogue, good, but too much for me along with the stuff I’m using, and a link to their (paid for) online course, which of course is fine. My plan is to persevere with the three new words a day and see how I get on.

By the way – I think Red Kalinka is linked to Russian for free, another site I’ve been on recently.

Taking ages – counting in Russian

Until earlier this year, I thought numbers in French were hard – you know, four times twenty, a ten and a seven for 97, for example*. Then when I explored Japanese before going to Tokyo, I discovered that their numbers change according to the type of object – whether long and round or thin and flat. So it wasn’t too much of a shock to discover Russian numbers change too, although it was somewhat of a disappointment …

So… what do I need to know?

  1.  один (1) and два (2) change according to gender. That’s OK; I can do genders, even three of them, having learned German and Latin.
  2. Nouns that follow any numbers ending in 1 take the nominative singular. OK..
  3. Nouns that follow numbers 2, 3 and 4 take the genitive singular. Hmmm…
  4. The rest take the genitive plural…

Snapshot from Take off in Russian:


We had a good practice in class yesterday, going around saying our ages and repeating the ages of the people before us. Now ages…

  1. If your age ends in 1, you say год : 21 год
  2. If your age ends in 2, 3 or 4, you say года: 34 года
  3. If your age ends in any other number, you say лет: 57 лет

год ? лет? What’s that all about? Turns out лет  is the irregular genitive plural form of год, which means year. Ok – as long as I know and understand these things, I can accept them! I don’t like to just have to learn something without knowing the reason – even though, as a language teacher, I know sometimes people might prefer simply to ‘go with the flow’.

And not to forget: the person whose age we’re talking about is in the dative case. “To him, five years” And why not? Who are we to presume everyone should express age the same way we do in English?

I found this video helpful for  ages, numbers and the dative case:

*Unless of course you’re Belgian (nonante)

Practising in St Petersburg

Last week I went to St Petersburg, where my son works. As a language enthusiast, my eyes and ears are always alerussia01rt when in a country with an unfamiliar language.  Mastering the Russian alphabet is challenging (but achievable) and I spent a lot of time working out words on signs, letter by letter. (See my previous post and discovery of рив гош.)

Speaking was less successful as I realised I simply don’ t yet have the means to communicate as well as I’d like, bar saying that I don’t understand and am English.  Fortunately many of the landmarks we visited had English speaking employees and my son was keen to show off his near-fluent skills. But I left with the overriding impression that I must practise more – and return to demonstrate this improvement!

When you’re learning a language and are in the country, the secret is to just try and not be embarrassed. As a languages teacher I spent years telling my pupils this, only to discover that I myself was too shy to speak out  – yet my daughter (27) who has no interest in learning Russian – was  perfectly happy to ask her brother the Russian for “another glass of wine”, memorise it and call over the waitress. I on the other hand, agonised in a ticket booth over which was the correct word for “two” when I meant two female adults and ended up talking pigeon Russian which was worse than running the risk of getting it wrong.

Another tip which I will intend to follow next time I go (with my improved skills!) is that when you are confident enough to try out the language, and your interlocutor tries to be helpful by replying in English -keep talking in their language! Persevere; insist, even if their English is better. They might be thinhermitageking they are assisting you, but actually they are hindering your progress, albeit in a well-intentioned way. So just smile and keep going!

I hope I will remember my own advice in the spring when I intend to return!

Learning to write and read in Russian (2)

Asbread mentioned in a part one of this post on learning to write and read Russian,  I sometimes feel I am starting over again as a child. I know the letters pretty well but have to read them, one by one, to decode the word. However, the sense of achievement when I do is worth the effort! Here’s a Spar leaflet I picked up in St Petersburg (Languages teachers love realia!) Click on the image to see an enlarged version. I recognise хлеб (bread) but it took a second to see батон (work it out yourself) and then another second to see, smilingly, мини багет ! I love it when they transcribe words from other languages! On several occasions, travelling on the metro I saw posters of fashionable men and women with the words рив гош. Again, it took me some thinking until I had that Aha! moment and realised it’s Russian for “Rive Gauche”!

Reading texts such as poems or short stories is a pleasant way of improving your vocabulary and becoming more confident in the language. Publishers produce readers specially designed for language learners, simplified texts which give you a sense of achievement. I’m currently trying out 25 Texts in easy Russian with audio which I’ve bought from the site redkalinka.com. It took me ages to get the text and audio to work together (not their fault) not having realised that my Kindle Paperwhite doesn’t actually ‘do’ sound and that my mobile phone won’t play mp3s. I’ve now got the book working on my laptop with the Kindle for PC app and I like the simplicity and brevity of the texts, their accompanying translation and sound files. I’ll report back when I have used it for longer.

When reading English I pay scant attention to whether the text is in Times New Roman, Calibri or even Comic Sans, but I’ve discovered that it makes a big difference when reading Russian. Here’s a screenshot (apologies for the poor quality) from ‘Talk Russian’ (which I’ve mentioned in a post on reviewing books)



Personally, I find that much easier to read than the text in ‘Take off in Russian’  – screenshot below:


And as for handwritten text, well, don’t even go there (yet!)

Learning Russian with other people

According to Dr Britt Andreatta’s book Wired to Grow,  “Research has revealed five powerful learning connections that can  help move your learning into long-term memory that can be easily retrieved.” One of those is Music, which I touched upon in a post about Learning Russian through Song and another is Social Engagement. To quote Britt again, “We are innately social creatures and social learning helps us maximise that aspect of our biology.” (As someone who, in her day job, works with a learning platform designed on the basis of Social Constructionism, that rings true to me.)

So although you can get a long way by teaching yourself,  there are obvious benefits to learning with other people in a class, be it face to face or online. Although I was getting automatic feedback from Duolingo and could check my answers to quizzes in my Take Off in Russian book, I was missing human contact. So I’ve signed up as a “member of the general public” (ie, not an on-campus-student) to the Beginners’ Russian elective class at the University of Central Lancashire, taught by the very ebullient and very Russian Svetlana Baeva. I’ve been to two classes so far, unfortunately missing the last one as I was in – er – Russia! – and it’s been a fascinating experience on several levels:

  1. It’s been well over 30 years since I was in a language learning classroom as a student, and I’d forgotten the dynamics, the pleasures, the fears. I know this one: pick me, pick me! I don’t know this; I’ll put my  head down so she doesn’t see me..
  2. I’m over 30 years older than the rest of the class, mainly UCLAN students on language degrees. But I don’t care – and I don’t think they do either!
  3. I see the lesson both from a student view point and a teacher viewpoint. I taught MFL for 28 years and  seeing Svetlana’s enthusiasm and the energy she puts into her lessons reminds me just how physically demanding teaching a language is, especially to beginners who don’t have enough knowledge to be set a task for several minutes so you, the teacher, can have a break.
  4. UCLAN uses Blackboard! Course materials and extra resources are on Blackboard. As blackboardsomeone who has only ever used Moodle, I welcome the experience, not so I can ‘diss’ Blackboard, but so I can compare and contrast. Sveltana has added all her class powerpoints  and many links to YouTube videos and  Russian language learning websites such as RussianforEveryone and RussianForFree. It does mean that when I missed a class I was able to find out what I missed and catch up via the learning platform.



Learning to write and read in Russian (1)

The act of writing stuff down helps you retain what you learn. And by writing, I mean handwriting as opposed to taking notes on a laptop. A Princeton university study, “The Pen is Mightier than the keyboard” found that students who handwrote their notes had consistently better short and long term retention. Great – so I must make notes in longhand*. One problem: I don’t know how to write in Russian…

The Duolingo app, as I’ve said before, allows you to make use of a Russian keyboard on your phone and thus makes it easy to type Russian and practise spelling. On my laptop, I haven’t yet found a satisfactory way to type both Russian and English, switching seamlessly between the two. At the moment I use typeit.org (which I also use for French and German) and copy/paste the words into whatever I’m  trying to write. My son uses stickers on his laptop, purchased from La Caverne , but I confess I got totally confused when I tried them on mine. (Perhaps it was too soon in my learning.)

Handwriting is another issue altogether. First – do I write the letters as they are on a laptop/phone, ie do I learn the print form? Easier as I am replicating what I see in books and online, but not actual proper Russian handwriting? Or do I learn the handwritten letters – which in some cases are confusingly different and add an extra level of memory to what is already hard?

RussianPod101.com has some good videos on learning the letters which include how to print and handwrite the cursive versions. I like these: they are very clearly set out. Here’s an example:

I also bought a book, Reading Russian Step by Step from the  Russian Step By Step site. This is very simply set out, and I’m obediently going through the exercises like a child learning to read and write all over again. But I’m not so confident with the book as I haven’t paid enough attention to how to form the letters (I need to rewatch those Youtube videos) so sometimes what I write is basically a squiggle and a guess. Not sure a Russian would understand it! (Don’t laugh; we all have to start somewhere)


The feeling of being a child again and having to piece together the letters to make words was one I experienced a lot during a recent trip to St Petersburg: I had to attempt to read every sign we went past, but it was a deciphering exercise which took a minute or so – if we were on the long metro escalators, then I couldn’t always guarantee to have cracked the code by the time we’d reached the final step 🙂

I’ll give some more thoughts about reading in Part 2 of this post.

*What’s ‘longhand’? asked my 25 year old son…

Learning Russian through song

Songs  are a great way to help memorise phrases and practise pronunciation in a foreign language. As a schoolgirl learning French in the 1970s, my radio was permanently tuned to ‘Europe 1’, the French pop music channel, and I would learn by heart and sing along to every success in the “Hit Parade” (that’s French for “Charts”). Even today, 40 years on, I can still recite word for word Michel Sardou’s La Maladie d’amour.

How useful then, to have a bunch of songs to hand to aid in language learning? MFL teachers love a sing-song. Un Kilo de Chansons is quite simply the best collection of learning French songs ever –  and any way of getting rhythm and rhyme into numbers, days of the week, verb endings are all a fun way to practise.

So when faced with the challenge of learning Russian letters, I went to YouTube, happy to sing (at home, alone..) songs designed for children if the end result was mastering the алфавит. The quality is mixed however; some went too fast for me, some too slow, some actually missed out letters or rearranged them to fit the song. I went for this very simple one in the end. I downloaded it as an mp3, loaded it into Audacity, copied and pasted it about ten times and put it onto my cheap mp3 player to play to myself every time I go for a walk around the block.

As well as songs specifically for language learning, why not learn real Russian songs? My son gave me a book he’d used – the Ruslan Russian songbook which has genuine Russian folksongs, with transcripts in Russian and English translations. Most of them go way above my head at the moment, but the first, and simplest one, is a catchy  song called миленький ты мой (‘My dear’) It’s performed by a man and woman, alternating, in a lovely sweet melody. The man is going far away and the woman repeatedly begs him to let her go with him -first as a wife, then a sister, than just any stranger. He repeatedly turns her down saying he’s already got each of those. In the version in the Ruslan book  she finally retorts: The devil take you! I’ve got someone else too! Sadly, in this Youtube version she doesn’t get a chance to have the last word – but it’s nice to listen to anyway.

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