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.
I’m a late comer to “apps”. I much prefer doing everything on a computer or laptop with a proper keyboard, but the appeal of the Duolingo app on my Fairphone was the fact that I could practise Russian any time, anywhere I had a spare moment – waiting in the car for family members to finish their shopping; in transit on trains and planes or even at home waiting for my favourite TV show to start. It’s both compulsive and annoying.
Duolingo is annoying because it doesn’t actually teach you anything, although you can read the comments of others which clarify things if you want. (I only discovered that after I had been frustrated by it for several weeks.) It’s compulsive because it’s short with quick wins: the constant repetition means you pick things up such as verb conjugations and case endings and get the answers right even though you don’t understand why. That’s both its benefit and its drawback. I have picked up a lot from Duolingo simply by doing the practice each day. Yes, the generated sentences can be somewhat quirky at times, but I don’t see that as a problem. I’m sure if you have friends on Duolingo, that can increase your progress. (I don’t do ‘Friends’) and I’m sure if you are into gamification, then collecting your ‘lingots’ and spending them in the shop is equally motivational. I’ve got 84 lingots at the moment but I’m really not interested in dressing my “Duo” or betting against myself. But that’s OK! Because to me, the ease of access and repetitive practice and gradual build up of skills is enough to encourage me to continue. I plan to use Duolingo each day in tandem with other learning tools, such as the books and CDs. I get a kick out of the mini fanfare it plays on your phone when you get something right, much to the embarrassment of my children.
I might learn about, for example the accusative case, in my Take off in Russian book, but it is Duolingo which helps consolidate the altered words. I can try to memorise Type 1 and Type 2 verb endings but it is the practice of them with Duolingo that helps them stick in my mind.
I like the fact that I can easily switch to and from UK and Russian keyboards on my mobile phone and thus practise spelling and translating with the Duolingo app. I’ve yet to find a good way of typing Russian characters on my laptop and am struggling with handwriting. (More on this in a later post on learning to write in Russian.)
I decided to start teaching myself Russian about six months ago, and, other than watching a few Youtube videos (more about them in another post) my initial inclination was to look online for a book with accompanying audio. My first choice was the BBC’s Talk Russian, a short, straightforward and easy to digest book for complete beginners. Navigating the audio element was easy, and I liked the size and type of font used in the book. I struggled (still do) with the Russian alphabet but found it simpler to access in this book than in other, later books. However, I confess I stopped at Chapter 6 (although I reserve the right to pick it up again at a point in time) because I was frustrated at the lack of grammar and – well – frankly – the lack of Verbs. Although I see the point in introducing your family, giving directions, practising your phone number, ordering a drink (вино anyone?) I wanted to be able to manipulate people more, talk about what I do, what my children do, what we like and don’t like, ask you about yourself. I’m sure this comes later, but I was too impatient. Equally, I was less keen on the way grammar points were quickly glossed over with no satisfactory (to me) explanation. I found myself frequently turning to the back of the book for clarification.
My son then said he’d begun with this book but then moved on to the Oxford Take off in Russian, which dealt much more thoroughly with grammar. I bought this on his recommendation and then for a few weeks regretted it and neglected it. Why? Because it’s hard! My main issue with the book is that the print is small and I find the Russian alphabet harder to read than in Talk Russian. When you turn against the font then you’re already into a negative attitude towards learning.
HOWEVER.. I decided to persevere, particularly as I am well aware that Learning is Hard, and Learning a Language is harder than a lot of other learning. This book has a lot of merit: it moves progressively but quickly; it covers grammar in small chunks but does explain, and offers frequent tests. (Research shows the pattern of study test test test (break) test is the most successful in terms of retention of learning.) I got as far as Summary 3 before I went to St Petersburg the other week but I’ve decided to start again, with more effort, as I think, in my vanity, I was going through the book too quickly. Take off in Russian is not as much fun as Talk Russian, but I think it will get me further in the long run.
I chose to learn with books because that’s all we had in the Olden Days when I first took an interest in languages. Since then of course, we’ve had the internet and apps. So in the next post I’ll look at Duolingo, another tool in my learning kit.