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 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 (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? 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.

Duolingo – language learning on the go

I’mduolingo1 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 momentduolingo2 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.)

Teaching yourself Russian: book reviews

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.

takeoffinrussianMy 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.

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