Reviving my Russian: where next on the path to fluency?

P3280497I did know that I was going back to Russia. I had surrendered two A4 sheets of personal information and paid £85 for the priveledge to the Russian Visa Centre in London, waited nervously a whole week for its return with a shiny brown sticker, and  had been monitoring the weather forecast to help decide whether or not to take my 0 to -15 coat or the one for more extreme scenarios. Yet, I only really started to get an inkling of what I was returning to when I, sleep deprived and disgruntled by the displeasure of making the trek to Gatwick in the middle of the night, was sitting at the gate marked ‘Moscow’ at half past six in the morning and watching a well dressed, middle-aged woman brandishing a bright red Russian passport take out everything she had bought at duty free, fold up the plastic bags they had had come in and tuck them away safely in her suitcase for later use. I realised then and there that there was no escape: I was back in the madhouse.

As we came down through the mile or so of cloud that was lingering above Eastern Europe that day, I was greeted by the sight of Russia’s iconic silver birch trees poking out from the snow, just as bare, just as pointed, and just as interminable as the last time that I had set eyes on them. They used to welcome me back every time I returned to Russia and this was to be no exception. I was to spend the next day or two in shock. It was not so much culture shock – I had been preparing myself for that – it was more the shock that everything was still there. That unmistakable smell of dust, sweat, cigarette smoke and cheap air freshener hit me as soon as I walked off the plane into Domodedovo arrivals, and the long dark tunnels of Moscow’s crazy metro system were awash with swarms of fur, leather, and duty free carrier bags. As my train pulled into Yaroslavl that evening (an hour earlier, but 200 roubles dearer than it would have been the year before), I suddenly found myself dragging my suitcase over unsurmountable piles of snow and ice, and before I knew it once again I was sitting in Svetlana’s kitchen with a big plate of steaming cabbage in front of me. It was all as though I had never left.

Reassuringly, some things always stay the same. Russia seems to be one of them.

Reassuringly, some things always stay the same.

Russia may not have changed, but as I scrabbled to find my feet there in the first few days, something else had. My Russian, which when I left I had speaking effortlessly and spontaneously, had taken a hit. I knew it was in there somewhere, but it was as though the freezing temperatures had taken it by surprise, and it was stuck somewhere in my throat, refusing to come out. Case declensions (shaky ground for any foreigner) were off the table, and on my first day my interaction with local people was resigned to pointing and barking words in the nominative. But on the other hand, my understanding was better than it had ever been – I could read all the signs, I had since learned to decipher unfamiliar words, and was having great fun listening in to all the conversations going on around me. With horror, the realisation slowly dawned on me: I was mute. Russia was all around me and I could hear it, smell it, read it and understand it, but I couldn’t interact with it.

Whenever I go to a new country I find it takes a few days to adjust to a different language, no matter how well I speak it. You’re converting your knowledge of grammar, vocabulary and all that other fun stuff that makes up a language into useful, practical tools to help you get around. Of course, that’s rarely an instant process. Equally on this occasion my inability to talk didn’t last too long, and soon enough I had awoken my Russian skills from the hibernation they had entered last May, and was taking them out to get some exercise. But as I relaxed into the Russian rhythm of things and spent my days wandering around my old home, reminiscing and reliving one of the best years of my life, I started to notice a big difference to when I was there before. Back then the most important thing was being understood, navigating perilous situations in supermarkets, taxis and mobile phone shops, and trying to establish some way of functioning. This I had done, but now it wasn’t enough. More than just to be understood, I realised that this time I wanted to master Russian, I wanted to be able to use it the way Russians do, expressing the tiniest shades of meaning through the nuances of their heavily idiomatic and breathtakingly beautiful mother tongue. I didn’t want to be the foreigner any more, and just use that as an excuse for my barren vocabulary. I wanted to be as articulate and expressive as a local, and surprisingly, for the first time in my life that was starting to look like it might be within reach.

A defining characteristic of the Russian language is its on-going battle between the “литературный” (literatúrniy) and “разговорный язык” (razgavórniy yazík) – the written and spoken language. They have different grammar rules, different vocabularies, and while the former may generally be seen as more correct, you won’t get anywhere in Russia without a knowledge of the latter. But equally, not knowing the formal language, which finds its roots deep in the great Russian literary tradition, will make you sound uneducated, inarticulate, and, as is often the case, like a foreigner. Russian’s beauty lies in its ability to concisely express concepts that, while not uncommon in English, can be conveyed only through set phrases or descriptions that can sound long-winded or unnatural. Here is an example:

The burger that inspired me to learn Russian properly

The burger that inspired me to learn more Russian

On arriving in Moscow I met with my friend who had also been in Yaroslavl and was doing an internship in Moscow over the holidays. We rushed straight to our former guilty pleasure: the American restaurant T.G.I. Friday’s (or in Russian Т.Ж.И. Фрайдис). The waiter brought us the menus but we both knew what we wanted and both ordered the same thing. The waiter then asked:
“Вам меню не пригодилось?”
(Vam menyú nye prigodílos’?)

Neither of us had heard of the verb пригодиться. Later, the dictionary told us that it meant “to be useful to someone”. It turns out he was making a joke about our eagerness to order and had commented “So the menu wasn’t useful to you?”. I would never have imagined that there was just a single verb in Russian that expressed this, and I would either have said (in my stilted, foreign, paralysed Russian) “Вам меню не помогло?” (Vam menyú nye pamagló?) “So the menu didn’t help you?”, or more literally “Вам меню не было полезно?” (Vam menyú nyé bilo palyézna?). “Полезно” is a direct translation of the English “useful”, but for all I know in this context it may be completely inappropriate: its secondary meaning is “healthy” and it could well imply that I was urging the person I was addressing to eat his menu.

Equally there is the word “вертушка” (vyertúshka), which according to the dictionary means “a revolving object”. This is just one of the many object classification groups that do not exist in English. Although we are perfectly capable of understanding the concept, it would be unnatural for us to see a turnstile, a propeller, a spinning top and a revolving door and intuitively produce a single word that describes them all, in the same way that we can substitute the names dog, lion, mouse and giraffe for the word “animal”. But here we are starting to stray onto the complicated subject of how languages change the way we think.

It's important not to get stuck in Russian's distinctive way of thinking when learning the language.

It’s important not to get stuck in Russian’s unique way of thinking when learning the language.

But I think that this is one of the biggest challenges facing English speakers who are trying to learn Russian. The language is not difficult just because it’s hard to pronounce, it’s written in a different alphabet, and doesn’t sound like anything you’ve ever heard before in your life, but also because the words you’re learning could well be used to describe concepts you’ve never heard of, could never imagine, or would never have thought it would be necessary to imagine. This is why I firmly believe that the best way to master Russian is to spend a long time in Russia, in an immersed environment, interacting and coming to terms with the Russian mindset. That is the best hope you have of casting some light on things.

My challenge now is how to access this kind of vocabulary from abroad. This is where literature пригодится – you are exposed by the author to a greater range of scenarios than you would by just being in the street, which in turn brings with it a wider range of vocabulary, expressions and nuances. Reading novels with a dictionary to one side, or even a copy of the English translation, will offer you a chance to learn these words in a relevant, authentic context, while also improving your language skills generally. If reading isn’t really your thing, watch the news, listen to speeches, watch old films or do anything that will help you to tackle this vocabulary head on. If we do this regularly, we enter a whole new realm of what our languages can do for us.


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