Life Skills: Learning Russian

Interesting new ways of learning languages are really catching on. ISMENE BROWN edges closer to native-like fluency thanks to tandem teaching, total immersion and learning like the spies do. In part three of this three part series…

AW15-StyleNY-0032

ISMENE BROWN learns the Russian of spies…

It’s a short leap from being steeped in classical music and ballet to becoming curious about Russia, a nation that pours out books that never make it into English. After twelve years as the Daily Telegraph dance critic, I decided I must learn Russian in order to do research for my own book. I needed to be able to read official documents and old Russian handwriting, and I had to be able to conduct research interviews. In other words, my need was a thorough and rapid progress to written and spoken fluency. But how?

Evening college sessions would be too slow. Individual tutoring I couldn’t afford. Language labs were in London, and I didn’t live in London. I was 50 and I felt I could get on faster by myself, somehow – obviously a computer course. But part of my calculation had to be the time/money one. For the price of ten or 20 hours’ personal tutoring I could buy a complete course of CDs with listen-and-speak facilities, working at my own speed potentially to advanced level. But which one?

I decided I must learn Russian in order to do research for my own book. I needed to be able to read official documents and old Russian handwriting, and I had to be able to conduct research interviews.

The Rosetta Stone system immediately attracted me: it was apparently used for speed-teaching diplomats (ie spies), NASA astronauts, oil business execs. Good – this would not be tourist Russian. But I could also see that its methods, despite aiming at advanced knowledge, were far from the drills and rotes that I’d had at school for Latin. Russian is a complicated language, with its alien-looking script, but also with loads of case endings, verb and gender differences and apparently endless adjectival variants. Get those wrong and you won’t be understood. So … an intuitive method based on pictures and word associations, with grammar unexplained, a method directed at absorbing language’s textures rather than learning its rules – would this just be horribly frustrating? I reflected that I speak and read reasonable French without ever having properly studied it, and that my school classical studies should give me a handle on Russian’s structural formalities.

I took the plunge, bought the Rosetta spiel, and plugged in the earphones. I was immediately hooked. Each slightly Lewis Carrollian chapter dragged me on to the next. It was moreish. I did three or four hours a day, trying out every variant of every chapter.

The Rosetta Stone is a universal method marketed for a huge array of languages, western and eastern, predicated on the idea that when you see something you want to know what it is – and that the ways in which your questions are answered can subliminally deliver you a whole bunch of linguistic rules.

You look at flash cards of, say, an elephant or a dog, with its Russian word, and the voice speaks the word.

You say the word, read it, type it, write it, and you test yourself constantly while your eye, ear, hand and brain build up an association between picture, word and sound.

As more pictures come by, the descriptions lengthen by a few words – through a juxtaposition of photos of a child in a playground, you deduce when she’s about to jump and when she HAS jumped, and – worse – fallen over.

You start to see how the family photo (“parents with their children”) softens you up for the romantic anything-goes of the instrumental case.

There’s an addictive option if you have a mic on your computer or headset: a gizmo rates your pronunciation red, yellow or green. Sceptically, I tested this feature on male and female friends to check its response to different voices – it passed.

This isn’t about adult logic, or about learning conversational gambits. You don’t start with “Where’s the bus station?” or “Can I have caviar with that?” This is about opening up intuitive pathways for grammar rules to lodge in your brain and therefore give you the ease to generate all sorts of conversations, from ordering lunch to musing about ‘Swan Lake’ or football over a vodka. The latter wins you a ton of friends in Russia, and besides, you oughtn’t to ask the way to the bus station if you don’t know about left, right, straight on, corners and so on.

This is about opening up intuitive pathways for grammar rules to lodge in your brain and therefore give you the ease to generate all sorts of conversations, from ordering lunch to musing about ‘Swan Lake’ or football over a vodka.

I can’t tell whether Rosetta Stone intend the surreal visual comedy in some of the pictures, but it sure helps. One of my favourites is the Russian road sign: “Beware kangaroo!” As you scoff, you’ve unwittingly absorbed the important word “Beware/watch out”.

Any good language course whets your desire to learn more. To please my logical mind, I was grateful to find in a charity shop an old Soviet grammar, groaning with declensions, conjugations and vocab about worker factories which solidified the rules for me. After finishing Rosetta I sped through Ruslan Ltd’s superb advanced conversation CDs, which proved that the Rosetta Stone’s associative method had given me a much more ingrained listening familiarity with Russian than I could have gained from conversation classes with other British learners.

I went from zero to advanced Russian in two years – job done.

The Rosetta Stone Russian course, levels 1-3, currently costs £289 together, or £179 per level; www.rosettastone.co.uk/learn-russian. Ruslan Ltd’s Russian books and courses; www.ruslan.co.uk

No Comments Yet

Comments are closed