Putting in my time with Russian.

Well, today was the first day I returned to my Russian language book, The New Penguin Russian Course by Nicholas J. Brown. As I said I would, I sat down this evening for a solid study session, which ended up coming in at around 45 minutes. During that time I worked my way through all of Chapter 4. It wasn’t a thorough work through, to be sure, more of a “reading for the first time to become acquainted” deal. Nevertheless, I’m now starting to get familiar with the present tense conjugation of the three main types of verbs. I was also briefly introduced to the inflected nature of Russian, which wasn’t that bad at all, after working with German for so long.

I’m getting better at reading Cyrillic, and pretty quick, too. I was honestly surprised that I picked the alphabet back up so quickly after such a long break. While I still have to think briefly about some of the letters, mostly the sounds just pop into my head when I look at the corresponding letters.

However, I am having some difficulty in getting my mouth to produce some of the sounds in a chain, thus producing a word that a Russian might (hopefully) understand. Particularly when reading new words out loud, my pace is stumbling at best. But that’s okay: practice makes perfect!

Since writing my “back to languages!” post, I’ve relistened to two lessons of Pimsleur’s Russian 1. I listened to lessons 5 and 6 again because that’s where I trailed off previously. I was surprised here as well: for the most part, I remembered everything from them. I think later this evening I’ll have a go at lesson 7.

Fairly soon I need to dip back into my book to chapter 2, which explains how to write in the Russian script. Russians don’t write their language the same way its printed in books, newspapers, and on the web. While some of the written letters are quite similar to the printed time, some of them are a bit different. You can see what I mean by taking a look at this picture. If you’re learning to write in Russian script, you might want to check out this page, which has animated GIFs of how all the letters are written.

Multilingual keyboard site

Forrest commented on my post about typing in Cyrillic, pointing the way to a great site, Lexilogos: Clavier Multilingue. For those who don’t speak French*, Clavier Multilingue is simply “multilingual keyboard.” The site lets you choose from a huge number of languages. When you choose one, you’re taken to a page like this, with a text box. Below it is a set of buttons with all of the characters needed for the language you chose. Above each button is the letter on your keyboard that you need to type to produce the button below it. That sounds complicated, but it’s not; see for yourself. To type in Russian, I basically just sound out how the Russian word sounds, and type it with my own keys. “D” produces “д”, “Z” produces “з”, etc.

As an English speaker, I don’t have some of the “standard” keys on my keyboard, such as š and č, but that’s not a huge deal. All I have to do is click the correspond buttons and the letters appear in the box.

Quite a cool website; I don’t want to use it indefinitely for typing in Cyrillic, but until I memorize what keys produce what Cyrillic letters, it’ll serve as a great stepping stone.

Thanks, Forrest!

As an English speaker, a few of the letters used to produce “foreign” ones, I don’t have on my keyboard, such as ž, š, and č.

* I don’t speak French either, truth be told. Google Translate did the work for me this time around. 🙂

The best trick for learning a foreign language

On my last post, Geoff posted a wonderful comment. Here’s a snippet from it:

And frankly, the personal notes about the more mundane aspects of language learning and dealing with its frustrations often provide more benefit, for the comfort they offer, than somebody’s neat new trick that’s a little too much like something from the omniscient language learning site.

This remark about “neat new tricks” really struck me. Why? Because for a long time, a large part of my language learning time was taken up (wasted, truthfully) looking for “tips and tricks” on how to learn a language, instead of actually working on learning the language itself. What was the best way to learn grammar? Vocabularly? Are there any tricks for doing it faster? Should I use flashcards or another method? Where should I get content to study? How may words do I need to know? So on and so forth.

Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with asking these questions, and even seeking out some answers for them. But one needs to realize quickly that you should ask these questions, get a decent idea of how to learn a language, and then get down to learning it. Because ultimately, there is no super trick, other than this: time. To learn a foreign language well, you have to put in time with it, and a lot of time.

Learning a foreign language can be likened to losing weight by exercising. You can know all of the concepts about a number of really great exercises – sit ups, push-ups, chin lifts – but when you get down to it, knowing about the exercises won’t make you lose weight. You have to spend time doing them to get the effects you want. Language is the same way; to learn one, you have to put your time in. Knowing all of the tricks in the world won’t help if you don’t spend time with your target language.

No, this blog is not dead.

It has just been neglected by its horrible owner, me. There is a simple but disheartening reason for this: the past month has been, for the most part, rather lacking in language study. I’d come up with some wonderful excuse, like a death in the family, or perhaps my contraction of some strange and uncomfortable disease, but I have no such excuse. The nasty truth is, I just got out of the habit. I’ve not listened to many podcasts, in German or Russian; I’ve barely even looked at any foreign language websites; and, I must admit, I haven’t even opened my book on Russian… at all. Other things just kind of crept into my life and knocked language learning out of the way. I’m not happy about it in the least.

I’ve decided to remedy this problem, and get my butt back on track, both with German and Russian. I suppose this post is part of my “getting back on track.” This blog was created to be part learning resource, part language learning journal for myself, and I guess it’s only fair that I note when I’m studying, and also when I’m not studying.

I think that part of the reason I fell off the wagon is that I’ve been pretty slack about a time for my studying. I’ve never really said, “Alright, I’m going to study German for one hour at 6PM everyday”, or any such thing. My study times have always been haphazard to say the least. Of course, having a toddler makes it difficult to say such things and truly be able to stick to them, but I’d be lying to myself if I said I couldn’t work out some kind of schedule. My university courses start up again in about a month, which will alter things a bit more, but I think I’m going to try and sit down for at least half an hour everyday at say, 7PM, to do some studying. If I can get more tidbits of time in throughout the day, great, but a regular half an hour is better than no studying at all.

A Practical Problem with Vocabulary

I’ve been trying to get a decent system going for my vocabulary learning over the past few days. I’m going with a flashcard system, based on the Leitner system. I think flashcards are effective when you’re disciplined about using them (which I haven’t been in the past, much to my annoyance). I’m running into a tricky problem though, one which I hope to get some feedback on.

The problem revolves around words that, when translated, can have a wide range of meanings. I don’t mean different shades of meaning, such as with the German word umfassend: it can come across as thorough, comprehensive, encompassing and quite a few others. However, when you get down to it, the words are all expressing a similar concept. Instead, I’m talking about words that have blatantly different meanings attached to them. The example that brought up this issue for me was this word from the Word of the Day piece at About German. Here’s the entry:

die Vertretung (-en)  replacement, substitute (teacher), deputy; representation (of firm, agency, etc.); agency, office

So, this single word can be a replacement, a substitue teacher, or a deputy; it can also be representation of a firm or agency, or, it can express not the representation of a firm or agency, but an agency or office! The issue, of course, is this: what do I learn? All of it? A substitute teacher is quite a bit different from an agency or office (and even a deputy is quite a bit different from a substitute!) If I opt to learn all of the meanings in one go (as opposed to learning the different meanings as I come in contact with them in reading or conversation), do I make a separate flashcard for each meaning, or do I make one flashcard for die Vertretung and attach all of the English meanings? That sounds like a path for disaster, I think.

What’s your take? How do you handle this problem?

Writing in Cyrillic on Windows XP

Tonight I worked on some Russian, which I hadn’t done in a few days. I studied my book for about 45 minutes, going over some tricky pronunciation material in Chapter 2, then started on Chapter 3 again. I’m refusing to move on until I’ve mastered each part, including all of the sections in the book marked EXTRA.

I wanted to make some flashcards on my computer, so I had to figure out how to type in Cyrillic. Setting Windows XP up to use Cyrillic really is a breeze. To set it up:

  1. Click Start -> Control Panel.
  2. On the Control Panel page, select Regional and Language Options.
  3. Click on the Languages tab at the top of the screen.
  4. Click Details.
  5. Click Add. Under the drop down for Input Language, select Russian.

That’s it! To use the Cyrillic script, open the program you’re going to be writing in, then look on your taskbar. Off to the right (by default), you’ll see a little button that looks like a keyboard. Click on it, and you’ll be able to select any of the input languages you’ve entered, including the newly added Russian.

That’s the easy part. The tricky part is remembering what English key represents what Cyrillic letter. It took me about 15 minutes to make seven flashcards in my flashcard program of choice, Pauker. I printed out a picture of the standard Cyrillic keyboard layout that Windows XP uses. Here’s the picture of the keyboard layout. In a very literal way, I was (and still am) learning how to type, again. It’s a rather peculiar feeling. With English, I can type 85-90 words per minute with very, very few mistakes. Making my Russian flashcards threw me back into the days of hunting and pecking. I didn’t much care for the feeling. 🙂 To make my learning of the Cyrillic keyboard layout a little less painful, I’m probably going to order some Russian stickers. A set comes in at around $15.

Attacking the Russian language on two fronts

Since starting on Russian a few weeks ago, I’ve been attacking it on two different fronts: book-wise, I’m using The New Penguin Russian Course. For listening and speaking, I’m using Pimsleur’s Comprehensive Russian 1 course.

As I expected, my progress with Russian is going much slower than my progress with German was when I first started with it. English and German are both Germanic languages, and there are a lot of similarities. Russian, on the other hand, is a Slavic language, and has (at least as far as I can tell at this point) very little in common with English. There are some cognate words here and there, once you pronounce them, but they obviously look nothing like their English or German counterparts; they’re in Cyrillic!

In my book, I was quite happy to read this on page 27:

If you know about gender from studying French and German, you will be glad to know that the gender of Russian nouns is much easier to learn since you can nearly always tell the gender from the ending.

While it’s easy to discern the gender of many German nouns, particularly based on their endings (-heit, -keit, etc.), many others are not so easy discernible. To find out that the system of noun gender in Russian is far more simple makes me a happy language geek.

My listening and speaking skills are moving along nicely. I have progressed up to Lesson 6 of the Pimsleur Russian 1 course. I’ve been doing each lesson 3-5 times before moving on. It doesn’t take that many times to grasp 80% of the material (which is what Pimsleur recommends before moving on to the next lesson), but I’m really trying to master the entire lesson before I move on. I’m doing lessons until I don’t have to think about a response, or how to say something. When it pops out of my mouth with very little thinking on my part, I consider it “mastered” material.

Some of the sounds were a bit confusing to me at first, particularly until I read the pronunciation guide in my book. One of the aspects of it that really gave me trouble was the soft sound, i.e. consonants with y blended into them. The pronunciation for the phrase that means “good day” is like this:

do-bri dye[ny]

When I heard this pronounced in Pimsleur, it sounded like they were saying:

do-bri jing

Now that I know about the soft sound (y), it’s gotten quite a bit easier to make out how to pronounce things.

Russian is the first language that I’ve tackled like this right from the start. With German, I started out (and continued for a LONG TIME) solely with written learning materials. After doing Russian like this for a few weeks, I must say, it’s exponentially better than just doing written material. I don’t like the idea of solely audio (i.e., Pimsleur on its own), but I also don’t like the idea of solely written. While the explanations in the book are quite good, I know that I wouldn’t have my pronunciation right based just on my text. Mixing the book and Pimsleur is a great blend.