Better Dead Than Red

So I’m trying to learn Russian. It’s fucking hard. Not least because apparently every tool for teaching yourself Russian is completely stupid.

We have method #1: Russian for Dummies. Does not use Cyrillic alphabet. At all. All words in English transliteration. So…speak badly inflected Russian and be functionally illiterate. Fabulous. Bad Westerner, no biscuit. This problem covers about 40% of the methods I’ve seen, though this is the only one that doesn’t use the alphabet at all. A couple of others use considerable transliteration, though.

Method #2: Hilarious word association. Example: “Karova means cow. Thus, remember than you ran your car over a cow.” First of all, that’s bad English. Second of all, no Cyrillic. Third of all, while it is true that one does retain vocabulary this way (I did not have to look up karova) it also does not help with grammar in the slightest and there was no pronunciation guide at all, so yay, I can speak like a deficient two-year old.

Method #3: Language Now! CDs. This is a problem on the other side of the continuum. Instant immersion. I had to dig for an alphabet guide. Huge chunks of complex Russian right before your eyes with minimal “highlight the word for definition” instruction. It’s like suggesting that you can learn Greek from Perseus without any pre-existing Hellenic-fu–I mean, it says what the word means right there. the problem with immersion is that it does not work when there is nothing for the student to latch onto at all, and if you don’t know the alphabet, you have nothing to go on, nothing at all. There is a nice grammar overview–which I only call nice because I already know what a case system is. If I didn’t, I’d be weeping right now. Not helpful. Everything already assumes you are at a basic level of proficiency, and this is the beginning, level 1 course.

Also, all dialogues are tourist phrasebook dialogues, and not about learning the actual language, but just about how to ask Sasha if he speaks English, and hear about his thrilling trip to Murmansk. Necessary? Sure, except it’s not actually the simple conversations that we all recall from French class about the delicious sauce or that Laurent drives a car to school while Dominique rides her bicycle. It’s complex Russian, right away, no help. Also the pronunciation mp3s are super-fast, not recognizing that basically, Russian sounds like an affliction of mushmouth to the untrained English ear.

Also, the alphabet guide, when you find it, fails on multiple levels. See, Russian has a whole buttload of extra letters you will not be familiar with as a corrupt American capitalist. Some of them are just “signs” and not letters at all. Ask me how I know this. I know it from

. Because the CD tells you the name of the symbol but not what it does or how it affects pronunciation. Same thing with ee (backwards N) and ee kratkoye (more different backwards N). It tells you that they’re different, but not how. It took me awhile to realize that if I had not already  been living with Russians and trying to figure everything out for awhile now, I would have no fucking idea what was going on. I kill everything.

Method #4: Russian in 10 Minutes a Day Workbook. Almost acceptable. Actual alphabet, simple words, simple verbs, sentences, more complex sentences logical language instruction. Cute stickers to put on household objects. Here’s the problem.

Right over the Russian word they print the phonetic pronunciation in English characters. This is great because pronunciation is hard, especially for my mouth which can’t yet do a couple of the new letters, but REALLY BAD in that it’s easy to never read anything in Cyrillic because it’s right there for you in English. Also,

 was pulling his hair out over the fact that the pronunication is often wrong.

But see, right on page 3 of this book, where it tentatively breaks the news to the unfortunate learner of Communist that this language contains filthy pinko cases and thus will make you crazy, that “you will be understood whether or not you use the correct form, so don’t worry about declining a noun correctly.”

That’s right little American. No one expects you to have a brain. You are not required to speak the language correctly, but definitely trust us to further educate you after we tell you that it’s ok to be wrong. Consistently. Fuck you.

So I despair a bit. I want to take a class, but the local community college only offers Russian I in the fall, and Russian II in the spring. I would hope I’d be beyond Russian I by next fall. And the methods I have are brain-dead. I can’t afford a private tutor, and the three native speakers I live with a. don’t have a lot of time to re-educate a capitalist pig-dog and b. aren’t language teachers.

It all makes me want to cry, because most of the linguistic problems English speakers have with Russian are no issue for me. Greek and Latin, remember? Order Word Sense Make No? Fine, not a problem. Latin doesn’t give a crap, either. Case system? Please.  No articles? Thank fucking god, Greek has so many forms of them I want to stab myself. Invisible to-be verbs? Great! Totally used to it. Can I just get some actual instruction? The problem is that all of these systems are geared towards the business traveller, or fanny-pack sporting tourist, or the guy who is surprised to find he does actually need to communicate one or two things to his mail-order bride. It is not for learning the language in order to read Ahkmatova.

But hey, if you’ve been to Murmansk lately? I can totally ask you how your trip was. Except I can’t. Because retention with the above methods is next to impossible. But I could have yesterday.

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