Saturday, August 20, 2011

A review of the materials I've used for learning the Russian language

I've been trying to learn the Russian language for more than a year now. It has been tough. The Russian language coordinator at my work recently assessed my spoken Russian as "Intermediate - Low." I think she may have been overly generous. Also, it is possible that I was able to give the impression that my skills are more advance than they really are simply because I memorized some phrases that I need to use often.

The Russian language coordinator asked me to give my opinion on the various materials I've used in my efforts to learn Russian. I am pasting below the e-mail I wrote to her.

Here is my evaluation of the learning materials I have used:

1. Pimsleur Russian, 90 lesson set. I recommend this as a starting point, the first material that one should use for learning Russian. One can use the audio lessons while driving, on the treadmill, etc. The reading lesson might be good for learning the alphabet (I'm not sure because I did only the audio only lessons). The pace is right, and if it is too fast, one can repeat lessons. It is great for learning pronunciation. And it explains why certain words change depending on use (without mentioning cases or the names of cases.)

2. Colloquial Russian: The Complete Course For Beginners (Colloquial Series). I'm on Chapter 7 right now. This book is good. The pace is right also. Rather than giving you the rules all at once, it introduces them gradually, to allow you to absorb them. It gives a few verbs and their conjugations in each or almost each chapter. Don't try to memorize these. Just keep progressing through the book, doing all the exercises. It is best to start the Pimsleur set before starting this book. I don't have the audio, just the book, so sometimes I have trouble pronouncing the words. It would help to either know the alphabet before starting, or get the audio files for the book. I'm told that there are mistakes in the book, so look out for these. I don't know yet if there is an errata web page.

3. Rosetta Stone. This is good for increasing vocabulary, and learning how words, phrases and sentences should sound. It works by word-picture and phrase-picture association. It is a series of short lessons, mostly 5, 10 or 15 minutes long (intro's to the lessons are 30 min long). These are estimates - the time it takes depends on how fast the user responds (this is a computer program that you install and use on your computer). One downside is that it doesn't tell you why endings change the way they do, it doesn't mention cases or declensions. So if you use this I suggest combining it with the colloquial Russian book. Another downside is that it doesn't break up long words and phrases when teaching you how to say them, which makes learning how to say them that much more difficult. Also, all 3 levels are expensive, and have enough exercises to last probably 100 hours. I'm not sure whether the time it takes is worth what you get out of it. But if you do use Rosetta Stone, make the maximum effort with it. Pronounce the words even when you don't have to (e.g. when you're only required to click on the right picture or phrase).

4. Schaum's Outline of Russian Grammar, Second Edition (Schaum's Outline Series). This is definitely NOT for beginners. This book throws a whole bunch of rules at the reader, then presents many exercises. Do NOT start with this. The proper step for this book, if any at all, is after you have reached the intermediate-high level. This book is supremely boring, and requires motivation for completion. Also there is at least one English grammatical mistake in the book, which makes me wonder about the Russian.

I think that they best way to use the above resources is to use them in the order presented above.

5. Random Russian Teacher. It is difficult to teach a language, and some people who speak both English and Russian very well think that they can teach Russian to English speakers effectively, simply because they have a good command of both languages. I disagree. It take more than this to be able to teach a language- it takes an understanding of how people learn languages in general and what works best for specific individuals. A good teacher will ask you why you want to learn the language, what you want to learn, and will tailor the lessons to meet your goals. My teacher in Tajikistan has an exercise book from which she photocopies lessons, and she has me work through them. It is too much, too fast, and we don't do any review of previous lessons, so not much of it sticks. Also, a lot of what we learn is irrelevant to me. I have absolutely no intention of touring Moscow, and if I end up touring Moscow, I would do it only once or twice. But I very often do need to be able to speak about the technical parts of my project in Russian, and understand when people are speaking about the same to me in Russian. I also would like to be able to use the imperative tense often- For example, I need to tell taxis to go here, there, turn left, right, go back, drop this person off, pick me up right away, and then go bring another person here by X o'clock, etc. A good language teacher will find out that you want to and need to learn these kinds of things. Few people actually know how to teach a language. When you find a "Russian teacher" (usually this is just someone who calls him- or herself a Russian teacher), you will have to teach that person how to teach. It would be great if someone could develop an instruction manual that would teach teachers how to teach Russian. To be able to quickly get by in Russian, it would help to write down the phrases that you think you will use most often, and memorize the Russian translations of these. You could make flash cards of these or find a smartphone flashcard application. Periodically add to this list and memorize more translations (e.g. you might add new phrases that you think you will need, or new responses you have encountered to the phrases you've used). This will help you develop an ear for Russian; i.e. knowing what sounds right. I'm not sure how useful watching Russian movies is, with or without the English subtitles; I have yet to try this.

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