My first term of learning of Russian from scratch at university
The Guardian March 23, 2014
Student Francesca Ebel reflects on her freshers' term of studying Russian at degree level, without having studied the language at A-level
Photograph: Dmitry Lovetsky/AP
Today marks my 60th day of learning Russian and I'm so beyond being lost at sea: I'm drowning.
It's a blustery afternoon in December and my final oral class for the term. We are feeling cold, tired and utterly demoralised. Our teacher Natasha is desperately trying to start a conversation about tourism.
"What does this say?"
She's met with a stunned silence. Nobody dares speak up.
"Does anyone want to take a guess...?"
Finally, somebody musters up the courage to break the ice.
"Errr... d... dosto...dostoprim-"
She flushes, realising she's failed to roll the "r" with the right amount of enthusiasm. She swallows, eyes bulging.
She's about to take another flustered plunge when, thankfully, Natasha decides to save her.
"Dostoprimechatel'nosti! Meaning, the sights! Everybody repeat!"
Here lies Russian's ultimate trump card: its impossibly long words. No matter how long you stare at them, they never seem to get any shorter. When I lived in Moscow, it took me two weeks to master the pronunciation of my home town, Zheleznodorozhny Gorod. When asking for a return ticket to Kropotkinskaya I'd have to steel myself against the frosty stare of the babushka behind the counter - nobody has time for a foreigner who can't speak the language.
I went to Russia with the intention of "learning the basics". This was my first mistake: you can't just "pick up" Russian. I met expats who'd been there for years and still cannot order a coffee. Unlike French, it requires much more discipline and dedication. You need someone to explain its nuances to you in simple terms - you need a teacher.
Three months ago, I started French and Russian ab initio, meaning with no A-level or the equivalent, at Cambridge University. I arrived at the college gates, hair freshly cut and shoes newly-shined, excited to start studying a language I'd been obsessing over for some time. I'd been hesitant to take classes beforehand, having been warned that beginners should arrive totally fresh, without the burden of bad habits or poor teaching. Unlike other ab initio students, who have a year to cover the basics, we were given just eight weeks.
This is the course's mission statement but the reality is far from it. On the face of it, to try and get to A-level in eight weeks does make some sense. The sooner you learn, the sooner you can get to the interesting stuff: tales of princes, firebirds and baba yagas; the works of Bulgakov and Tolstoy; the unimaginable horrors of the gulags, and exciting updates on Pussy Riot and Putin.
But it is totally impossible in practice. Right now, I hardly have enough knowledge to pass a GCSE let alone an A-level. I've found the intensity of the course utterly frustrating.
I've spent years slowly absorbing French. I've had the time to straighten out my accent, learn from my mistakes and build up my confidence. I did Latin to A-level - a language which, like Russian, is based on declensions and unusual word order. But the linguistic skills required for ab initio Russian are very particular - one must be able to understand the nuts and bolts of language before attempting the challenge. The alphabet is just the smallest hurdle. The grammar, with its aspects and verbs of motion, is a hideous vortex of complexity.
My teacher says the golden rule of Russian is to surrender to the fact that it's totally illogical. When you use a word you have to accept that it's going to morph into a different form; a mischievous beast of inflected endings and gender agreements.
If you want to fight its mind games, you've got to treat it as if it's a religion. You must become a devout and pious subject. At daybreak, the first thing you do is to tune into Radio Echo Moskvy. The point isn't that you understand but that you immerse yourself in the lilt of the words - you've been assured, on several occasions, that this is the secret to learning a new language. Your day is devoted to conjugating and declining; translating and deciphering. Come evening, you engage in the daily vocabulary ritual - repeating each word 15 times and creating "context" sentences.
Despite the difficulties, my time in Russia left me with a hidden advantage: I know that I want to do it. Within the first week, three students decided to quit, realising that it wasn't for them. Most of those remaining have never been to Russia, and if they have, it's been for a short summer break in St Petersburg. I was only in Moscow for the winter, but it was enough time to get over the initial culture-shock - it's not an easy place to be but I now love it with all my heart.
If you want to start a language from scratch, make no mistake: you'll be the last one in the library at night, murmuring to yourself in some exotic tongue whilst everyone else is out enjoying themselves. You'll be the one most likely to get a restraining order after chasing an unsuspecting foreigner down the street "just to listen".
You'll be the one whose party trick is to count to 100 in Arabic or to swear in Mandarin. Fellow linguists, you know how hard it is: to be completely misunderstood wherever you go is tiresome. You've gotta be crazy, but if you love it enough, it's worth the work.