Why Don’t They Just Learn English?!

Some dayz, all this ‘po russki’ really gets to me!

Pick a republic, any one you want
One of these is Russia..
All those Fusshins!
See, English is easier!
More Fusshins
No more blue stripe shirts!
and the last but of fusshins!
Nice hip-check!
Oh, every week I try, twice a week even, try to stay awake
during my Russian lessons so I can improve my life and work in this
country. I do pick up a word here, and phrase there, but it
doesn’t feel like I am moving forward. I get so discouraged
sometimes, when we cross over a word I don’t know, and then when my
teacher explains it to me, I remember learning it way back in Peace
Corps training. Then there are also times, like when I ordered
plane tickets all in Russian (and they were correct!), that I am amazed
at how much I do know.

I guess I should dedicate this page to Galina, the very respectable
and proper Russian teacher I have, that tries desperately each week, to
improve my floundering language skills.

Moscow Times, October 28, 1998

Teaching Foreigners to Cross Russian Sahara

By Larisa Kosova

Last April, I finally realized that if I had to explain once more
that the Russian letter ‘o’ when unstressed is pronounced
‘a,’ I would go out of my mind.

But after three years intensively teaching Russian to foreigners, I
had learned some immutable truths. First, those who are completely
devoid of any-spirit of adventure would do well not to try giving
language lessons to foreigners. Second, those who don’t have a strict
uncle from Bombay to drive them on should think twice before embarking
upon the serious study of a complex foreign language. These are rules
that have been tried and tested on myself and a whole lot of other
innocent people during my time teaching at foreign embassies and

Many beginners who hire a Russian language tutor seem to expect a
pleasant stroll in the country rather than what actually lies before
them: a trip across the Sahara on camels. ‘Is three hours a week
enough?’ they ask. ‘Hmm. Well how about four then?’ At
this rate of ‘a spoonful an hour’ a teacher may be justified
in inquiring: ‘So how do you propose to survive then?’ Or even
better, for those familiar with the Japanese electronic Tamagochi
pet-care game: ‘How many spare lives do you have?’ But I am
not a rude person by nature.

So, where does this pessimism come from? For a start nine out of 10
pupils never do their homework, but only one of these ever says in
advance that he either cannot or does not want to do it, while the rest
never seem to tire of the embarrassment caused by elaborate explanations
of how busy they have been between lessons. I even remember one old man
who flushed without fail at this stage of the lesson, like a fourth

Then there are those who cancel more lessons than they have; those
who love talking about their lives and businesses during lesson time,
but, God forbid, not in Russian. Perhaps these people simply don’t have
anyone else to talk to.

As I have already said, a strict uncle from Bombay is a sure-fire way
of keeping the language learning process moving forward, homework and
all. The particular uncle I have in mind was the living embodiment of
the sword of Damocies, dangling over the head of his young nephew and my
star pupil. The uncle, a successful film producer, had lent a sum of
money to his nephew to set up a trading company in Moscow, promising to
come to visit him after a while to see how things were coming on.
‘Things’ included the nephew ‘mastering the language of
the aborigines,’ as he put it, and woe betide him if he was caught
lacking. But as for all my other students, without such a shadow hanging
over them, well, how can you fight human nature? There only so much you
can expect from a humble tutor.

Once a pupil from England narrowed his eyes cunningly (see pictures
of Vladimir Lenin in informal circumstances) and -aid:
‘Congratulations. Since we started our lessons together your
English has obviously progressed.’ I used to enjoy compliments
before that evening.

Another pupil took me aback with a different kind of remark, made in
Russian, and formulated roughly as follows: ‘it seems I speak
Russian badly, worse, most bad.’ (That was the impression I got, too, to
be honest.) A phenomenal inability in a person to learn a foreign
language is almost as rare as an extraordinary gift for languages, but
can still be encountered. This was just such a person. I paused to
consider my response. ‘The- deeper one immerses oneself in a
language, the greater the perspective for further learning becomes
apparent, to the point of infinity,’ I said solemnly. As his face
grew even longer, I tried to simplify things by quoting Socrates, who
after learning all he could learn, wisely concluded: ‘I know that I
know nothing.’

In the course of teaching I began to notice just how great an
obstacle to mastering the Russian language the Russian language itself
is. Just as doctors have to bear in mind the golden rule of treatment
that ‘Above all, do riot cause harm,’ in my, business one of
the most important principles was ‘Do not frighten.’

At the student’s first encounter with changing case forms, there is
no need to tell him that this is just small fry, and that the real hard
stuff comes later when not just nouns, but also adjectives change form
according to their case function, with still more changes in the plural.

Nor is there any need to torment the pupil until they perfectly
pronounce words like sovershenstvityiishchiysya. Far better to hearten
them by telling them that Russians themselves, late in the day or after
a drink, don’t get it right either. So, it was usually in a state of
blissful ignorance or in a carefree stab at such words that my students
would start to clear some of these hurdles.

While there is little love lost for Russian verbs, people are
curiously able to commit the names of colors to memory and never confuse
them. It was foolish of me to forget this. One evening I got a call from
– a man asking about lessons. I distinguished a French first name and
surname. As we arranged our first meeting, he stammered in patchy
Russian: ‘So you don’t get lost I’ll meet you outside my apartment
block, and I’ll introduce you to the guards for the future. I am short,
black with a white mustache.’

‘White with black mustache,’ I corrected him automatically,
He muttered something that I couldn’t make out in response. The next day
an elderly smiling black man was waiting for me at the agreed place.

I admit I may have laid it on a bit thick as I described the teaching
business and the spirit of adventure it requires, but then again, life
teaches us to value our small achievements. With the exception of two
students of Slavonic studies, none of my pupils is ever likely to read
Tolstoy in the original. Nevertheless, I like to think our meetings made
some kind of impression, if only as a sort of sociological introductory
course with elements of a culture program thrown in. And that’s not to
be scoffed at.

Frustrations of teaching the Russian ‘o’ notwithstanding, I
have every reason to be grateful to my pupils, since it gave me informal
communication with people from all cultures whose activities ranged from
running casinos to religious missions. Given my current occupation as a
journalist, this exposure turned out to be a real gift. I have also kept
up friendships with several former pupils, admittedly communicating,
humph, in English (with the exception of zdravstvui and do svidaniya).
And that bright summer dress, given to me by a most diligent I student
from Bombay at a time when the markets were still pretty bare, is still
my favorite.

Moscow Times, 3 November 1998

Mustering the Courage For 100 Years of Russian

By Nick Allen

A few years ago, I visited the apartment of an American friend who
told me that it was a case of ‘kill or cure’ as far as his
learning Russian was concerned.

Almost everything from his guitar to the cutlery bore a small printed
label with the Russian name for that object. As a confirmed bachelor of
Spartan habits, he only had one knife, fork and spoon, and one
all-purpose, blackened frying pan, so at first glance it didn’t seem
that big a deal. Until I went to the bathroom and saw he had written mochalka
on his loofah in black marker pen, and tagged the word bachok
onto the cistern on his toilet. I knew then he was destined to become

Just how extensively you plan on learning Russian obviously depends
on your social and professional needs, not to mention your general
disposition. Some people seem to manage to smile their way politely
through several years living in Russia, without knowing much more than
the azy, the ABC of the language. Others, like me, make their
lives unnecessarily complicated by trying to fathom every strange nuance
and memorize every possible synonym in the vain hope of one day
attaining the level of a nositel’ yazyka, or native speaker.

But however far you aim to take iziucheniye russkogo yazyka
(study of the Russian language), everyone has to nachinat’ s nul’ ya
(start from zero, or from scratch). A razgovornik (phrase-book), uchebnik
(text book), and slovar (dictionary) are good investments, as are
chastnye uroki, (private lessons) if you can spare the time.

But the simplest and most effective thing to do at any level of
competence is priobresti bol’shoi zapas slov, to acquire a large
vocabulary. A little effort here, and you spare yourself the
embarrassment of another friend from Jordan who was too lazy to learn
numbers in Russian and the word for egg and used to squat, flap
imaginary wings and cluck at shop assistants if he fancied an omelet for
his tea.

If there is a golden rule when learning Russian or any other
language, it must surely be to ne stesnyat’sya, not to be shy or
ashamed to try the words and phrases (or motions!) you do know,
regardless of whether the endings or tenses are correct. As in any other
area of life, only if you are prepared to uchit’sya na svoikh
(learn by your mistakes) is it possible to make any

Admittedly, the deeper you get into the veliky, moguchy russky
(great, mighty Russian language), the more it is like opening
the proverbial can of worms or Swiss watch, demanding, say, a split
second selection of one of 24 different endings to tack onto that
adjective you just learned.

But as I am frequently told in this context, vek zhivi, vek uchis’
(if you live a century, you learn a century).

Moscow Times, November 10, 1998

Mother’s Tongue Isn’t Kids’ Mother Tongue

By Juliet Butler

‘Mummy, should I wear my zelyoninkaya plalitsa
today?’ is fairly common Moscow-speak for my 7 year-old daughter,
Anna. In theory she’s bilingual, but in practice she seems – quite
incredibly – to find Russian easier. For those of us who wrestle daily
with our decisions and pronunciation it’s mind-boggling to think that
she should use eight syllables instead of two: ‘Why don’t you just
say green dress?’ I asked. ‘It’s, er, easier – isn’t it?’

Apparently not. it’s still a wonder to me to find my children
speaking Russian so fluently when I’ve spent 20-odd years making
convoluted grammatical mistakes. Yet their knowledge of both languages
comes so naturally that, when asked if they speak Russian to their
Russian father and English to me, they can’t honestly remember.

My elder daughter, Sasha, thinks in Russian. I know this partly
because when she talks in her sleep it’s always Russian mutterings, but
also because her English is often a translation of the Russian. ‘My
feet really hurt after all that horseback riding I did yesterday,’
she said to me the other day – nogi being the word for both legs
and feet in Russian. She also talks about her ‘fingers’ when
she means toes because Russians again have only one word, pal’tsi,
for both. (A bizarre omission in my view.) Or if I ask her when she last
washed her hair she’ll say indignantly that she washed ‘them’
yesterday (hair being plural in Russian.)

Anna speaks in more natural English, but splashes a lot of Russian
nouns around. She’d prefer to speak exclusively in Russian, but I can
barely understand her fast, colloquial babble. And since listening to
and speaking Russian is still a trial I try to put my foot down about
having my own kids speak to me in their mother tongue (me being the
mother bit,)

I may have housebroken my elder children (and husband) into speaking
English to me, but my 4-year-old, Bobby, just can’t see the point. I
don’t think he’s being boishie; he just knows that I understand him, and
communication with other people comes naturally in Russian.

Interestingly the girls tend to speak English to each other when
they’re doing something relatively quiet, like playing chutes and
ladders or a card game, but once they start fighting and name-calling it
degenerates into slang-filled Russian. Or sometimes one of them might be
in English mode and the other in Russian mode, in which case they have a
strange, but perfectly easy conversation in two languages.

Needless to say they speak without foreign accents in both languages,
which means that passersby presume I’m a very diligent Russian Mom
insistent upon supplementing their school English lessons by conversing
with them in English. I accept their congratulations with a deprecating
smile and admit they’re ‘making progress.’

The Moscow Times, January 13, 1999

‘Newcomer’ to Russian Bites Lingusitic

By Russel Working

It has gotten this bad: Whenever anyone asks how long I have been in
Russia – a storekeeper, an acquaintance, an unemployed sailor who drives
me around for a few rubles I tell him, ‘More than a year.’

‘A year!’ they cry, and I cringe at the unstated question:
So why is your Russian so lousy? Actually, it’s worse than that. I have
lived here for two years, and my Russian can generously be described as
halting. ‘Yes,’ I will chuckle -at my driver’s tattooed
knuckles, avoiding his gaze. ‘I speak Russian badly.’
‘Oh-ho-ho, no! It’s not bad at all for a year. Two years – well,
that would be different.’ Precisely. And so I have finally decided
to do something about it. I have gone back to school for a month.

I came to Vladivostok knowing not one word of Russian, not even what
to say if you tramp on someone’s foot on the streetcar (I soon learned
the answer: Nothing). And I have since survived in the cocoon of an
English-speaking workplace, assisted by a translator when I interview.

My girlfriend Nonna did her best to teach me, but I nodded off during
lessons from our Soviet-era textbook. My lousy Russian was well known at
work, and I felt a Nixonian paranoia when my American employees took to
conversing in Russian in my presence:

REPORTER A: Do you have the dictionary?
REPORTER B: The big one?

Why the secrecy? What about the bigness of dictionaries were they
seeking to hide from the boss? Should this be confronted at a staff
meeting? .

On Monday, I started at Far Eastern State University. I took a long
written test in which I purposely marked numerous answers wrong so I
wouldn’t be placed over my head. But somehow the strategy backfired, and
I ended up in a second-level class with two Japanese women who write
graceful cursive Cyrillic and whisper fluent, inaudible witticisms. Our
conversations would drive some instructors batty, but encouragingly,
ours spends most of her time correcting the Japanese students’ letter

HARUMI: (extended incomprehensible monologue ending in the word
RUSSELL: (winging it) Da! My name is Russell Ooorking. I come from
Seattle. I have four brothers. Want some gum?
PROFESSOR: That’s ‘risovat,’ Harumi.

Nonna is hopeful that I will be reading Pushkin and Speed Info any
day now. I will be happy just to walk away with a few more vocabulary
words. And if not, I have a plan. I’m telling the next driver,
‘I’ve lived here for more than a month.’

30 March, 1998

Language training

By Nick

I just completed five weeks of intensive Russian language training. I
lived at a Russian girl’s house and went to class during the day. The
classes were basically boring. It consisted of reading Russian language
exercise from several textbooks. I was very surprised by the fact that I
probably ended up reading around 300 pages of text. I did not know that
I could read that much in Russian. Granted, it was textbooks and geared
toward vocabulary that foreigner would probably know. I know that I
could not read a Russian book, since I just do not have the vocabulary.

Living with the Russian girl was not as exciting as you might
imagine. Like most Russians who do not know you, she was just interested
in the money they paid her to let me live there. The food was terrible.
I ate macaroni and cheese for breakfast and one day I had fish. The fish
had been boiled whole at sea, head, guts and everything, then frozen.
She thawed it, gutted it, and cut off the head and tail. Then without
cooking or doing anything else she gave it to me to eat. I ate about six
bites and then I was done. I went to bed hungry that night.

One exciting thing that was not very funny was I swallowed a very
small chicken bone. This girl cooked some really delicious Bortsh soup.
There is chicken in it and instead of taking the chicken off the bone,
she just cut it up with a butcher knife. I ate a piece and it must have
contained a bone. I went to the doctors about two weeks later when my
throat hurt so much I could not swallow. No one knew what was wrong with
me; I did not know I had eaten a bone and hurt my throat. After a bunch
of test, including a gastro-scope, they said that I had an infected cut
inside my throat. They gave me drugs and after about four days
everything was fine.

I do not know if any of you have had a gastro-scope before but it is
not a very fun thing. They sprayed some numbing liquid in my mouth, told
me to lie on the bed and to put this circular bite plate in my mouth.
Then they took a tube, about the diameter of one of your fingers, and
told me to inhale slowly while they shoved it down my throat. I could
not keep myself from biting down, thus the need for the bite plate, and
I felt like throwing up. However, I survived it all and they said I
could go back to the waiting room. This whole process took only 5
minutes from the time I walked in the office until I left. That was 250
American dollars. Talk about a good days work in just five minutes.

I did not talk to this girl much since she was gone most of the time
I was at her house. She went to school at night. Which makes me wonder
why they even sent me to her house. I tried to do things with her at
night or on weekends but she was always tired or something. So what I
was hoping would be a good way to make some Russian friends outside of
work turned out to be nothing.

The Times (UK) November 7 1998

Russia battles to purge language of foreign
invaders The purity of the mother tongue is in danger

By Anna Blundy

The Russians, sick of the linguistic colonisation that has been
taking place in their country for almost a decade, are preparing to
submit a law to the State Duma on the use of pure Russian.

Taking a stand against the Americanisation of the language of Tolstoy,
Chekhov and Turgenev, the proposed law will limit the use of the
unnecessary foreign words which arrived in Russia with the first ‘Beeg
Mac i fraiz” and have increasingly infected the language ever since.

At the Marina Tsvetayeva museum this week, a photograph of the poet
looked sadly down on the assembled Russian literature lovers whose
society had brought them together to discuss the desperate state of
their language. The fact that most politicians speak Russian badly to
the point of incoherence is a national joke. It is widely said that one
only has to look at the faces of Duma deputies to see that the
intelligentsia was killed off in purges.

Tatyana Guzikov, a member of the society, said that she could not
think of one politician who did not make frequent and serious
grammatical mistakes. On Itogi magazine’s weekly page of ludicrous
quotes, Viktor Chernomyrdin, the former Prime Minister, pops up a lot.
Of Gennadi Zyuganov, the Communist Party leader, he said: ‘So the
clever thing has found himself! Declare war on him! Him! Also! And that!
Right away, we’ll do it all! And what does he know! And who is he
anyway! He’s also crawling somewhere else if you don’t mind.” ‘Chernomyrdin,
of course, is the main offender,” said Vladimir Nerozak, head of the
society. ‘Yeltsin is simply off the scale. His Russian is simple,
to say the least.” President Yeltsin is notorious for peppering his
basic Russian with colloquial phrases, equivalent to Tony Blair ending
every sentence with: ‘You know what I mean?”

Mr Nerozak, one of the authors of the new law, insisted that the mass
media were the worst culprits and said that his deepest wish was that
Russian should be properly taught in schools.

8 November 1998, Johnson’s Russia List

Blundy/Language Purity

From: Thomas Campbell

I’ve long suspected that many foreign correspondents working in
Russia have either a poor or nonexistent command of the Russian
language. I suppose this may not necessarily be such a detriment, so
long as a journalist works with trustworthy translators: the story,
after all, is the important thing. As anyone who has lived here for some
time will tell you, however, where Russians are concerned, the language
very often is the story.

Anna Blundy’s article in The Times is a case in point. She apparently
isn’t aware that the ‘linguistic colonisation’ of Russia
hasn’t been going ‘for almost a decade,’ as she asserts, but
ever since Russian become a more or less distinct language a thousand
years ago. The Russian language has a truly breathtaking capacity for
wolfing down and digesting words from other languages, and in this sense
it resembles English. Everyone knows (everyone except Ms Blundy, that
is) that during the 18th and 19th centuries, for example, a large number
of French and German words came into Russian, partly because the
nobility often preferred to speak those languages amongst themselves,
partly because Russian sometimes had no words of its own to designate
realia introduced from the West (or the East, for that matter). (Those
realia were often themselves introduced by ‘enlightened’
Russians who knew only the French or German words for those things and
would have thought it odd to dream up Russian equivalents.) Many
(probably most) of these borrowings have long since become obsolete, but
a good number have put down such firm roots that no Russian today has
the slightest qualms about using them. The influence of French and
German shouldn’t be belabored, however: they are only two of the many
languages that have contributed to the ‘great and mighty’
Russian tongue.

Both the would-be defenders of Russian whose company Ms Blundy keeps
and their Western sympathizers are marked by their appalling ignorance
(and blessed with an abundance of nothing better to do). Last year,
Mayor Luzhkov led a short-lived campaign for linguistic purity; one
instance of alien invasion he cited was the use of the English word
‘supermarket’ to designate large foodshops. Why do we need
such a word, the mayor fumed, when we already have the good old Russian
‘gastronom’ for such establishments? ‘Gastronom’ is,
of course, not Russian in origin, which was immediately pointed out by a
number of Russian writers and journalists. Ms Blundy is guilty of the
same illiteracy (or perhaps she fudged the facts to make the story
spicier): we are led to imagine that ‘Beeg Mac i fraiz’ is
something you can order at McDonald’s on Tverskaya. Nothing of the sort:
‘Beeg Mac,’ yes, but it is a brand name, after all; ‘fraiz,’
no — the Russian for ‘french fries’ is ‘kartofel’ fri,’
which even the non-linguist will recognize as a combination of German (kartoffel)
and French (pommes frites). In any case, most Russians would just stride
up to the counter (or not, because they can’t afford it) and ask for
‘Beeg Mac s kartoshkoi.’ They really are not the victims of
American imperialism they are made out to be, just the victims of bad

The focus of Ms Blundy’s article, however, is the inability of
Russian politicians to speak Russian clearly. She doesn’t bother to
explain how this plague is to be stopped by those very same politicians
passing a new law. Instead, we are offered anecdotal evidence of the
sparest sort. A bunch of troubled ‘literature lovers’ gathers
under the spiritual patronage of Marina Tsvetayeva (whose
‘sad’ gaze from a photograph has nothing to do with the
proceedings). One of the defenders of the faith tells Ms Blundy that she
cannot think of one politician who speaks Russian without making
‘frequent and serious grammatical mistakes.’ I can — Grigory
Yavlinsky, whose eloquence may even be said to hinder his chances of
attaining high office. Or Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose rhetorical
virtuosity (rough-edged though it be)and verbal intelligence is admired
by many Russians who would wish no more for him politically than a chief
dogcatcher post in Smolensk. It is true, however, that many Russian
politicians make a mess of their native tongue, but that has more to do
with their having been functionaries in a ruling party not known for the
value it placed on clear expression.

Viktor Chernomyrdin — whose unbounded love of the rough-hewn phrase
and the syntactically inconsequential sentence has been surpassed in
recent times only by George Bush — serves as Exhibit A in Ms Blundy’s
case for the people. She cites Itogi’s ‘Mezhdometiia’ page (27
October 1998) as her source and then offers a translation (her own?):
‘So the clever thing has found himself! Declare war on him! Him!
Also! And that! Right away, we’ll do it all! And what does he know! And
who is he anyway! He’s also crawling somewhere else if you don’t mind.”

Ms Blundy fails to supply us with the context (which she presumably
doesn’t know): Mr Chernomyrdin was speaking at an Interfax news
conference and commenting on Mr Ziuganov’s sabre-rattling over the
Kosovo conflict. The ex-PM’s point was well taken (this was the first
time I found myself agreeing with him), but as always it came out all
wrong, the diatribe of a drunken welder fed up with his communal
apartment neighbor. In context, however, the remarks made
‘perfect’ sense, and Ms Blundy’s translation might be seen as
an attempt to make Mr Chernomyrdin seem more tongue-tied than he really
was on this occasion. Actually, of course, she wasn’t attempting
anything of the kind: she simply is ignorant of colloquial Russian and
passes this ignorance onto Mr Chernomyrdin. Here is a more accurate
rendering of the quotation: ‘A wiseguy turned up! He wants to
declare war! With bast clogs! His bast clogs too! And that! Everything
all at once! And what does he know?! And who is he anyway?! Meddling in
yet one more thing . . . Excuse me.’

Not something you would want to include in the next edition of
Bartlett’s, but Mr Chernomyrdin’s remarks were ‘clear’ to
anyone who understands Russian. Ms Blundy doesn’t — apply her
translation method to the guardian angel of her purist pals, Marina
Tsvetayeva, and you end up with . . . Viktor Chernomyrdin. So why, then,
is she so troubled by the pollution of the Russian language?

Those of us here ‘on the ground’ (like Peter Ekman, whose
personal account of yesterday’s October Revolution demonstrations on
Lubyanka Square was printed in JRL 2464) often find that the
‘realities’ of contemporary Russia as reported by Western
journalists are at odds with what we see and hear and know. I can only
guess that the aesthetic that generates stories like Ms Blundy’s is akin
to the ‘marketing genius’ of Hollywood: Let’s give ’em what
they want! A little romance, a little sex, a bad guy they can hate, a
good guy they can identify with! Russia (or America, for that matter) is
more complicated, however, and deserves better foreign correspondents:
this kind of ‘light opera’ can have undesired consequences —
witness American policy toward Russia. At very least, a journalist
reporting on Russia might be expected to have a firm command of Russian
(especially its colloquial variety, in which the real business of life
is transacted) and a thoroughgoing knowledge of Russian culture and
history. When he doesn’t — as Ms Blundy doesn’t — then his articles
will bear no more relation to the facts than ‘Gone With the
Wind’ does to the Old South.

Making political hay from the supposed predations of the West (i.e.,
the United States) on Russia is an old trick that Russian politicians of
the silly sort (Luzhkov, Ziuganov) like to pull when they feel the need
to stir up the downtrodden masses (who are, in the main, wise to such
sleights of hand and remain unmoved — besides, they have bigger
problems). Why journalists like Ms Blundy collaborate with them in these
efforts is hard to fathom. Perhaps the downtrodden editorial masses in
London also need stirring up from time to time, especially when the
agitprop is wrapped in the attractive bunting of anti-Americanism?