Russian Language Aerobics

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Аэробика языка.jpg
As long as we live we keep on hearing new words and then we have to guess their meaning or we have to look them up in a dictionary. When you start learning a new foreign language, it is only natural to do a lot of this guessing. Your mind should be rewired the Russian way - a new "Russian-you" must be "born"

Ученик: Is this an aerobics class? If I wanted to do aerobics I would know where to go. What I want now is to sit down and study, that is the way to study properly. What on earth does movement have in common with cases? Movement is expressed by verbs.

Учительница: Cases are very important in Russian and motion can be easily expressed without a verb. You can hear whole conversations in Russian without a verb at all but with what looks like a million case endings.

Ученик: Maybe for you it makes sense but not to me.

Учительница: Agreed, not now. I can promise you that they will make sense to you after you have done these exercises.

Ученик: Are you serious, you want me to do aerobics?

Учительница: Not too strenuously but you do need to do the exercises if you really want to feel what it is like to think the way Russians do and to see the world through their concepts of grammar.

Ученик: Why can't I do it without your exercises?

Учительница: You can but then it is going to be a long struggle and I was under the impression that you wanted quick results.

Ученик: Let us get on with it then. What do I have to do?

Учительница: You have to watch the videos with the exercises that we have designed for you and try your best to follow them. You won't need a pen to write but you can grab one anyway, it could be a useful object. If you have not got a pen, take anything else which you can hold in your hand without getting tired too quickly. Let me put it this way: you have to do these exercises, not to develop your physical stamina but your mental Russian stamina.

Ученик: Look, I don't know any letters or any words and here I am going to develop my mental Russian stamina.

Учительница: In the beginning there was the spoken word and only then the written word came. You are new to the Russian sound system so for a start it won't be easy even to distinguish between the sounds, which may seem to you to be very similar. The only way to get around this is to practice.

You must hear the Russian words first; you have to tune your ear to the sounds of Russian speech. You must always guess the meaning of the new Russian sounds. You must force your mind to catch the string of the sounds that you hear and to make some sense out of them. Your mouth should learn how to pronounce all these new Russian sounds. You should be able to get your tongue around the unfamiliar Russian words.

Ученик: Since I am starting from square one I will have to do a fair amount of guessing. What if my guesses turn out to be wrong? How can I be sure that I am guessing right?

Учительница: It doesn't matter whether your first guess is correct or not. Eventually, everything will fall into place. Don't be discouraged by your mistakes, the process of discovery of the new language is more important than making a mistake or two. Relax and let your hearing, mind and tongue do the learning for you.

Ученик: How will I know that I have made a mistake in the first place?

Учительница: You will. It isn't easy to guess what is being said but you have common sense and that is the only thing you need. We start with the easier things and only increase the complexity of the sentences once you have become familiar with them. If you are desperate, you can always turn the Russian or the English subtitles on. We will try our best to add them to all the videos. This way, you will be able to see the new words written and you can learn them separately, if you wish to do so.

Ученик: Why can't we start there?

Учительница: We want to avoid the commonest error: a confusion between the written and spoken forms of the language. The rule of Russian orthography states that all these morphological units are always written the same way, independently of the way they are pronounced (with the exception of the examples of the historical interchange of the sounds) so the way the words are written and pronounced are different.

Russian words are written according to the rules of orthography. It reflects the morphological structure of a word. Read more about Russian morphology.
the prefix(es): антициклон (anticyclone)
the root(s): мораль (moral)
the suffix(es): турист (tourist)
the ending: джинсы (jeans)

If you saw the word written first, you are likely to pronounce it the way you saw it written, and you would expect other people to pronounce it that way as well. Russians would not speak that way so you would not understand them and they would not understand you. You will confuse your Russian listener and they will confuse you. It is important to read and write but first things first.

You should train your ear to become accustomed to the Russian sounds; they should become second nature. You need not only hear but listen also. Only then the sounds you hear will be able to draw a picture in your mind. You should train your mouth to pronounce the Russian sounds; you should try your best to imitate the native speaker as the correct accent and intonation are very important.

Ученик: I am not so ambitious that I want to learn to speak Russian without an accent, I have no plans to become a spy.

Учительница: If you pronounce things incorrectly yourself, you may expect others to pronounce them the way you do. So it is better to learn to say the right thing the right way from the outset. The good news is that an English speaker will find it easier to speak Russian without an accent, than a Russian will find the reverse.

Now is the best time to start doing the exercises with hands. Good luck!