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Why it is important to hear Russian speech
Учительница: I think this is about the right time to discuss Russian phonology.
Ученик: Oh no. Not another discussion. It all sounds very theoretical and boring. I am not about to become a linguist. I just want to learn the letters and be able to read. I don't mind a little bit of writing, if you really insist. The one thing I don't want, is to delve deeply into the theory of all these things.
Учительница: What about the ability to listen? First things first, in the beginning there was the spoken word, and only then the written word came. When you go to Russia, the first impression you are very likely to have is of being bombarded by a constant stream of foreign sounds. The shocking thing for you will be that people around you seem to make sense of all these sounds. What about you? You will be totally lost.
Ученик: Mind you, you lose me when you speak to me in English, though I can understand others perfectly well.
Учительница: Is it because of my accent? Sorry. Your ears have been trained from childhood to distinguish the different sounds around you, in particular the sounds of your native English speech so you are able to make some sense out of them. That is why all the sounds your fellow men produce make sense or no sense to you.
Ученик: If you are not even going to teach me how to read, I am absolutely certain that I will get totally lost. I want to read and write now!
Учительница: Knowledge of the written letters might only give you a false sense of security. Being one-to-one with the spoken word, not the written one, that is the real challenge. Your Russian friend won't hand you a script of what he is saying in the middle of a conversation, neither will he expect you to answer him in writing. He would want the answer right there and then. Knowledge of the alphabet and the ability to read and write won't necessarily help with your comprehension and conversation skills. In the end, even the knowledge of grammar isn't that important.
Ученик: What? First you tell me that I do need grammar and now you say I don't? You have got me totally confused. Still, all this sounds great: no alphabet, no reading and writing. It sounds like a dream course for any student. Could you tell me briefly what is important then?
Учительница: The sense of what sounds right. We say things the way we say them, not because we stop for a while and think about a particular rule of grammar or the most appropriate word (although if I did, my husband might benefit enormously) but because it just sounds right.
When you hear any Russian speech you must listen. Your ears must become accustomed to the sounds of Russian speech. Don't rush. Listen. It will take you some time to grasp the meaning of what you hear on the recording and to become confident that what you think you hear, is really what you hear. Take your time. I can only help you to learn Russian but the major work you have to do by yourself. The next step of your work is to repeat the unknown Russian words as many times as you need so it isn't difficult for your tongue to pronounce them. You need to develop your Russian tongue. Repeat, repeat and repeat. Don't translate. There is no such thing as a word to word translation.
How do you know what sounds right in Russian
Ученик: In a course about grammar you are telling me that we speak the way we do just because it sounds right?
Учительница: You can't stop during a conversation to check with the grammar tables and what tenses and cases were used by your Russian friend or to work out quickly what tenses and cases you yourself must use. These tables can only provide you with an overall structure of the Russian language.
Ученик: I don't even know the structure of the English language, I've already told you.
Учительница: Of course you do. Maybe you don't know the grammar terminology but you know the grammar, otherwise you would not be able to speak English. The grammar tables are useful as they can help you try to discover logic in what previously seemed to be illogical but remembering the tables by heart, won't really give you a great advantage. (Why do we learn things by heart?)
Ученик: I need to know what I am repeating.
Учительница: You don’t for now. You must teach your tongue to pronounce the words. You won't die if you repeat these words after me and with the time you will know what I am speaking about. You will learn the same way as a child does. I can't translate. I can speak and write English. I can teach you to speak Russian but not translate it. Translation is too confusing: one English word can have a few Russian translations and the other way around.
Repeat every new word until you are comfortable with it. You will guess the meaning of the word, the meaning, not the translation. Try not to put English labels on the Russian words. Give yourself time to discover the meaning or all the different meanings of a new Russian word. Be as open minded as you can. They say that a baby’s brain is like a sponge. Allow yourself to be a baby. After all, what is your worst fear? Saying a wrong word?
Ученик: Maybe you are right about that, it sounds right when you are talking about speaking your native language but that is surely not the case for a foreign one.
Учительница: You would not argue, that you don't have too much trouble figuring out what you hear in English and can say anything you want, (or don't want) without thinking about the order in which you connect all the words in the sentence or the way you use the tenses? The sounds right formula works perfectly well there.
Ученик: Note that I have not got the slightest idea what sounds right in Russian. I have told you about my friend who has lived in Russia for years and should have some idea of what sounds right and wrong in Russian. However, the best he can do is connect two words together. I would like to do better than that.
Учительница: It isn't easy for a foreigner to understand spoken Russian at all.
- Russian language is a free-word-order language and is highly inflected.
- The Russian ear is very sensitive to these alterations of the words.
- Russian word roots and/or the stems are frequently modified by the addition or the absence of the endings, suffixes and prefixes.
Your friend may know all the words; he may read and write with no problem whatsoever but when he hears all the words he knows, joined in one sentence and spoken together, that's where the problem starts. He could be easily lost without any adequate training. The first step in dealing with this problem is to get accustomed to the sounds of spoken Russian and to all the different kinds of the phonetic changes that may occur. You should listen more to the Russian speech and pronounce the Russian words so you can develop your ear and your tongue so they may also become a bit Russian with time.