Learning By Your Mistakes

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I am regularly asked by Russians why it is that so few foreigners speak Russian. Even expatriates who have lived in Russia for a decade, sometimes even for two decades can struggle to string a simple sentence together. Yet they somehow manage to get by.

English is pretty basic, at least up to a certain point – there are no genders, few nasty noun declensions or verb conjugations; you just learn a few words, throw them together & off you go! The tricky part is when you get on to pronouncing place names such as Slough, Leicester, Fowey or Loughbrough, or the various idioms & slang which are in constant use, if you catch my drift. That’s before trying to getting to grips with all the different accents! Russian on the other hand is a different kettle of fish – you need to memorize copious amounts of grammar merely to make basic conversation (for starters there are 108 endings for regular Russian nouns, and the majority of them don’t follow the standard pattern; at least that’s what it feels like when you’re trying to get them to stick in your head)!

In my experience, Russian is badly taught at the best of times with far too much emphasis put on the grammar from day one, which usually involves a list of noun endings being shoved under your nose. There is of course no getting away from the fact that you WILL need to study the grammar at some stage (unless you really want to sound like a Tajik gasterbaiter) but contrary to popular belief, Russian actually does become easier once you reach a certain point. For a country of its size, there are relatively few regional accents; what you hear in Kaliningrad will be almost identical to what is spoken in Kamchatka, Kalmykia or even Kazakhstan, and another plus point is that Russian is an extremely standardized language, meaning that speech is extremely uniform. The main problem, however is that most foreigners don’t get anywhere near the level where life becomes easier!

When learning new languages, I have always been a believer in learning from your mistakes (учиться на ошибках). Sure, you’ll make a few errors along the way, but you’ll certainly pick up a considerable amount more than if you stay silent. My first comedy error was with the word ‘ничего’ which it turns out has two meaning in Russia – ‘OK’, and ‘nothing’. When studying in Moscow in the early 1990s, I was placed with a ‘family’, which in practice meant a babushka in her 60s with a heart of gold who would cook me breakfast every morning and chat away, as my Russian was rather limited back then to what we had learnt in our first two years at university. One morning she brought me a bowl of porridge and asked me “ничего?” (is it OK)? The porridge was great, and I wanted to reply that it was better than just OK, and I replied “лучше, чем ничего!!” – what I had in fact said was that it was ‘better than nothing’, i.e., not good at all. Naturally she took offence & tried a spoonful from the saucepan & realized that it was fine, so couldn’t comprehend why I didn’t think that it was up to scratch. Only when I reiterated that it was ‘очень вкусно’ (very tasty) that she realized I had made a simple – albeit crucial error, and we were both able to laugh about it once she’d explained what I’d actually said!

It can also work the other way; especially when translating literally. When a Russian is feeling unwell, they will say “Я плохо себя чувствую”, which they all too often translate as “I feel myself badly”. When I explain that they have in fact said “Я плохо себя трогаю”, they often blush a exquisite shade of red, especially the females!

Other East European languages throw up some classics – arguably one of the hardest languages to learn is Estonian, yet the number 2,000 is easily remembered since although it is spelt ‘kaks tuhat’, it is pronounced ‘cocks too hot’, and not to be outdone, 12 months is written ‘kaksteist kuud’ yet sounds more like ‘cocks taste good’.

Relatively few outsiders ever master much more than the basics of Finno-Ugric languages, and a quick glance at Hungarian tells you all you need to know, so you can give up before you even begin. But delve a little deeper and you’ll be delighted to discover that ‘cheese’ is ‘sajt’ but pronounced ‘shite’, so consequently a Hungarian wanting to order a cheeseburger would ask for a ‘shiteburger’, even if it is spelt ‘sajtburger’. It doesn’t stop there; ‘youth’ is written ‘ifjúság’ but pronounced ‘if you shag’, a kiss is ‘puzsi’ (yep, you guessed it – pussy), ‘quality’ is ‘minőség’ (me no shag) and not to be outdone, a wooden spoon is ‘fakanál (you’re catching on fast – it’s ‘fuck on her’)!

However, as expected, we’ll save the best ‘til last – if your business takes you down to Kazakhstan, don’t be surprised when ordering a coffee if the waiter asks you if you’d like some ‘жаксы кант’ (jacksie cunt), which innocently enough is simply ‘good sugar’. Remember that one next time you’re in Astana, or just ask for ‘сахар’!