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 â 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. Thatâs before trying to getting to grips with all the different accents! Russian on the other hand is a different kettle of fish â 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 donât follow the standard pattern; at least thatâs what it feels like when youâre 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 donât get anywhere near the level where life becomes easier!
When learning new languages, I have always been a believer in learning from your mistakes (ÑÑÐ¸ÑÑÑÑ Ð½Ð° Ð¾ÑÐ¸Ð±ÐºÐ°Ñ ). Sure, youâll make a few errors along the way, but youâll certainly pick up a considerable amount more than if you stay silent. My first comedy error was with the word âÐ½Ð¸ÑÐµÐ³Ð¾â which it turns out has two meaning in Russia â âOKâ, and ânothingâ. When studying in Moscow in the early 1990s, I was placed with a âfamilyâ, 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 âÐ½Ð¸ÑÐµÐ³Ð¾?â (is it OK)? The porridge was great, and I wanted to reply that it was better than just OK, and I replied âÐ»ÑÑÑÐµ, ÑÐµÐ¼ Ð½Ð¸ÑÐµÐ³Ð¾!!â â what I had in fact said was that it was âbetter than nothingâ, i.e., not good at all. Naturally she took offence & tried a spoonful from the saucepan & realized that it was fine, so couldnât comprehend why I didnât think that it was up to scratch. Only when I reiterated that it was âÐ¾ÑÐµÐ½Ñ Ð²ÐºÑÑÐ½Ð¾â (very tasty) that she realized I had made a simple â albeit crucial error, and we were both able to laugh about it once sheâd explained what Iâd actually said!
It can also work the other way; especially when translating literally. When a Russian is feeling unwell, they will say âÐ¯ Ð¿Ð»Ð¾Ñ Ð¾ ÑÐµÐ±Ñ ÑÑÐ²ÑÑÐ²ÑÑâ, which they all too often translate as âI feel myself badlyâ. When I explain that they have in fact said âÐ¯ Ð¿Ð»Ð¾Ñ Ð¾ ÑÐµÐ±Ñ ÑÑÐ¾Ð³Ð°Ñâ, they often blush a exquisite shade of red, especially the females!
Other East European languages throw up some classics â arguably one of the hardest languages to learn is Estonian, yet the number 2,000 is easily remembered since although it is spelt âkaks tuhatâ, it is pronounced âcocks too hotâ, and not to be outdone, 12 months is written âkaksteist kuudâ yet sounds more like âcocks taste goodâ.
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 youâll be delighted to discover that âcheeseâ is âsajtâ but pronounced âshiteâ, so consequently a Hungarian wanting to order a cheeseburger would ask for a âshiteburgerâ, even if it is spelt âsajtburgerâ. It doesnât stop there; âyouthâ is written âifjÃºsÃ¡gâ but pronounced âif you shagâ, a kiss is âpuzsiâ (yep, you guessed it â pussy), âqualityâ is âminÅsÃ©gâ (me no shag) and not to be outdone, a wooden spoon is âfakanÃ¡l (youâre catching on fast â itâs âfuck on herâ)!
However, as expected, weâll save the best âtil last â if your business takes you down to Kazakhstan, donât be surprised when ordering a coffee if the waiter asks you if youâd like some âÐ¶Ð°ÐºÑÑ ÐºÐ°Ð½Ñâ (jacksie cunt), which innocently enough is simply âgood sugarâ. Remember that one next time youâre in Astana, or just ask for âÑÐ°Ñ Ð°Ñâ!