We turn to Russian in the eighth post of our series on the ten languages essential for the UK's future. The British Council's Keira Ives-Keeler explains what gives Russian its beauty and complexity.
The Cyrillic alphabet can intimidate non-native Russian speakers – but it shouldn't!
Водка, meaning 'little water', or as the rest of the world knows it, 'vodka', was the very first word I learnt how to write in Russian. It might be a huge cliché, but it is a deceptively easy word to learn, and one of the few that I would argue is just about decipherable from Cyrillic for an English speaker. Here's how each of the Cyrillic letters translates:
В = V
О = O
Д = D
К = K
А = A
Easy, right? Three of the five letters are exactly the same! Of course, it gets a bit more difficult when you start constructing sentences, but in general, with 33 letters in total, it’s not so bad, and once you’ve cracked it, you can move onto the joys of Russian grammar. I would certainly argue that it isn’t the alphabet that makes Russian so difficult for foreigners to learn. Rather, it is the fact that, as a Slavic or Slavonic language, lexically and grammatically, Russian shares very few links with English (fashionable Anglicisms aside).
Slavic languages like Russian are not closely related to English
The Slavic or Slavonic family of languages consists of three branches – East Slavic (Belarusian, Russian, Ukrainian), West Slavic (Czech, Slovak, Polish and others) and South Slavic (Bulgarian, Macedonian, Serbo-Croatian and Slovenian). In reality, I find that what this means is that as an English native speaker, most of the time, if you don’t know a word it’s pretty difficult (read: near impossible) to guess.
Nevertheless, in recent years, English has had a growing influence on the Russian language, which is particularly noticeable in Russian spoken in business settings, and in the Russian media. From стейкхолдеры (stakeholderi/stakeholders) to ‘брокеры’ (brokeri/brokers) there are countless examples to choose from. One of the most bizarre examples of this has got to be the legendary Moscow ‘фейс контроль’ (face control).
Russian pronunciation and grammar can be challenging
This growing influence of English might mean that, in years to come, it will be easier for foreigners to learn Russian, but I can’t help feeling that that may well still be a long way off. In the meantime, there is plenty for non-native speakers of Russian to be getting on with. Verbs of motions, verbal aspect, and anything to do with numbers/dates/numerals are the dreaded cases, but it has to be said that, although there are lots of rules, there are equally few exceptions.
Also, pronunciation is tricky and once you step into the real world and away from your lovely Russian textbooks, predicting where the stress falls in a word and how to pronounce it correctly becomes a lot more complicated (unlike Spanish, for example, with its penultimate syllable stress unless where marked). This is one area lacking in rules when it comes to Russian, as stress is not fixed (and can fall at the beginning, middle or end of a word). Placing the stress on the wrong part of the word can cause all sorts of confusion, mainly resulting in blank faces or potentially laughter depending on what you might (unintentionally) have come out with.
Russian is intensely lyrical
In spite of this, complex as it might be, Russian is an incredibly beautiful and lyrical language. It’s no coincidence that some of the world’s greatest poets hailed from here. And once you have achieved some level of proficiency, the sense of achievement makes it all worthwhile.
Russian culture is not easy to grasp, but it's worth the investment
As with most languages, the best way to learn Russian is through immersion. This was my experience, although, unlike many students who come to Russia on their year abroad at university, I chose to live in a student dorm (общежитие) rather than with a host family. I will never forget arriving at St. Petersburg, exhausted after a long journey via Germany, stepping out into the cold, gloomy Russian afternoon and wondering quite what I’d let myself in for, as the university driver grabbed my bags and trudged off to the car park, muttering and grumbling to himself along the way. I was fresh from a summer in sunny Florence and had been repeatedly told that St. Petersburg truly was 'the Venice of the North'. As it turned out, two years of studying beginner’s Russian at university hadn’t quite equipped me for the numerous encounters with angry babushkas, disgruntled cashiers and perpetually miserable and erratic marshrutka (shared taxi) drivers that awaited me.
However, what my first years of studying Russian in the UK also hadn’t prepared me for was the overwhelming grandeur of what has to be one of the most stunning cities in the world, and the unforgettable experiences and people that would shape the future of my career and the next few years of my life. Russia may initially seem like a grey country on the surface – grey skies, grey buildings, grey people, even! – but if you delve deep enough you will see that there is a humanity and 'realness' about Russia that is difficult to describe and endlessly fascinating. Social etiquette may be quite different, most notably perhaps in the traditional Russian approach to smiling – generally, smiles are reserved exclusively for people you know and not for strangers (for example, in shops and supermarkets). However, having the opportunity to put my language skills into practice gave me an insight into the country and culture that no number of textbooks, history books or travel guides ever could. Furthermore, Russian hospitality is difficult to rival, and, just like the British, they like a good party (although this is not actually the impression that Russians tend to have of us)!
Understanding Russian opens up a world of incredible art, theatre, literature and culture
So, in spite of Russian’s reputation as an extremely difficult language to learn, for those who do give it a go, the potential rewards can be huge. With some of the finest literature, theatre and art in the world coming from the Russian-speaking world, if you do love culture then you are simply spoilt for choice. Nothing can compare with reading Russian works in the original; Anton Chekhov, Ivan Bunin and the modernist poet Anna Akhmatova are probably my personal favourites. A night at the theatre is par for the course and generally won’t break the bank. Moscow and St. Petersburg regularly host some of the most famous and revered art works the world over, and once you get used to the fact that smiling at strangers is a no-no (I’m still getting there with that) you’re halfway there.
Russian is the eighth most widely-spoken native language in the world
Furthermore, you have the whole of the Russian-speaking world to explore. Russian ranks eighth in the world with 140-150 million native speakers, and is also spoken as a second language by over 120 million people in Russia and the neighbouring countries of Central Asia – the majority of these people will not, in fact, speak English.
Speaking Russian gives a useful edge in your career
Although Russian may still be seen as a niche language (something that should be challenged, in my opinion, considering the global role that Russia and the Russian-speaking world has to play), speaking a language that many other native English speakers do not speak opens up opportunities that might not be available otherwise. From interpreting at international conferences in Asia, to working as a translator at the UN in Vienna, my knowledge of Russian has helped me see the world. I've met some amazing people and learnt more than just vocabulary along the way. It even led me to the British Council, through my participation in the organisation’s graduate scheme.
So, all in all, although I may not have had a clue what I’d let myself in for when I first started learning Russian, I have to say that I agree with the BBC’s Bridget Kendall, who is quoted in the Languages of the Future report as saying that 'deciding to learn Russian was probably the best decision I ever made'. It might not always feel like it on the days when it’s -20 degrees in Moscow and the threat of ice underfoot and icicles overhead loom ominously. But on the whole, learning this beautiful and complex language has opened up an equally beautiful and complex country for me. Russia might well be a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, but life in Russia is certainly never boring, and learning Russian is never dull. Besides, in true Russian spirit – if you don’t have to suffer for it, then surely it’s not worth it anyway!