How to Understand Russian (or any other language)

April 10th, 2010

Russian?  You’re Kidding.

Do you understand Russian?  How about French?  Italian?  German?  I’ll bet you don’t think you understand all of them.  I’ll also bet that you can understand far more than you think you can.  And, with practice, and active listening, you’ll understand even more.

Not long ago I was idly listening to a National Public Radio broadcast while driving.  What caught my attention was a Russian man discussing how easy it is for English speakers to understand Russian (!) if we just focus on it.  As an example, he spoke a number of sentences in very slow Russian and then asked a non-Russian speaking member of the audience to translate.  Over and over again, the audience member was able to translate with incredible accuracy.  And, so was I as a listener.  Amazing!

So Many Similarities Between Languages

The Indo-European languages are a family of several hundred related languages and dialects.  They are most of the languages of Europe, the Iranian Plateau and southern Asia.  Although they have taken different paths, they spring from the same roots.  Thus, many words between many languages are similar.  The differences are often in where the sound is pronounced in the mouth, where the emphasis is placed in the word, and in the music or rhythm of the language.  Once you realize that the words are so similar, with active listening you can understand far more than you ever thought was possible.

I am a native English speaker.  When I was in school I studied French.  As an adult I have studied Spanish.  French was hard for me, as I was young and I didn’t understand the different grammatical structures, and I certainly didn’t understand how to speak with a French accent.  Nonetheless, I studied hard, and eventually became somewhat proficient in the language.

Then, when I began to study Spanish, I really paid attention to the sound and structure of the language for the first time.  I was astounded at how similar it is to French.  It immediately made sense to me.

Then I began traveling.  Although I haven’t studied or spoken French for 35 years, I recently found that I could still understand it quite well.  The same with Italian.  Except I have never, ever studied Italian.  Once I realized that it is just like French and Spanish, it was incredibly easy to understand (when spoken slowly, or written).  The words are all basically the same.  Portugese is the same.  I can’t speak it, but to me it basically seems like Spanish, with a Portugese rhythm to it.  Amazing.

But I thought I could never understand German.  For me it has always been extremely difficult to hear the sounds of German.  English is a Germanic language, so I could understand many written German words, but never spoken.  Then one day I was out hiking with some German clients.  We met an elderly German man on the path, a man who had been living in America for the past 40 years.  He was delighted to have the opportunity to speak German with my clients, but he spoke very slowly and deliberately, as it had been a long time since he had spoken his native language.  He must have had a very serious American accent to his German, because I understood every single word of his side of the conversation.

Listen for What is the Same

Once you realize how similar the languages are, and understand some very basic differences in sounds and pronunciation between the languages, it will make learning to speak and understand another language very much easier.  In order to listen to another language actively, to try to understand it, listen for the similarities, rather than the differences.

For example the word for When (English) is wann in German, quand in French, quanto in Italian, cuanto in Spanish.

One (in English) is ein in German, adin in Russian, un in French, uno in Italian and uno in Spanish.

Water (in English) is wasser in German, voda in Russian, eau in French, aqua in Italian, and agua in Spanish.  The more language you know, even if you think you don’t know it, the easier it is to learn even more.

Use all the resources you have, but your very best resource is your ability to listen, to distinguish, and to find similarities.

2 Responses to “How to Understand Russian (or any other language)”

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