The Language of Pickled Cucumber and Honey

I’ve shared you earlier my story with English, Swedish and French. As Russian is my main learning language right now, I thought I could reflect a bit about why I started to learn it and how has it been for me so far.

Why Russian?

For some reason, as long as I’ve known I want to learn a lot of languages, Russian has been on my list. I’m not entirely sure how it found it’s way there. I recognize, in general, at least 5 different reasons to want to learn a language: exposure, need, practicality, social or cultural interest (I could write another blog post about my thoughts on this!).

To some extent, it’s probably the exposure: the more I listen to a language, the more intrigued I get. In Finland, there are 70 000 people whose first language is Russian, and in 2015 we had 53 000 Russian tourists visiting overnight. So it is likely to hear a bit of Russian in Finland.

In elementary school, I had some friends on my class whose mother tongue was Russian, and sometimes I’d secretly listen to them speaking on the phone with their parents and be intrigued about how the same person sounds so different when speaking another language. I can’t really remember what Russian sounded to me like back then.

In high school a classmate of mine, a girl originally from Russia, taught me some Russian. I learned the letters, and some numbers and colours and simple phrases. I guess after that I had the feeling I always get after learning a bit of a language: I wanted to learn more.

Partly, I guess, it’s also practical: I found it possibly useful for future career opportunities. Many Finnish companies do business with Russia, and Russian isn’t a language everybody learns, so it can help you stand out as a job applicant.

I definitely have a cultural interest for Russian. There are many similarities – generous hospitality, a certain kind of stubborn pride, and, I guess, liking vodka. But the differences often feel more distinct. Russian people are said to be more temperamental, living in the moment and open in their expression of feelings. Russian has an imperial history. When I think of Russian cuisine, I think of pickled cucumber and honey (I’m not sure if Russian people actually eat this or if it’s a Finnish misconception), which somehow sums up how I feel about the whole culture: surprising, perhaps even somewhat strange at first glance, but in fact extremely likeable and brilliantly original.

But there is, I think, a sixth reason to feel drawn to a language. It’s the mysterious appeal you sometimes feel about a language, alluring interest. I think it may be born from a combination of all the other reasons I mentioned, but you may feel it without really being able to recognize any logical reasons behind it.

There are two foreign languages that have this special appeal for me: Swedish and Russian. I could call it infatuation, because it feel a bit the same as thinking about that someone special you like! Haha. I’m just mysteriously drawn to these two languages, they are beautiful and intriguing to me. They are the two neighboring languages to Finnish, yet not related to it at all and not really closely to each other either. Two very different cultures surrounding us, having their own influence on the Finnish culture, and still feel like different worlds.

I can’t explain it any better. Have you ever had that kind of feeling about another language?

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In St. Petersburgh in 2016

A patchy history of Russian courses

I finally got the chance to actually study Russian in university. There were a lot of languages to choose from, but for some reason I jumped straight on a Russian course without a second thought.

However, university studies were much more demanding than upper secondary school, where I had thrived learning four languages at the same time. I really didn’t usually do my Russian homework and because of that, the classes weren’t too useful, either. Every semester I couldn’t even fit the courses in my schedule. I also had a year off from university at one point.

So my Russian studies were really scattered: Course 1A in spring 2011, 1B in fall 2012, 2A and 2B in fall 2014(!) and 3A and 3B in fall 2015. Everytime I just stubbornly moved on to the next level even though I felt like I’d forgotten half of the previous courses (and maybe never learned the other half because I hadn’t really been concentrating on the courses).

So Russian was, after French, the language I most felt like I should have already learned more than I had. That’s why I’ve picked it up now again as my second project after having decided to really start learning languages again last year.

What’s difficult and what’s easy

I’d say Russian has been the most difficult for me to learn of all the languages I’ve studied.

Usually I learn really well by listening and back in school I could, for example, memorise entire course book chapters of French or Swedish just by listening to the recordings. Of course, I only recently started to feel like I can understand French speech at normal speed – the course book chapter recordings were simple and slow. But with Russian, even the simplest chapters just sounded like “lksdjladghksdlsdfhgsuadslkj” in the beginning, even after I had read and translated the text and learned the vocabulary. It took me ages to get the hang of how to listen to the language. There’s something entirely different about the rhythm, structure and sounds of it.

Reading Russian is also kind of difficult for me. No, I actually had no trouble learning the alphabet, when it comes to recognizing the individual letters, but somehow I still read very slowly. Normally I’d say you read by just looking at a word or even the entire sentence, but I still read Russian kind of letter by letter. It’s all about lack of practice, of course.

Another problem with reading is, I can’t tell where the stress on longer words is. If there’s a new word I read and haven’t heard, it’s very difficult to imagine what the word is supposed to sound like, because the placement of the stress makes a huge difference. I’m not entirely sure if there are any rules for this or if you learn to place the stress only word by word.

The cases are so confusing. Yes, Finnish is notorious for them. I don’t know if being naturally familiar with the concept makes it easier or not. I suppose I learn the declension rules easily enough, they are logical enough. The biggest problem is when to use which case! That’s where having cases in my own language is mostly just a stumbling block. The genitive in Russian is used to state ownership, just like in Finnish, but it’s also used with amounts such as a lot or a little, which, in Finnish, is expressed with partitive, also the case used for partial objects, which are, then again expressed in accusative in Russian. Confused yet? I am. Argh!

What’s easy: Verb tenses!
But wait –

That reminds me of yet another difficult thing: verb aspects. They only came in on my last two courses of Russian and I certainly haven’t gotten my head around them yet.
And all the little movement verbs with their prefixes:

входить / войтиto go in, to enter
выходить / выйтиto go out, to leave, to exit
всходить / взoйтиto go up, to ascend
доходить / дойтиto get to, to get as far as, to reach
заходить / зайтиto drop in, to stop by
обходить / обойтиto walk around, to bypass
отходить / отойтиto walk away
переходить / перейтиto go across, to turn
подходить / подойтиto approach
приходить / прийтиto arrive, to come
проходить / пройтиto go by, to go past
сходить / сойтиto go down, decend
уходить / уйтиto go from, to leave, depart

Gahh… Send help.

So, not so many things I’d find easy in Russian, but I guess I enjoy the challenge! And all the more rewarding it will be when I make progress.

I’m still kind of searching my favourite methods to learn Russian. Any ideas are welcomed!

And I’d be happy to hear  about your experiences. Have you learned Russian? Why did you choose to learn it? What do you find difficult or easy? Or did you relate to any of these thoughts with another language you’re learning?

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Kremlin of Nizhny Novgorod

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2 thoughts on “The Language of Pickled Cucumber and Honey

  1. This was such an enjoyable post to read! And I LOVE that picture of the blini! Did you make them? Yum!

    Do you follow Angelos Georgakis? He has a great (and very long) post on verb aspects:
    http://explorerussian.com/verb-aspects-perfective-imperfective-verbs/

    I started learning Russian about 13 years ago. It was partly for fun, partly because of that same mysterious pull you mentioned. Then I got lucky and married a guy whose native language is Russian. We mainly use English at home, but the English / Russian ratio has been changing recently.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, glad you enjoyed it! Unfortunately this blini picture was not mine, I didn’t have any pics of the times I had them and it had to have the pickled cucumber and honey on it ;D But I had excellent blini made by my boyfriend’s mum last Saturday. In Finland we strangely enough have small, thick pancakes when we eat “blini”, I’m not sure where that comes from, as the Russians seem to make them thin…
      Food. Mmmmm.

      Where was I? Oh, and thanks for the tip, I hadn’t run into that blog before but I’ll have to take a good look!
      Aww, so your “language crush” (that’s a term I’m totally going to start using for that strange language appeal) for Russian changed into a real crush for a Russian! ;D There couldn’t be a better motivation for learning a language!

      Liked by 1 person

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