July 19, 2009 | Russian

Crazy Lady Talking to Herself

A good language-learning strategy: having no shame.

I can’t believe it: first-person present-tense verbs in Russian show gender. In other words, the verb form accompanying “I” is different if a man is speaking than it would be if a woman were speaking. That concept is utterly bizarre to me. But as I’ve said, that’s part of why I wanted to do this—to expand my parochial sense of what a language can and should be.

Evidence: Nerd Credentials

Tonight I did a 2.25-hour walk around Central Park, listening nonstop to VocabuLearn. VocabuLearn is very cool. It comes as a package of CDs divided up according to parts of speech or grammatical structures: (1) nouns, (2) adjectives and adverbs, (3) verbs, and (4) expressions. With nouns, for example, you hear a voice in English telling you a noun, then you guess what it is in Russian, and then you are given the answer so you can repeat it. After a while, the recording switches so that you are given Russian nouns first and have to guess at the English. It works the same way for the other grammatical structures.

Anyway, audio quality really matters with this stuff, and so my headphones are serious ones. Gigantic. With a huge cord. So, these days I walk around regularly in public with this giant headset on my head, talking to myself in another language.

This project requires me not to mind looking like a nerd. Fortunately, I had a lot of practice in junior high school.

For the sake of convenience and portability, I have transfered my VocabuLearn files onto the tiniest of devices: the iPod Shuffle. It and my headphones are incongruous; the headphones must weigh about 30 times what the Shuffle weighs. It is kind of like a Great Dane cuddling one of those teacup dogs.

iPod Shuffle, with Blueberry for Scale

I need to assign myself a certain number of Pimsleur and grammar book tasks a day. I plan to disregard Pimsleur’s recommendation of doing just one lesson a day. Sorry, Dr. Pimsleur (Dr. Pimsleur being the originator of this stuff).

When I do exercises in my Russian grammar book, I tend to talk to it. Out loud.

Today with each exercise question I begged, “Please be right! Please be right!” If I got something wrong, it was “Why?! Why?!”

I did particularly badly on an exercise where I had to say what/whom Katya likes to paint. Apparently I don’t know.

Comments (3)

Katherine • Posted on Tue, May 18, 2010 - 4:57 pm EST

You may know this by now, but the opening statement is actually not true.  present tense verbs do not reflect gender.  there are other types of constructions that do reflect gender, such as the dative constructions to say I should or I need.  The past tense of verbs also reflect gender, and sometimes the past tense is used in Russian where in English the present tense is used (example, Я пошла, literally means I, female, left, but it is used as I am leaving).  I am curious to know which verbs made you think that.  If you remember (which I would super impressed if you did after all this time and so many languages!) or if you could figure out, I’d be interested to know.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Thu, May 27, 2010 - 2:27 pm EST

Hmm, yeah, my memory is hazy at this point, but I am thinking maybe it was the translation of “would like” that gave me that impression. Even though it isn’t an example of simple present.

Katherine • Posted on Thu, June 03, 2010 - 11:29 am EST

Yes!  The phrase ‘I would like’ in Russian uses the past tense of the verb ‘to want’, Ya xotel/xotela by (Я хотел бы) ‘Бы’ can go either before or after хотел.  This type of construction is common in Russian, and explains a lot about Russian thinking and culture.  Feelings and wants are often expressed indirectly, as if the desire were forced upon the person and they had nothing to do with it.  It can be complicated, but once you get the hang of it, it’s fun.

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