I’ve not always had a passion for teaching – this somehow gradually came out as a result of my interest in and understanding of languages – and by ‘understanding’ I don’t only mean the ability to learn. This is more to do with the skill of isolating your mind from your mother tongue and learning a second language as if it was your first. This isn’t any new theory I am trying to propose; I am not trying to reinvent the wheel here either. This is something that’s been a continuous struggle for my students and what I keep drawing their attention to as I’ve found it useful myself. All my statements are based purely on my observations and personal experience.

Throughout my teaching practice as well as extensive language learning experience I’ve discovered that the more you try to find the links between the language you speak and one your learn, the more it undermines your understanding of the latter and the more it frustrates you as you are not able to find all answers to your questions. A lot of my students and language learners in general tend to relate the second language directly to their mother tongue by literally translating all the words/phrases and looking out for grammatical similarities between the two. You’ll probably recognize yourself as being one of those learners! I do myself too. While this could work well for individual words we learn, I would argue that this is not the most productive way of learning a language as a whole.

A lot of things we learn aren’t just a ‘verb’ or a ‘noun’. We don’t use a sole word to express ourselves – we follow patterns, construct words into a meaningful phrase, etc. When we learn a language we want to use it correctly and in the right context. If, say, you were learning a collocation (a pair or group of words that are habitually juxtaposed: i.e. ‘strong tea’ and ‘heavy drinker’ are typical English collocations, ‘крепкий чай’and ‘здравый смысл’ are examples of Russian collocations), it’d be hard to remember it as a set phrase if it doesn’t correspond to the literal translation in your own language. This is a very common difficulty that language learners face.

My past experience as a language learner and a language teacher has shown that learning in the context is key. Imagine you’ve forgotten your mother tongue and you are learning your first language from scratch with no previous knowledge of any other languages.

Look at these two sentences in English and Russian, which carry exactly the same meaning.

I have a family

У меня есть семья

Complete beginners (mainly English natives) would struggle to comprehend why the phrase ‘I have a family’ is equivalent to the Russian ‘У меня есть семья’. If we go by a literal translation and look up every word separately in the dictionary and adapt it in the Russian language by conjugating the verb and declining the object noun, we’ll get ‘Я имею семью’ which looks very different from the original version.

The very logical question ‘why?’ that follows from my students every time I teach them this phrase doesn’t cease to arise. Why can’t we just use the simple logic of translation? The answer to it, however, they don’t find very satisfactory. This is just the way Russian works and it is the correct ‘Russian’ way of stating that you have a family. It would sound peculiar to a native Russian speaker should you choose to use the literal translation. In fact this applies to every foreign language – they are all individual and don’t like to be simulated.

What I am trying to focus my students’ attention on to help them learn better is – always look out for clues other than translation! These could be visual aids, synonyms, examples, patterns etc. Everything that can help you learn the phrase in the context. The above is a clear example of possession and whether you are talking about having a family, a dog or a job it’ll be the same structure you’d use. The visual representation could also help you memorise this quicker.

A good exception, however, could be the case if your mother tongue belongs to the same language group as the one you are learning and/or a lot of grammatical and lexical structures are very identical. For example, my Polish students learning Russian find it far easier to pick up Russian than my other students – speakers of Germanic or Romanic languages, i.e. English and Italian, because both languages, Russian and Polish, belong to a Slavic group. The Russian word ‘добрый’ and Polish ‘dobry’ sound almost identical and the Polish writing looks like exact transliteration of the Russian word.

For a lot of English speaking learners of Russian confusion retains when it comes to correct pronunciation. The fact that English is not a phonetic language, unlike a lot of others, poses another challenge on the way to ‘understanding’ the language. And again, while trying to find words in your own language with similar sounds could be of some help, I’d recommend you focus more on how the teacher pronounces it and try and imitate the sounds. In other words, forget the sound /k/ that the letter ‘c’ gives you in such English words as ‘cat’, ‘car’, ‘call’ etc. and learn to say /s/ every time you see the Russian ‘c’ in ‘сам’, ‘свой’, ‘семья’ etc.. Confused? Hopefully not!

2 replies
  1. Patricia
    Patricia says:

    Hi there! This post could not be written much better! Reading through this article reminds me of my previous roommate! He continually kept talking about this. I most certainly will send this information to him. Fairly certain he will have a very good read. I appreciate you for sharing!

    January 18, 2015

  2. Elke Boschinger
    Elke Boschinger says:

    Thank you for this article. It is so very well written and I can see that you have a deep understanding of languages and teaching. All the best and I am looking forward to more language stories from you.

    May 13, 2015

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