IWTYAL 185: How to make your sentences less English

Meg asks: “How can I make my Russian sentences less English?”

Episode Summary:


But ultimately, a lot of listening and reading is the best policy!

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Full Transcript:

Good morning everybody, welcome back to the podcast. Hope you're having a fantastic day. It's freezing cold here in London which is weird because it's almost May and we've had like an Indian winter, if that's even a thing. It's like 3°C at the end of April, what's going on? Anyway, I'm recording podcasts, which is my favourite thing in the world to do. I'd just like to thank the sponsors of the podcasts, Italki, where you can get professional language lessons at a time and a place that suits you, which means online but you know, you can choose the time which is great. And you can get a free lesson by going to iwillteachyoualanguage.com/freelesson. Now today's question comes from the United States of America and it comes from Meg, who is learning Russian but is worried that she sounds a little bit too English.

Meg: Hi Ollie, this is Meg from the United States and I'm studying Russian, and my question is about; when I put sentences together, there's a lot of times when I might not be getting the grammar wrong but I'm not really speaking Russian, I'm more speaking English sentences in Russian. And I know in a general way I probably just have to listen and read enough that I start getting the hang of how to express myself in the language but I wondered if you knew any sort of exercises or techniques I could work on to start breaking it down now. Because I'm not really at a level yet where I can watch movies or listen to podcasts and understand them well enough to be focusing on the style but I'd love to start getting the hang of it right away. So any help you can give me would be appreciated, thanks so much, love your podcast.

Well thank you very much Meg, I appreciate the question, thanks for calling in so to speak, and leaving the question. So, Russian. You're learning Russian and you are still kind of in the early stages but you're already starting to speak and communicate but what's happening is that when you come to put together a Russian sentence, it's coming out as quite English because you're thinking in English and then kind of in a way translating into Russian. So you're basically worried that it's not “Russian enough”. I think that's how I would summarise what you're saying, and it happens to everybody. It's completely normal and there is no quick fix. So that's it, thank you very much for…. only joking.

As you said yourself- I mean you've identified the real solution which is that you need to do a lot of listening and reading but let's talk about why that's the case. The challenge that you've got right now Meg is that you are learning to express ideas the way that a Russian person would. You see, it's easy to think about it in terms of just language but it's not just a linguistic thing, it's a cultural thing, probably a psychological thing as well. I mean, take the word “Good morning” for example in English. It's something that we think of as second nature but if you actually think about what that means, “Good morning,” that conveys a certain kind of set of values doesn't it, or it conveys a certain sentiment.

The Japanese equivalent of that is Ohayōgozaimasu, which is an old Japanese turn of phrase that actually means “It's very early,” isn't it. So in English we say, “It's a good morning,” and in Japanese you say, “It's very early.” It's a very simple example this but it just goes to show how different languages and different cultures approach everything in a different way. So when we kind of zoom out to a thousand feet and look at this problem, it's not just a question of languages and words, it's a question of thinking in Russian like a Russian does. And as a consequence of that, there's just no shortcut, it's a long, gradual process and if you- you know, I just did a quick Google search for articles on this topic and there wasn't really much. There was very good or helpful but one of the things that everybody, all these articles pointed to, was that- and it basically pains to point out that it takes a long time and it's a long, gradual process, it never kind of just happens.

It's a little bit related really to the question of how do you stop translating in your head? And that's a question that Arnie asked in episode 167, which is about- yes, not that long ago actually. So yes, go back and check that out if you'd like to, just a slightly different angle on the same question. But if you want to express yourself like a Russian, then you need to spend a lot of time with the Russian language. It's a very simple equation that means a lot of listening, a lot of reading, a lot of speaking, and then gradually you just start to- your mind doesn't default to the English way of expressing an idea because it's just got so used to already thinking in Russian. But I think there are things you can do to practice this, and it's been on my mind actually, this topic recently because I've noticed that one of my big weaknesses in Cantonese, is that I tend to start expressing myself in English.

I tend to think about something in English and then try to express it in Cantonese, using that same approach or that same- how can you put it- that same approach to expressing an idea, the way of putting or constructing a sentence or constructing an idea. And I've just been very aware recently that it just comes out all wrong because I'm not thinking in Cantonese. When I've learned other languages, it's come much quicker than this but with Cantonese it's taking a lot longer. I still kind of find myself thinking in English. I think if we were to point to the process that you need to improve here or the skill that you need to work on. What it is, it's the point of actually thinking the thought because when you think the thought, you're thinking in English probably at the moment but by that point, in a way it's too late already because you've already got a starting point. So then from then, you have to kind of translate it into Russian.

So eventually you'll start to do it naturally. Your mind will go directly to the Russian way of thinking but the kind of micro skill that you need to practice that would be most helpful right now, is some kind of exercise that stops you before you start to express the idea in English. So it kind of slows down the process and then gives you feedback on what you tried to say. So for example, let's say I want to express the idea, “I'm hungry and I want fish and chips.” Now I have no idea how to say that in Russian but the fact that I've already said it in English means that we're not off to a good start because I have to translate, right. So a good exercise would stop me before I say that, and it would ask me, “How do I say I'm hungry in Russian, and I want fish and chips? And what's the correct Russian way of saying this?”

Do you see? So we're slowing it down and we are asking that question right at the first instance before you utter the sentence or even think the thoughts. And then when you do your best to say that in Russian, you get feedback straightaway from a teacher or from someone else. So let me give you a few little exercises I think can help. I'll kind of caveat this by saying that there is just simply no substitute for a lot of reading and listening but these are the kind of exercises that I will point you towards. The first one is reverse translation and I'm sure I've mentioned this on the podcast before. I've actually recorded a video that shows you how to do it as well and I'll put that in the show notes which will be at iwillteachyoualanguage.com/episode185.

Now the basic idea with reverse translation is that you translate something from English into Russian but then you have the answer there so you can check it yourself. So what you do, is you start off with a paragraph in Russian, so you've got to find something to work with, then you translate it into English yourself. Then you cover up that original Russian and then working from the English translation you've just done, you then translate yourself back into Russian. So essentially what you've got, is the English translation functions as the ideal- the concept of what you want to express, and then you translate it into Russian and then of course you've got the original to compare it to, which is your feedback.

So you're practising the process of expressing an idea in English, in Russian, and then you get the feedback from it right away. Definitely go check out the video because I actually show you how to do it step by step, rather than my waffling explanation here. Another thing you can do, is ask your teacher to test you on simple sentences. So for example you could have your teacher read out some simple sentences in English, and then you have to tell her those sentences in Russian. The advantage of doing that is that she or he can correct you straight away, so you get that feedback. To say it like this, feedback mechanism is super important because the non-feedback mechanism is just you going off and listening and reading as much as you can. The feedback mechanism actually is this- if there is such a thing as a shortcut in this case Megan, then that's what it is. Is having something to give you some feedback on what you've just produced.

Beyond that, you've really got to start speaking, so go out there, start speaking Russian. You can talk to yourself in Russian as you walk around the house and then in every case as you go to say something, try to- rather than thinking of it in English, try to leap immediately to the Russian way of constructing that sentence. You have no feedback, you have no way of checking but at least it gets your brain into thinking about how a Russian person might express it. Hopefully, with a combination of all of these things you will just start to focus on it as much as possible because I think really, at the end of the day that is what it really is about, is you just raising your awareness of Russian and how ideas and thoughts are expressed.

So I hope that's helpful Meg, thank you very, very much for the question. Good luck, and it'd be great if you could get back in touch in a few months' time and let us know if that's improved at all. If you would like to leave me a question, please go to iwillteachyoualanguage.com/ask, and I will do my very best to answer your question, providing it's not like a 10 minute rambling question, which I have to spend two hours editing it out. Yes, no further comments on that one. At the end of every episode, I like to leave you with a resource on the topic of the show. So two things for you today, first of all, especially for you Meghan but for anyone else who is learning Russian, you should pick up a copy of my Russian Short Stories for Beginners book. I co-authored it with Alex Rawlings, and you can get it on Amazon.

It's very popular, this book, and lots of people have found it extremely helpful. It gives you a way in to start reading Russian on a simple level before you can actually access novels. So I hope that's helpful, I'll put a link to this as well in the show notes, along with the second piece of resources- second piece? The second resource for today, which is the video of me doing reverse translation so you can see how it works. Both of those things will be in the show notes which you can find at iwillteachyoualanguage.com/episode185. So go check that out, you can also leave me a comment there if you'd like. I read every single one, and reply to almost all of them, unless I miss something. Thank you very much for listening. Thank you Meghan for your question and I'll see you in the next episode of the podcast. Take care.

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