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Could You Learn How to Write in Russian?

By Jon, published on 05/03/2018 We Love Prof - AU > Languages > Russian > Can Americans Learn the Cyrillic Alphabet?

If American high school students learn Spanish, German, French, and Italian fluently, the same can not be said of the Russian language.

Russian is rare as a foreign language in high school. Similarly, in adults, learning the Cyrillic alphabet often stems from a professional interest or a strong passion for Slavic culture.

An American tourist who wants to spend one summer in St. Petersburg will rarely take the trouble to master Russian writing.

This is because the alphabetical logic of Neva and Muscovy is very different from what we are used to in our vast United States of America.

Another system means another logic altogether.

Let’s take a look at this specific question now: do American speakers have a difficulty in learning to write in Russian cursive?

The Fundamental Description of the Cyrillic Alphabet

The Cyrillic alphabet has a rich history that goes beyond one simple millennium.

Two monks, brothers and Christian missionaries – Saints Cyril and Methodius – composed a system of 30 phonemes under the Carolingian era which made it possible to transcribe Slavic languages that were previously only spoken.

This gave way to the “Cyrillic method.”

the-stress Americans have a bad reputation when it comes to foreign languages…they get stressed out to say the least!

The Cyrillic alphabetic system has had ample time to transform itself according to historical and linguistic developments.

The Slavics of the Eastern Russian Rite is now considered Old Russian or medieval Old-Slavic by the Russian liturgy.

Many branches have evolved from this common Old-Slavic, but it is indeed the Russian writing that ranks first, both in terms of the number of speakers, as a cultural influence.

Today, the Russian Cyrillic alphabet has 33 letters – there were still some 40 in the 18th century! So, how does one write Russian letters on a QWERTY keyboard?

Rejoice, dear American friends: there are less characters to learn in the 21st century!

This simplification and lesser number is due to orthographic reforms which revived the Russian language. These changes were eminently phonetic and of a non-etymological nature.

The Differences of the Latin and Cyrillic Alphabet

The differences between the Latin alphabet and the Russian graphological system is obvious when you put them side by side.

It is this contrast that can seem difficult for American learners.

American English letters come directly from the Latin that was universalized by the Roman Empire, while the Russian alphabet hails from the family of Indo-European languages, which is a cousin of the Greek that Cyrillic gave birth to.

russian-letters Old Slavic Writing | source: Wikimedia Commons

It is clear that if the alpha, beta, omicron, and sigma of the ancient Greeks are – like many other letters – quite close to the Latin characters, there are less similarities with the Russian alphabet and therefore increased difficulty for an English-speaking learner. 

There are however some similarities. Some of the writing rules are identical: the tip of the pen must stay on the sheet of paper all the way to the end of the word.

For the rest, much like English, Russian has vowels and consonants. The latter’s functions are however more complex in Russia. They can be soft or hard according to the vowels next to them.

This is one more obstacle to overcome, but don’t worry–it’s possible to get there! 

Learning any foreign language is hard. Here are some essential tips from TED Translators:

  1. Get real. Decide on a simple, attainable goal to start with so that you don’t feel overwhelmed. German translator Judith Matz suggests: “Pick up 50 words of a language and start using them on people — and then slowly start picking up grammar.”
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  2. Make language-learning a lifestyle change. Elisabeth Buffard, who in her 27 years of teaching English has always seen consistency as what separates the most successful students from the rest. Find a language habit that you can follow even when you’re tired, sick or madly in love.
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  3. Play house with the language. The more you invite a foreign language into your daily life, the more your brain will consider it something useful and worth caring about. “Use every opportunity to get exposed to the new language,” says Russian translator Olga Dmitrochenkova. Label every object in your house in this language, read kids’ books written in it, watch subtitled TED and TEDx talks, or live-narrate parts of your day to an imaginary foreign friend.
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  4. Let technology help you out. Dmitrochenkova has a great idea: “A funny thing like resetting the language on your phone can help you learn new words right away,” she says. Ditto for changing the language on your browser. Or you can seek out more structured learning opportunities online. Dutch translator Els De Keyser recommends Duolinguo for its gamified approach to grammar, and Anki for memorizing vocabulary with its “intelligent” flashcards.
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  5. Think about language-learning as a gateway to new experiences. To Spanish translator Sebastián Betti, learning a language has always been about focusing on the experiences that the new language would open up, from “visiting theme parks, attending air shows, enjoying cowboy poetry and folk-rock festivals, to learning about photo-essay techniques.” In other words, he thinks of fun things that he wanted to do anyway, and makes them into a language-learning opportunity. Many of our translators shared this advice. Italian and French translator Anna Minoli learned English by watching undubbed versions of her favorite movies, while Croatian translator Ivan Stamenković suddenly realized he could speak English in fifth grade, after years of watching the Cartoon Network without subtitles. So the next time you need a vegan carrot cake recipe, find one in the language you’re trying to learn.
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  6. Make new friends. Interacting in the new language is key — it will teach you to intuitively express your thoughts, instead of mentally translating each sentence before you say it. Find native speakers near you. Or search for foreign penpals or set up a language tandem online, where two volunteers help one another practice their respective languages.

Don’t forget that the Russian language has real tonic accents but these do not necessarily find a translation in writing.

To make things easier, buy a Cyrillic keyboard!

Are there Languages That Are Harder to Write for an American?

Faced with all these Russian writing details, some learners will perhaps despair and renounce copying beautiful passages from the pages of Gogol or Chekhov…

However, there are degrees of “difficult writing.” Russian is a relatively easy language to write when compared with idioms that are even more exotic than the Russian language.

In this respect, an American will have lesser difficulty mastering alphabetic types of writing: a vast group where English and Russian are found, but also less widespread languages ​​such as Hungarian (which, if it uses the Latin alphabet, also uses accents and umlauts that act on 40 different letters).

the-quran Alcoran | The religious language of Chechens is harder to write than that of Russians: no vowels, right-to-left writing, and a totally different alphabet | source: Wikipedia

These written gymnastics are easier for an American than syllabic systems such as Japanese, or even those that are ideogrammatic (Chinese is the key example here, where it is necessary to learn a symbol per word).

Similarly, a language such as Arabic (it is the same for Hebrew) is written from right to left and vowels do not exist will always be more difficult for an American student.

Bad Habits Not to Take Up When Learning How to Write in Russian

Nothing would be more crazy than learning how to speak Russian by refusing to write it.

Moreover, whether it be for writing or reading, the learning strategy is the same: memorize the letters of the Russian alphabet, know how to recognize them, name them, and pronounce them (if necessary).

Writing comes at this crucial moment.

We must not skip any of the steps. There is no use taking out your pen without knowing the Cyrillic alphabet perfect.

Once you know the alphabet, writing in Russian will come very easily, and is even within reach of a kindergartener: just copy and copy the same character from a textbook (you will find Russian textbooks in cities), then copy texts and sentences one by one.

This will make you feel like you’re in primary school once more! But do not worry about wasting your time or doing something boring: those who learn Korean or Tamil have no choice but to follow suit, and the difficulties they face are far more important than yours!

important-battle Crimean War | source: upload.wikimedia.org

In short, any age is ideal to focus on the written Russian word. You will hear this from many certified Russian teachers or private Russian tutors. In fact, you may want to look into a Russian private tutor yourself…

Such tutoring will maximize your chances of avoiding the obstacles that await you on the path of Russian-English bilingualism.

The main thing is not to feel alone if you are drowning in difficulties. You have to know that there are qualified people to help you with your language learning experience. The Internet, for example, can be a worthy compensation for any learning difficulties–as e-learning greatly facilitating things for American learners!

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