I love languages, I think they’re fascinating things. However, being born and bred in England, where everything is in English and pretty much everyone speaks English all the time – in person, on the TV, on the radio – I had far less exposure to other languages than I would’ve liked, in retrospect.
While I don’t think this is a foolproof excuse for being monolingual (lots of British folk do learn more than their mother tongue), I think it’s a factor in how few of us learn and speak other languages confidently in the long term. It’s much easier to learn through immersion (being surrounded by a language) than picking up a book and listening to a tape, so English filtering into everyday life in other places must be a factor in locals’ ability to pick it up. I assume.
Having studied Latin at school to A level, German GCSE and a bit of French when I was much younger, I do have a continuing interest in linguistics even if I haven’t used my aptitude to its full potential, which I do regret sometimes.
When some random Russians moved into my first London flat unannounced (don’t you love useless landlords?), I was hypnotised by their chatter and wanted to understand what they were on about. So I fired up Rosetta Stone, bought some CDs to put on my mp3 player, and a highly recommended tutorial book and dictionary. With a bit of extra help from wikipedia and a couple of podcasts, off I went!
This may not have been the highest priority task while I was doing my PhD research but I had decided (or more accurately, my friends convinced me) that when they went home to Moscow, I should go and visit. Having never even been on an aeroplane before, this was a bit of a scary first-proper-holiday plan, and the least I could do to relax was get to grips with the basics of Russian.
In those 9 months I covered enough to get more information from my surroundings than I would have otherwise; I knew what shops were, what signs said, and a few safe food items to order. I even had a reasonable little conversation with a nice nurse in St. Petersburg who X-rayed my foot (always an ideal holiday experience).
One thing about learning new languages is the similarities to things you already know – given languages have evolved from common ancestors much like organisms have and the interactions between different cultures (e.g. invasions, large settlements) is often reflected in language vocabularies.
In Russian, there’s quite a bit of German to be found, for example. They’ve also adopted plenty of English terms (bar, radio, menu etc.). These cognates or “friends” can be a blessing or a stumbling block. False friends can easily trip you up when you think you’ve remembered a handy similar word that actually means something subtly (or markedly!) different.
I made a note of some when I was learning and I’ll briefly introduce a few.
A false drug?
One of my favourites is магазин (magazin), which sounds a lot like magazine when you say it. You might have seen this word before; it means shop so I do spot it quite often as there are a lot of Polish/Russian shops around London! But if you tell your friend you just bought one…
For comedy value, I expect you’d get a laugh if you started describing your crazy Hallowe’en костюм (kastyum, like costume) to someone, because in Russian it means suit. Not completely different, but enough to make some giggle-worthy errors. The one that did make me laugh was брат (brat), which means brother. Appropriate in many cases, I’m sure.
In Russian there’s also a distinction between hard and soft consonants, which can be difficult for many learners who aren’t familiar with palatisation in speech. One case where this could get you in trouble is мат vs. мать (mat with a ‘hard’ t sound, like in heart, vs. mat with a ‘soft’ t, almost like you find in culture). The latter is Russian for English’s loveliest word: mother. But the former means bad language. Best to remember that one.
Conversely, something we tend to derive happiness from, the garden, is actually сад (sad) in Russian. With reference to this section’s heading, friend in Russian is друг (drug, but pronounced like droog) – which A Clockwork Orange fans probably know already.
So there’s a selection of my favourite false friends to watch out for.
I also wrote about my trip to Mother Russia here, if you’re interested!