alan little’s weblog

the apple is red

26th December 2007 permanent link

Tim Ferriss has some smart hints on how to learn languages quickly. Since Step One of one of the more common methods – fall in love with, and subsequently marry, a native speaker of the language – doesn’t seem to have worked out for me, language-wise, I thought I’d give some of Tim’s hints a try.

He has six deceptively simple little sentences that, he says “expose much of the language, and quite a few potential deal killers.”

Let’s see what we can do in Russian with Sentence One:

the apple is red
Яаблоко красное

Approximately phonetically transliterated: “Yablaka krasnaya”. [The] apple [is] red.

It turns out we can derive rather a lot from looking at these two to four words. Such as:

  1. Nouns in Russian, as in most Indo-European languages except English, have genders. “Яаблоко” (yablaka) is neuter, as are (reliably enough for students of Russian For Foreigners) all nouns ending in “о”
  2. The cyrillic letter “о” is pronounced is only pronounced like an English “o” when it’s the stressed vowel in a word. When it’s not stressed it sounds something like an un-stressed English “a”, or like the generic/indeterminate vowel sound that linguists call a “schwa” – the “e” in “mother”. This rule is universal enough to be one of the first things mentioned in all Russian For Foreigners learning materials, but the exact pronunciation does vary somewhat. My wife pronounces it very much like an “a”, her aunt almost but not quite like a normal “o”. A generational thing? Regional accent? Random variation between individuals? Don’t know. Un-stressed “о” is often transliterated as “a”, as I have done here and my wife learned in school, but not always.
  3. With this and one other fairly common exception, which crops up conveniently in Sentence Five, Russian is written pretty much phonetically. Unlike, say, English.
  4. There doesn’t seem to be much by way of reliable universal rules for the language learner as to where the stress might fall in a Russian word. But never on a final “о”, I’m pretty sure.
  5. There isn’t a universal, standard, accurate cyrillic-to-latin transliteration system.
  6. No verb “is”. The verb “to be” is rarely necessary/used in a Russian sentence.
  7. No article “the”. Articles don’t exist in Russian language.
  8. Adjectives agree with the nouns they describe. “-ое” is the nominative neuter adjective ending. My wife – among her many other talents a former professional Russian-German translator – recommends transliterating it, too, phonetically as “-aya” because it is unstressed, although more literally it would be “-oye”.
  9. I can’t show it here because I don’t have a flatbed scanner or a pen tablet, but all the letters in these two words look pretty much the same handwritten as they do printed. There are (oh joy!) letters that don’t. And you can’t save yourself in those cases by writing the printed forms of the cyrillic letters. Print-style letters in handwriting aren’t merely eccentric or childish, they are outright incorrect.
  10. Word order in Russian, as in many other languages where conjugations and declensions carry much of the meaning, and unlike in English, is generally very flexible/interchangeable. In this particular case, however, “Яаблоко красное” is a complete grammatical sentence whereas “красное яаблоко” – [a/the] red apple – isn’t.

Not bad for one harmless little sentence, Tim. Having a native speaker and former professional translator sitting next to us on the sofa does admittedly help quite a bit with deriving this sort of information, but I’m sure a smart and motivated student would quickly pick up at least (1), (2), (6), (7) & (8) from any half-decent textbook.

Sentence Two. Sentence Three. Sentence Four. Sentence Five. Sentence Six.

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