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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA




Learning to speak like the natives
Linda Lippner

Like school kids everywhere, I reluctantly returned to Russian language classes after the holidays. My language school takes me back to my early primary school days; bright posters of animals and children with Cyrillic words indicating parts of the body and their appropriate clothing, and Cyrillic alphabet words decorated with cuddly animals and pretty flowers to catch my attention. Since I am a beginner and have the language ability of a Russian 2- year old, I fantasize that I might complete the coming semester with the language ability of a 3-year old. Therefore, I stare with interest at all the childish classroom props designed to help me stumble down the path to Russian literacy. This could be fun, I think. Think again, as my laughing, pretty young Russian teacher becomes a strict, relentless taskmistress who gets down to the classroom lessons and reviews our home tasks as she calls the homework. I like to call it home torture actually.

All of you dear readers realize that the Russian language is a challenge anyway you look at it. There are 31 letters, plus two special signs, which give you some guidance on how to pronounce the letter sitting in front of it. There are letters that have the familiar sounds of English, but dont look like them. Good examples: The letter that looks like a B actually sounds like a V, or P that really sounds like an R. Then you have the 13 letters that dont look familiar but sound like our letters; the one that I can type here is a 3 that sounds like a Z. I celebrate that I am more than halfway through the Cyrillic alphabet. Then you have the 6 letters and 2 signs that dont look like English and certainly dont sound like English. Actually, the problem is that several sound the same CH, SH, SHCH and TS. I try to make it fun by imagining that one looks like a spider and another like an upside down chair. And now comes the consolation prize! The final 5 letters sound and look just like English! 3 miserable consonants; K, M, T and two lonely little vowels; A and O.

As I stumble out of class I go out into the city and look around. I struggle with the signs, the posters, the billboards. One of my earlier triumphs PECTOPAH! And then there is that old standby ATEKA! Of course, I look like an idiot as I stare at a sign, mouthing out the letters to see if I can get past the usual 5-10 syllables that make up so many Russian words. Lucky for me, many words are actually English words lurking inside the Russian Cyrillic. So I stand in the middle of the sidewalk, looking at the alien letters to see if I can recognize the English word. I triumphantly figure it out and then glance down at the bottom of the billboard and lo and behold there is the website address in glorious English, mocking my everlasting struggle with the Cyrillic.

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