We are continuing last week’s discussion of how learning a different second language first may have helped — or impeded — you in learning Russian. Since English is the most commonly studied foreign language, it’s only natural we discuss it next. I would guess for speakers of other European languages Russian may seem infinitely more complex than English. Is there anything at all learning English as a second language first will prepare you for?
Seemingly Random Word Stress
If your first language has a fairly regular word stress (ударе́ние) pattern, English is a good segue to unpredictable word stress. Ostensibly, there are stress patterns to help you predict the emphasis in English, but you could spend as much time memorizing them than just memorizing the words with the correct accent.
Many people who commented on the previous post in this series noticed that Russian makes English/French/German/insert your European language here all look like dialects of each other. While this may be true thanks to closer vocabulary and grammar ties among these languages, Russian still has plenty of borrowed vocabulary for you to build on. A lot of science vocabulary comes from Latin and Greek, e.g., матема́тика (mathematics), теоре́ма (theorem), радиа́ция (radiation), etc.
Furthermore, Russian shares with English many French loanwords, which can be understood by someone who learned English, e.g., туале́т (toilet), рестора́н (restaurant), меню́ (menu). Finally, scores of recent loanwords pertaining to technology and business come from English and should be easy to parse — ме́неджер (manager), файл (a computer file), контра́кт (a contract; initially Latin, of course).
We may take these things for granted and think these words a but a drop in the sea of unfamiliar Russian vocabulary. Consider, for comparison, languages like Chinese, Hebrew, or Arabic, which don’t use cognates for words like “sculpture” or “electricity” — whereas Russian does: “скульпту́ра” and “электри́чество,” respectively.
As my co-blogger Jenya pointed out, some of the English loanwords in Russian either mean something different from the English sense or have acquired an additional flare not present in English — for example, ко́лледж in Russian refers to a vocational school (cf. “community college” in the US), whereas in English, this often refers to any university or a division of one. The same goes to many of the recently borrowed words from the business realm, like “диза́йн,” which only refers to the looks and packaging of products and not so much to their function and usability.
Moreover, the word stress tends to be different for these words in Russian — the last syllable is usually stressed in words like “бойфре́нд,” “Фейсбу́к,” and “уике́нд.”
Grammatical Markers in Words
It’s not always obvious from English words what part of speech they are and what role they play in the sentence. Some examples of where it is obvious is the -ed ending for past-tense verbs and -ly for adverbs. Many words, like “care” can be either a verb or a noun, and we can only tell from the context of the phrase which it is. Moreover, nouns can be use to modify (describe) other nouns in English, like “theatre stage” (meaning “the stage in a theatre”).
In most cases, Russian does have a morphological marker indicating the part of speech of the word, for example, the ending (or suffix, but we won’t get technical) -ить in люби́ть shows us it’s the verb “to love” as opposed to the noun “любо́вь” (love). What that also means is that you cannot simply put two nouns together, like you would in English, to have one describe the other. In the “theatre stage” example, you would likely say “театра́льная сце́на” or, more colloquially, “сце́на теа́тра.” In other words, if you first language is more synthetic, meaning it has explicit indicators for parts of speech, you may want to rely on that rather than English.
I would like to ask all the speakers of English as a second language — did knowing English help you at all with your Russian studies? Or was Russian a whole new level? Native English speakers are welcome to comment, too.