Learning Russian After Spanish Posted by Maria on Apr 27, 2015 in language
I’ve often heard that after learning one foreign language every additional language becomes progressively easier. I suppose there may be truth to it in that you internalize certain principles common to many languages and develop good study and research habits. However, your first foreign language can also mislead you in your efforts to learn further languages. You may realize there are false friends and discover that the rules of one language don’t work for another. I would like to post a series of entries about learning Russian as a second foreign language.
Since Spanish is the most commonly taught language in the US, we’ll start with it. This first post will have to be based on my conjecture and the experiences of learners-of-Russian-after-Spanish I’ve met. I plan to expand this series and talk about learning Russian after English and after French, and I would love to hear your experiences. How did your first foreign language help you learn Russian? In what ways did it not prepare you?
Rolled R’s and Crisp Vowels
If you had any instruction or practice in Spanish phonetics, you may have an easier time distinguishing and pronouncing Russian sounds than if you hadn’t. One example is the Р /R/ sound. Just like Spanish, Russian uses the rolled R, also called alveolar trill. Technically, your tongue touches a different spot in your mouth for Spanish vs Russian, but the sounds are close enough to help you sound convincing. If you can’t roll your Rs — no worries, people will understand you with any other R (but not an Л /L/ sound).
Same goes for vowel sounds for the Russian letters о, е, or у — if you can say them in Spanish, you are unlikely to make them sound like the English oh, ay, or ooh. Most of these won’t impede communication, in any case — although it is amusing to hear “douche” instead of “душ” (shower).
If you know Spanish, you will not be surprised by the fact that nouns and adjectives have a grammatical gender and can be feminine or masculine. It will then not sound outlandish that we say “си́нее не́бо” (blue sky), “си́няя птица” (blue bird), or “си́ний забо́р” (blue fence).
However, the genders don’t align between Russian and Spanish, so you will understand the concept but will still learn the gender of nouns separately in Russian. Moreover, verbs in Russian can have gender, too, for example in the past tense: И́ра смотре́ла фильм (Ira /girl’s name/ was watching a film) vs Ко́стя смотре́л ток-шо́у (Kostya /a guy’s name/ was watching a talk show).
I think anyone who tried learning a second foreign language may have applied the rules of the foreign language they learned first to it. One thing I have noticed about learners whose first foreign language was Spanish is the way they would often pronounce consonants. Spanish uses what’s called “approximant consonants,” meaning parts of your mouth don’t come together all the way to make the sound. For example, “d” between vowels is pronounced closer to the “th” sound in “this.”
People who internalized this principle from Spanish will say Russian words according to it, although their native language is actually closer to Russian! I remember my husband, who is a native speaker of English, trying to say the word вода́ (water) and saying something like “βаTHA” — the beta being an underarticulated “v” sound. In fact, you can pronounce this word pretty accurately as “vuhDAH,” with “v” and “d” sounding similar to English.
Adjectives After Nouns
Finally, Spanish sentence structure may interfere with your Russian sentences. In most cases, adjectives come before nouns in Russian. For example, you would probably say “спе́лый виногра́д,” not “виноград спелый” (the latter sounds like a complete sentence saying the grapes are ripe). Adjectives may occasionally follow nouns for emphasis or for aesthetic purposes, like “кот учёный” (learnëd cat in Pushkin’s Ruslan and Ludmila), but that is not typical for casual or official speech.
Is there anything you would like to add to these observation? What has your experience been like?
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