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Learning Russian After Spanish Posted by 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?

Perks

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).

Grammatical Gender

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).

Curveballs

Underarticulated Consonants

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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About the Author: Maria

Maria is a Russian-born translator from Western New York. She is excited to share her fascination with all things Russian on this blog. Maria's professional updates are available in English on her website and Twitter and in Russian on Telegram.


Comments:

  1. basil:

    Spanish and Russian have much more common grammatical features than, say, Russian and English. Reflexive verbs, for example. Word use is also very close, for example, encontrar in Spanish and находить in Russian mean “to find”, but if we add to both of them reflexive ending -se for Spanish and -ся for Russian both of them will turn to ” to be (located) somewhere. And in general language structure is pretty similar, as for me I can say something in Spanish translating it on-fly from Russian. This trick des hot work with English.

    • Maria:

      @basil Basil, thank you for the comment. I agree that certain Spanish vocabulary units require much less conceptual explanation if you know Russian, like that besarse/целоваться is a mutual action and does not literally mean ‘kiss oneself,’ etc.

  2. Norman Smith:

    Hi-

    Before tackling Russian I gained a working knowledge of German, wherein I could read or say anything I wanted. Both languages have 3 genders, a number of cases, as well as the habit of appending prepositions to the front of words to modify the meanings. Plus my palette got loosened up from occasional sounds that German has but English does not. So yes, a knowledge of German helped me considerably.

    In between I spent some time on a kibbutz in Israel, where I learned Hebrew in an academic environment. The way they modify their stems is certainly different, but nevertheless comparable. Knowing German, it was as though I had a filing cabinet of sorts in my head, so I could organize the new ways of doing things, so that they made sense. As a result I ran rings around other Americans, most of whom did not manage to learn much.

    Russian, Hebrew and German make extensive use of the word for ‘order’– ‘порядок’ in Russian, ‘seder’ in Hebrew and ‘Ordnung’ in German. ‘Все в порядке’, ‘hakol beseder’ and ‘Alles ist in Ordnung’ mean the same thing and are used all the time.

    Norman Smith

    • Maria:

      @Norman Smith Norman, I tend to agree with you in that German prepares one well for learning Russian in terms of cases and prefixes. I wonder how much of modern Hebrew is conceptually based on Russian or German in terms of gender, plurals, conjugation, and tenses. Hebrew pioneers knew Yiddish and possibly Russian, so that would be interesting to know.

  3. Transparent Language:

    Comment received via email:

    Hi-

    Before tackling Russian I gained a working knowledge of German, wherein I could read or say anything I wanted. Both languages have 3 genders, a number of cases, as well as the habit of appending prepositions to the front of words to modify the meanings. Plus my palette got loosened up from occasional sounds that German has but English does not. So yes, a knowledge of German helped me considerably.

    In between I spent some time on a kibbutz in Israel, where I learned Hebrew in an academic environment. The way they modify their stems is certainly different, but nevertheless comparable. Knowing German, It was as though I had a filing cabinet of sorts in my head, so I could organize the new ways of doing things, so that they made sense. As a result I ran rings around other Americans, most of whom did not manage to learn much.

    Russian, Hebrew and German make extensive use of the word for ‘order’– ‘порядок’ in Russian, ‘seder’ in Hebrew and ‘Ordnung’ in German. ‘Все в порядке’, ‘hakol beseder’ and ‘Alles ist in Ordnung’ mean the same thing and are used all the time.

    Norman Smith

  4. David Roberts:

    I think for a native English speaker, Spanish is just about the easiest to learn to quite a high level. This is because a) of all the Romance languages, it is the most regular – fewer and less complex irregular verbs than French, almost 100% phonetic spelling, gender of nouns usually obvious from the ending. Then b), once you’ve learned most of the simple everyday words, and got a feel of the language, you don’t really need to bother learning much more vocabularly. This is because the “sophisticated vocabulary” of both English and the Romance languages comes largely from Latin. So for example, almost any English word ending in -ation is the same in French, can be converted to Spanish by changing -ation to -acion (sometimes you also have to put an e at the beginning) or to Italian by changing -ation to -azione. There are exceptions, I know, but by and large relationships like these can quickly give you a massive sophisticated vocabularly.

    Although German is more closely related to English than Spanish is, the similarities in vocabulary are more with the “simple vocabulary” and not so much with the sophisticated vocabulary. So you can quite quickly get to a level of reasonable fluency in simple and poorly grammatical German, but then it gets a lot harder as you tackle the over-complex grammar and the unfamiliar sophisticated vocabulary.

    Russian is on a different level of difficulty – neither the simple vocabulary nor the sophisticated vocabulary have much resemblance to English. The grammar of Russian is quite complex, but I find it more logical and straightforward than German and definitely easier than Latin.

    Going back to Russian after Spanish – that’s more or less what i did in the late1960s and early 70s. I started to learn Russian just in order to read, and when I learned vocabulary I used to think of the words as though they were stressed like Spanish – on the penultimate syllable if ending in a vowel, on the last syllable if ending in a consonant. Even now, if I don’t know where the stress comes on a Russian word, I tend to default to the Spanish pattern.

    • Maria:

      @David Roberts David, thank you for the insight. It sounds like you have studied many languages, so principles like inflection or verb tenses are not foreign to you. I’ve seen US college students with no prior second language experience struggle with what could otherwise be considered pretty basic concepts, like verb conjugation in Spanish. Perhaps once you got the concept down for a “simpler” (from an Anglophone perspective) language, learning a more involved language could be easier.

  5. Cheryl B:

    First, I’d say that if you have a good teacher, you won’t make those pronunciation mistakes(like using Spanish “d”) because your teacher will show how to properly form Russian consonants from the moment they’re introduced.
    I was taking my fourth year of Spanish when I started Russian, but I never mixed up the pronunciations.
    Unstressed vowel pronunciation was also introduced at the start, and no one developed any bad habits to unlearn.
    Also, learning Latin first gave me the concept of noun declensions, though we never spoke Latin.
    It’s sad to think students now don’t even know how to conjugate a verb…they should learn that in English, even if English conjugation is simpler.
    Neglecting to teach grammar does no one any favors.

  6. Matt:

    Which is best to learn before Russian, Spanish or German?

    • Maria:

      @Matt Matt, I’m not sure if I’m qualified to answer this, but you should probably let your career goals or interests guide that and not which makes it easier to learn Russian. German may give you some insights into some grammatical concepts, like prefixes that change the meaning of a verb or noun cases, but they play out differently in Russian vs German.

  7. Gene Willard:

    My brother and I spent a few years in Panama before coming back to the US. I went to Kindergarten there. I picked up some Spanish, not realizing I’d be using it, as well as Russian and Hebrew later on. I still read books in Russian and sometimes in Hebrew. I don’t use Spanish any longer but I can understand it if people are speaking Spanish.

  8. Swati:

    Hello Maria, I am Swati from India.My Hindi is very strong, but iI think my English is not very good…how I can learn Russian?Should I learn Spanish before Russian or not?

    • Maria:

      @Swati Hi Swati, thank you for your comment! You don’t need to learn any other language before learning Russian. It’s just if people already know a different language, it can help them. Good luck!