Russian or Spanish. Difficulties in understanding the language.

A learner at LingQ was having difficulty understanding Russian even when he was able to understand individual words. He just found the overall meaning often difficult to grasp. He decided to “park” his Russian and move on to Spanish instead, which he found easier. He wondered if it was his lack of grammar knowledge in Russian that held him back.

My comments were as follows.

My answer will be similar but a little different to Ernie’s. But then different people choose different approaches to language learning.

The simple answer is that in my experience, it is only with enough exposure that the patterns of any new language, the way words come together to create meaning, start to become familiar. This means that you go through a considerable period when the language is unclear. This is true at first with beginner material, and then once again when you move into authentic material. 

Fortunately most languages have a lot of redundant code, so that even with an imprecise knowledge of such grammar niceties as cases or prepositions, you get a sense of the meaning, understanding some contexts better than others. 

You just need to persevere and not worry about what you don’t understand. I find that even if I don’t understand, or even misunderstand a text, it does not really matter. I just need to press on, reading and listening, with the confidence that what is unclear today will eventually become clearer if I stay with it.

I enjoyed reading Tolstoy, or a biography of Stalin, in Russian even when my understanding was not very precise. It was my interpretation of what I read. That is why I do not like doing comprehension tests. I consider my relationship to the text to be personal. The second time I read the same material, some months later, I will have a new interpretation, no problem.

Of course you need to be aware of the grammar. It is useful, at least for me, to review the grammar explanations at various stages of your learning. A summary view at the beginning and then the occasional review of specific areas that interest you. This might mean looking up cases in a grammar book, or via google on the Interent from time to time, or aspects of verbs, or tenses or whatever. However, in my experience it takes a long time for these rules to sink in, so that you will be still be a little in the fog in your reading and listening for quite a while. But just keep going. 

The big advantage of authentic material is their interest. If you are interested in the subject, and stay with a limited range of interesting material, you will be motivated to continue and you will be better able to decipher the meaning. This will help you get used to the patterns of the language faster.

As to Spanish versus Russian, I think you should focus on the language that interests you the most. Russian is more difficult, in that the grammar is more complex, although verb tenses in Spanish are no piece of cake. It is also true that having to read in a less familiar alphabet also makes the language more difficult, and more tiring to read. They are both wonderful languages that open a window to an interesting world of culture, literature, food, music, and most of all people. I have found the study of Russian and access to that world to be a marvellous personal acquisition.

 

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