Archive for February, 2010

The Best Way to Learn Russian

February 21st, 2010

I get asked that question a lot: “Say, what’s the best way to learn Russian?” What a lot of people will say, almost flippantly, is, “Go live in Russia.”

Gosh, thanks buddy. Real practical advice.

And you know what? Even if you could easily just move to Russia, that would NOT be the best way to learn, at first. I know many American and British men who live here in Sevastopol, and they all know scarcely a word of Russian between them. So, living here is not going to do anything. You can learn Russian right at home, where you live now. It’s not where you live, it’s how you learn and how you study that makes the difference.

First, you need a multiple-attack plan for learning. You don’t want one of those Audio Only courses, nor do you want one of those only Pictures programs. No One Trick Pony is going to work. You need to be learning on different levels, with different approaches. For example, some words are best learned through mnemonic devices. (See my learn Russian phrases PowerPhrase videos, for example.)

But there’s lots more words that don’t fit neatly into such sentences. You need to learn them — and all words, really — through the contextual method. (Click here for some articles about Contextual Learning and how it helps to learn Russian.) Not that learning Russian has much to do with learning words.

Yes, I probably need to repeat that: Learning words is not the same as learning a language. Language has rules for how words need to change, and how they can go together. These rules are called grammar. If you really want to learn the language — to be able to have conversations and to understand what people are talking about — you need to be shown Russian grammar correctly.

Unfortunately, most courses either ignore teaching grammar (because it IS devilishly hard) or teach it totally wrong, using charts and tables as if it were chemistry.

So, you need a course that teaches words and phrases in various ways, depending on the words themselves. And a course that teaches grammar as simply and clearly as possible. This is done via Pattern Recognition. You are shown the patterns of the language, and learn how to extrapolate. But what you don’t need to be bogged done with are all the laborious names and nomenclature for grammar. Do you know what modal verbs are in English? Perhaps not, but you certainly are a master at using them, even new verbs, because you understand the patterns.

Finally, you need a course that takes careful review into account. By careful, I don’t just mean a course that asks you the same question each week. No. You can (and should) do that on your own study time. The course itself needs to have you work with your Russian vocabulary. Ask you questions where you are forced to use existing vocabulary in new ways.

That’s what a superior course in Russian should do, and is in my opinion the best way to learn Russian fast, or any language for that matter.

Don’t settle for less.

How to Learn Russian: Contextual learning Part 2

February 20th, 2010

Let’s learn some new words online today related to language. We’ll be doing this by seeing the words in context and deducing the meaning naturally. if you missed the first part of this series called How to learn Russian contextual learning part 1 check it out. Here goes part 2…

I didn’t know the meaning of the word “obsequious” so I looked it up in the slovar.
(Pronounced: sluh-VAR)

English is my native yihzik, but I’ve been studying the Russian yihzik for seven years now and speak it almost fluently.
(Pronounced yih-ZEEK)

I always forget how to spell the slovo “tomorow.” Are there two R’s or just one?
(Pronounced: SLOW – vuh)

Z is the last bukva of the alfaveet.
(Pronounced: BUKE-vah and al-fah-VEET)

In this restaurant the other day, I was very unhappy with the food and the service, so I told the waitress, “Excuse me, I’d like to govoreet with the manager.”
(Pronounced guh-var-EET)

I always have the Russian news station playing on my satelite radio because it’s important to slushat to lots of Russian speech.
(Pronounced SLEW-shut)

Let’s review those words.

What is a slovar? A slovar is a book which has the definition of virtually every word in a particular language.

What does yizik mean? A yizik is a systematic means of communicating using sounds or written symbols.

What is a slovo? A slovo is an utterance, or its representation in writing, which communicates a particular meaning based on context.

What is a bukva? A bukva is a written symbol which represents a spoken sound, or part of a sound, and is a component of an alphabet. A bukva doesn’t usually have meaning on its own, but is placed together with other bukvi to spell words.

What is an alfaveet? An alfaveet is the letters of a language, arranged in order by custom.

What does govoreet mean? Govoreet means to express something with speech.

What does slushat mean? Slushat is when we make an effort to hear something.

Let’s use them in new contextual situations. “Mom, how do you spell the slovo ‘exaggerate’?” — “I don’t know. Look it up in the slovar.”

The English alfaveet has 26 bukvi, but the Russian alfaveet has 33. The spelling, though, of Russian is easy. It’s the grammar that makes it such a difficult yizik.

When the telemarketer called, a little girl answered the phone. He told her, “Hi, I’m calling from Wizard Marketing. Can you give the phone to your mommy, I need to govoreet with her.”

The guitarist turned away from the stereo to yell at his noisy roommates. “Hey, can you guys be quiet? I need to slushat to this song, because I’m performing it next week.”

Note how we didn’t actually define what these new words meant. We used them in context, which is the only way Russians know these words, too.

Learn Online Travel Phrases for Sochi 2014

February 18th, 2010

The Winter Olympics are coming to Sochi, Russia in 2014. This article will give you the basic travel phrases you’ll need if you planning on attending The Games.

The word for “taxi” is the same in Russian as in English, but the accent changes. They say it like this, “tahk-SEE”. If you say the word correctly, the driver will assume you speak some Russian, and will ask you, “kuda?” (”koo” as in koo-koo, plus “da”, which sounds like “dot” without the “t”). Kuda means “Where to?”

Tell him, “Gostinitsa” if you want to head to your hotel. Let’s sound out that word:

“Gos” rhymes with the beginning of “ostrich”.
The “ti” sounds like “tea”.
“Nit” is pronounced like “neat”.
And the “sa” rhymes with “duh”.

So: gos – tea – neat -suh…But better to spell it, “Gostinitsa.” Hotel.

If you are headed over and didn’t have time to learn Russian, there are some online courses you can try of course. For now though, some more basics.

After you get to your hotel, you’ll soon be wanting to catch the Games. Here’s the main arenas and how to pronounce them. Also, bear in mind, The Games will be organized within two clusters, a coastal cluster in Sochi and a mountain cluster in Krasnaya Polyana. (KRAHS – nai – yah Pahl – YAH – nuh.)

“Bolshaya ledovaya arena” is the Big Ice-Rink, and the “Malaya ledovaya arena” is the Small ice Rink. Let’s look at the pronunciation:

“bahl – SHAI – yuh leh – DOH – vai -yuh ar – YEN – uh.” Practice saying it fast.
Meanwhile, the word “Malaya” is pronounced: “MAH – lai – uh.”

Speed Skating takes place at: “Konkabezhni Tsentr”

Figure Skating takes place in the “Ledovi Dvarets Sporta” (Lit: The Ice Palace of Sport.) The accent is on the “o”…Leh -DOH-vi Dvar-ETS.

If curling is your thing, you can catch all the heart-stopping action at the Arena For Curling, called “Arena Dlya Kurlinga”.

The Olympic Stadium itself also sounds very similar in Russian: “Olympiski Stadion”.

And the Main Olympic Village is called “Glavnaya Olympiskaya Derevniya.”

Sports like bobsledding and skiing take place in another main region, the Krasnaya Polyana.
For bobsledding, the main word you need is, “Bob-sleigh”. Say that to someone, and they’ll help you find the right place. And for ski events, you’ll want to know the word “Leezh-nee”. From that word, just add a little body language as to whether you ‘re interested in watching cross-country, or downhill.

Of course there will be brochures in English, but won’t you feel better knowing some of these words and using them when you’re there. It’ll be like your own form of participating in the games.

Oh, and one last word, after the sports are done for the night: Pivo (pronounced “PEE-vuh”) is the Russian word for beer.


Apartment Fire… Close Call

February 17th, 2010

It started at around 1am. Dasha was in the bedroom sleeping, and I was in the main room finishing some work. That’s when I smelled the smoke. I open the door that leads to the little hallway, at the end of which is the apartment door — the only door out. The smoke in the hall hit me immediately. I coughed my way to the door and opened it.


Not good. I couldn’t see two feet. Back inside — close the door.

“Dasha, I’m sorry but you need to get up,” I said, as I pulled the blanket off her. “There’s a fire.”

She sat bolt upright. “Fire?!”

You could hear the yelling, now. A neighbor urging people to wake up and get out, get out!

No, this is definitely not good.

Dasha’s getting dressed and I look at myself…Yes, street clothes. Good idea. But looking back, that’s probably when we lost our chance to get out.

She scurried to the main door — “No, don’t open it, sweety,” I told her. “It’s bad.” She put her ear to the door, trying to hear what the people were yelling. “Fire,” she repeated. “That lady is saying get out. Mark, what do we do?”

You don’t find yourself in many situations like this in life. The mind moves fast. “Can you get me the towels your mom gave us, honey? The thick ones.”


“Soak them good in water and put them at the base of the door.” While she did that, I started packing the essentials: Passport, money, laptop, medicines. It’s funny the things you grab when you have only thirty seconds to pack. For some reason, I grabbed all the pens on my desk and stuffed them in the bag. I guess I figured good writing utensils were hard to come by in Ukraine.

Bag packed, I headed to the balcony. I looked down: twenty feet to the pavement. You don’t realize how high up you are until you contemplate jumping. A fall this high, you’re lucky if you only break your legs. Jumping was going to be an option of last resort.

2floors up
Dasha joined me on the balcony. She needed the fresh air. I peeked back into the main room and noticed she’d also put wet towels by that door, too. Good girl.

That’s when the power went out.

BOOM — total darkness. That was one of the worst feelings, because Dasha truly was terrified. People are screaming, the place is filling with smoke, and now it was dead black inside the apartment. The heart rate triples. Fight or flight.

I knew Dasha had my phone, because she tried calling the fire department while she was dressing — but alas you can only call from a land-line. But I wanted the phone as a makeshift flashlight…”Dash, use my phone. It makes light.”

She fumbled with it. Panicking. “It’s not working! It won’t turn on!” The darkness was crushing her. She was crying, now.

“Let me try?” I asked, as calmly as possible. I turned my phone on, and finally we could see a bit. “Candles, honey. The ones my mom gave us. Where are they?”

“In the kitchen. Above the stove to the left.”

“Ok. Stay here. I’ll be right back.”

I took a last breath of fresh balcony air, opened the door to the hall — phoo, smokey! It was that stinky, industrial smoke. I hurried to the kitchen, and grabbed the candles and a box of matches. Wait! The flashlight. It was in one of my jacket pockets. As I searched for it there by the apartment door, I listened, too. It worried me that there were no sounds in the stairwell. I suspected no one was leaving because no one could leave.

I joined Dasha back on the balcony and gave her the task of lighting the two candles. I think giving her something to do took her mind off the fear. A little.

“Next, sweety, I need some thin towels. Are there any in the bedroom closet?”

“Yes.” She went to get them.

I took one from her and turned on the flashlight. “I’m going to see how far I can get down the stairs. Do you remember how many flights of stairs to go down? Three flights, or just two?” I know — I’ve been living in this apartment for a year, I should know whether there are two flights of stairs or three. But I guess I was panicking a bit, too. And I wanted to be sure. She closed her eyes and counted. “Three.”

Damnit. “Ok. I”ll be right back sweety.”

“No!” She was crying freely, now. It hurt to look at, let me tell you. I hugged her tight and assured her everything was going to be fine.

I put the thin kitchen towel over my mouth, opened the apartment door and stepped out. The flashlight penetrated maybe two feet into the smoke. I couldn’t see my own feet, and had to guess where the steps were. I took a step to the left, to the stairs, and was swallowed by the haze. Could I hold my breath and make it down? Three flights? How was I going to hold the rag over my mouth, hold the flashlight, and hold the railing, too?

I hurried back inside.

Shit. This could be a problem.

Before heading to the balcony, I zipped into the kitchen and opened the windows there. At least get as much clean air into the apartment as possible. I wasn’t really worried about the smoke, because leaning out the balcony, there air was fine. But Dasha learned from the people yelling outside that the fire was in the basement — two floors below us. People saw flames. And if the flames came up…
We needed another way out.

“Sweety? I know we have lots of different sheets. Can you find me the two longest ones?”

“Yes, I know which ones.”

I can’t believe I was even considering such a move. Tying together bedsheets? Does that even work? But at the moment, I liked the idea a whole lot better than jumping. Dasha did, too, judging from how quickly she found them. “Help me make a knot.”
sheets and radiator
After we tied the two sheets together, I tested them. “Pull as hard as you can, Dasha. Stand by the bed in case they untie.” But they didn’t. I doubt we had 200 lbs of pressure on those things — no where close to my body weight, in other words — but it was something. Luckily, below the bedroom window there’s one of those archaic solid iron radiators they still use here to heat apartments. That’s where I tied one end. Then I unraveled the rest out the window. The bottom sheet dangled maybe six feet above the pavement. It would be good enough. If it came to it, we’d toss the mattress out the window as a cushion.

“Mark, I don’t think I can climb down. My arms are weak. What if I fall?”

“We’ll tie a second one around your waist, ok? If the knot slips on one, the other will hold you. It’s not far. You’ll go fast.”

And there we waited, sitting on the bedroom floor, huddled under a blanket. It wasn’t that cold, especially considering it’s the middle of February, but the worry makes you cold, I guess.

In the end, the fire department showed up and we were able to get out — down the stairs — at about 4 am.

And what I learned from this? Be prepared. Have a plan, and have a backup plan. Keep fresh batteries and water in the house. And don’t panic.

Learn Useful Russian Travel Phrases

February 13th, 2010

Here are some useful Russian phrases for traveling. Print out this article, or jot them onto a note-card. Let’s start with the airport. The phrase you’ll need there is:

Here’s my passport.

vote moi PASSpurt.

The word “passpurt” looks weird, but it’s the best way to write it. The accent goes on the capital letters, PASS, but rhymes with the “pas” part of “pasta”.

Out of the airport, you’ll want a taxi to your hotel. Luckily, the word taxi is virtually the same in Russian as in English, except the accent is on the second syllable: “takSEE.” There are all sorts of questions the drive might ask you, but they’re all bound to be variations on, “Where to, pal?” Since most travelers stay in hotels. Let’s learn that word:

Hotel = gosteenitsa.

As with the first syllable of “passpurt”, “gos” also rhymes with the vowel sound of “pasta.” Then, sounding out the rest of the word, we have: “TEE – neets – uh” with the stress going on the TEE. So one more time, it’s: “gosteenitsa.” Then follow it with the name of your particular hotel.

Before getting in the cab, it’s good to know how much the driver wants. We can ask this with one word:

How much = skoilko

Let’s sound it out: skOIL – kuh

Imagine a company called RISK OIL COMPANY. Watch as we cut out the middle of that name:


This will help you learn and pronounce the word in Russian accurately.

Of course, if you don’t know much Russian, you probably won’t understand his answer. So I recommend just taking out a notepad and handing it to him. Numbers are written the same way in Russian, so you’ll be able to understand. Though clarify that the number is rubles (or grivna, if you’re in Ukraine) and not dollars.

Rubles? = rublei?

roo (As in, “Kangaroo”) + blei (rhymes with “play”). The emphasis goes on the “blei” part.
Hopefully, the driver will nod and say, “Da, da” which means, “Yes, yes.”

So, toss your suitcase in the trunk and thank him as you get in the cab:


Sounds like this: “spa – SEE – buh”

Once you arrive to the hotel, be sure to tell the driver, “Here, this is for you,” as you hand him the money. (A small tip is usually appreciated, but not mandatory as it seems to be in the US). Tell him:
vote vam

We saw, “Vote” already, when we were handing our passport to the officer in the airport. The “vam” part means, “for you” and rhymes with “mom”. Of course, he’ll then say, “Thank you.” Do you remember the word?


Grab your bag and head to the hotel.

Welcome to Russia!

Travel by Train in Ukraine

February 9th, 2010

Get the Flash Player to see the wordTube Media Player.

The most practical way to travel throughout much of Ukraine and Russia is by train. I live in Sevastopol, and the train — while slow — is reliable, cheap and for the most part very comfortable. The only barbaric part of train travel is the bathrooms which would flunk even the most lenient bathroom inspection in the west.

When I say the trains are slow, I suspect they’re top speeds are probably 40 MPH or so. Add to that frequent stops, some of them for 30 minutes in the biggest cities, and it ends up taking a full 24 hours to cross Ukraine. But for $25 or so one way, you can get your own bed in a four-person sleeper car. So bring a book or your laptop, and make use of the downtime. If you’re really trying to save, you can do the dorm-style “plasskart”. Plasskart is an entire car unto itself, with room for a hundred or more. There are only benches and seats, often not even padded. It’susually hot, stuffy and loud. In a word, spend the extra $15 and get the sleep car.

The trains also have restaurant cars which serve good Ukrainian food for a fair price. If you can speak some Russian, or are learning Russian, it’s the place to hang out and mingle, too. Even if you know only English, people will be still try to talk to you. They rarely see foreigners on their trains and will be interested to hear your story. Buy a round of beers and you’ll make friends for life.

The trains are all non-smoking, by the way, which is a relief. Smokers have to go to certain open-winder areas between the cars. Or they just wait for the next stop to shuffle off the train and get their fix. Either way, you’ll never see someone smoking on the train itself; there’s a serious fine.

Besides the unpleasant bathrooms, the only other hard part of train travel for some people is the rattling of the train itself as you’re trying to sleep. My girlfriend loves it and sleeps like a baby, but the train often shakes me awake. The trick is to go to bed earlier than normal to account for the herky-jerky sleep pattern. The beds themselves are very narrow, but sufficient. I prefer the lower bunk, but that’s just a preference. A bonus is that if you lift up the bed itself, there’s a compartment for a carry-on-sized suitcase. It’s the best spot to stash your valuables at night.

There you have it. Train travel in Russia and Ukraine. Watch this video to see it for yourself…

Trip to Turkey Part II

February 7th, 2010

shoesAfter buying a few things in the bazaar, you try to find an exit. The bazaar is indoors, but it feels outdoors. No air-conditioning, for example, and no doors, so there’s a strong natural flow of air. When you find an exit, you then must wind your way through narrow streets lined with slightly larger shops, and slightly less aggressive sellers. You weave your way around men transporting merchandise on handcarts, and tea-delivery guys who carry these specialized trays with cups of tea. The Grand Bazaar is at the top of Istanbul’s main hill, so any street that goes down will eventually take you to the river, which was our destination.

Along the way, you pop into whatever cafe hits your fancy. As with the shops in the bazaar, the cafes have a narrow range of themes: Sultan’s Kebab Cafe; Akmet’s House of Cheese; Sultan Akmet’s House of Kebab & Cheese; and so on. I wasn’t blown away by the food. We went to a place called House of Kebab but the shish-kebab was run-of-the-mill. For my lira, the best of Istanbul cuisine is their Turkish baklava, which differs from Greek baklava in that they don’t use honey, only sugar, and they have a double-whammy pistachio baklava which was awesome.

If you ever travel to Istanbul, here’s a useful tip:

Never accept any help from any man on any of Istanbul’s streets. Why? Because you will end up in his leather jacket store drinking warm apple juice as he explains all the reasons why you need to be buying one of his leather coats even as you sit there bundled in your own leather coat.

But the jacket store is only a warm up. The leather salesman — the guy you originally asked directions from on the street — will somehow bring up the topic of carpets. When you ignore it, he takes this as a sign of great interest on your part, and insists on leading you across town to his friend’s carpet store. Here, as you politely gulp down more little cups of warmish apple juice, you will learn the sum total of human knowledge on the topic of Turkish rugs. Such interesting facts as why a mere 450 knots per square inch makes for a terrible rug, and how Turkish double-looped knots are superior to any other form of knot. You will be able to write a doctoral thesis on tassle quality, the benefits of mixed cotton versus pure wool carpets, and the meaning of each abstract symbol woven into the rugs.

I repeat: Do not accept help from any man at any time in Istanbul. Believe me, he wants you to buy something.

quick update… not related to Turkey, but the far east… This is a quick heads up. I may be starting a learn Russian site in Japanese language, for Japanese people who want to learn Russian. Will be putting it here ロシア語