Experiments with Russian Pizza

December 9th, 2009 by Mark No comments »

Dasha and I were in the USA this summer, and we spent a lot of time in Manhattan. Oh, how a man begins to yearn for good pizza, living here in Ukraine. (The sacrifices I’m willing to make for you guys!) The best pizza in the world can be found – if you’re curious – at Famiglia’s, just north of Times Square. If I recall, it’s at or around 50th and 7th Ave. Certainly in that neighborhood. Get a slice of plain cheese….

…and then mail it here, to Sevastopol. My address is:

Ok, kidding. But Russians just have no concept of pizza. Yes, you made it round, that’s a good first step Igor, but ultimately the shape isn’t nearly so important as the taste. If they remember to put tomato sauce on, it’s an afterthought. “A smattering of tomato sauce” would be a good description. And they ain’t using mozarella, I can assure you of that. It probably *is* cheese of some sort. Down at the chemical level, you are probably looking at cheese-like molecules. But it doesn’t taste very cheesy. And the bread itself upon which their “pizza” is based? Think: Plain old white bread.

I wanna grab the “chef” by the collar: “How dare you call this pizza?!”

But at least it led to a linguistic insight. I’m happy about that, even if I grumble every time I try a new pizza joint here. The insight was this:

Say “pizza” to a New Yorker, and imagine what thoughts run through their mind. (Especially if they’re regular’s of Famiglia’s Pizza.) Imagine the sight of it, the smell, and of course the incredible taste. All those associations a New Yorker has with that word.

And now imagine some your typical Ukrainian. Say the word “pizza” to them (the words are identical, even if the foods surely aren’t!). What image does a Ukrainian have in his mind? What sorry taste? What uninspired smells? There’s a huge difference between the meanings of this word between our two cultures.

And so many words are like that, even cognates. The reality of the two words are so different, you have to visit the country to truly understand the Russian meaning, the Russian concept of words like “pizza” and “apartment” and “train” etc.

So, come here to get a grasp on Russian language and culture.

Just don’t order a slice of cheese pizza while you’re here.


October 11th, 2009 by Mark 4 comments »

Russian sayings are a great way to get to know the Russian character. They offer insight into the mindset of a people long on patience and short on money. Entire books have been written on these pogovorka (sayings), but I just want to touch on a few of the most commons ones I’ve heard since I’ve lived here in Sevastopol. When Iuse these, they make me fit right in with the people here.

Russians love to say, “In taste and color there are no comrades.” (Na fkus I svet, tovarisha nyet.) This is very close in meaning to the English, “To each his own,” but it’s more fun because it rhymes, and because it uses an old Soviet word ‘tovarish’, meaning comrade. Russians have another phrase which can roughly be translated as “To each his own,” and that is:

“Everyone goes out of his mind in his own way.” (Kazhdi skhohdit suma pa svoimu.) The difference is, this is usually used to describe more eccentric habits or tastes. If someone is making a mural on their wall from cigarette butts, you’d say, “Well, everyone goes out of his mind in his own way.”

One of my favorite Russian sayings is equivalent to our, “I wrote the book on that!” But it’s much sillier. They say, “Ya na ehtu sobaku syel.” I ate the dog on that! I’m sure some linguistics professor would be happy to enlighten me on the origins of that Russian phrase, but I’m too busy to track one down. And besides, it’s more fun to speculate, isn’t it?

If you want to convey in Russian something along the lines of, “I’m gonna let him have it!” or “Just wait til he hears from me about it!” you could say, “I’m going to show him Kuzkin’s mother!” For example, if my girlfriend tells me that the guy sitting next to her in class copied her answers and she somehow got in trouble for it, I’d say, “I’m gonna show him Kuzkin’s mother!” I’ve asked, by the way, but no one seems to know who Kuzkin is, or why one would be inclined to show people his mother.

Not that all Russian sayings are so different from ours. It’s equally interesting to me how many of them are so similar. For example, Russians love to say, “Live for a century, learn for a century.” (Vek zhivee, vek uchees.) In other words, “Live and learn.”

When a Russian person is hungry he’s apt to say, “I’m hungry like a wolf.” (Ya goloden kak volk.) And in the midst of drinks with friends, Russian is bound to call out, “Pei do dna!” Drink to the bottom…i.e. Bottom’s up!

So there you have it, my 7 Russian sayings to make you fit in!

TEACH YOURSELF RUSSIAN | How to teach yourself Russian

September 27th, 2009 by Learn Russian 1 comment »

It’s easy to teach yourself Russian, as long as you have a powerful motive for learning, and a proven method to follow. You obviously have the motivation – a compelling reason to learn – or you wouldn’t likely be reading this. Be it the prestige that comes from speaking an exotic language, the money that will come by taking your business international, or just the adventure that awaits you in Russia, you need to dwell on your reason. Dream a little every day about the thing that pushed you here – the prestige, the success, the adventure – and that dream will fuel your daily study.
“I’m motivated!” you exclaim. “Now how do I start learning Russian?”

Well, you’re going to start at the end of this article. Right after I explain how to teach yourself Russian. There are five things you need to do:
Learn to read Cyrillic. Daphne West has a great book on it. I have no affiliation to Ms. West or her publisher, and I don’t sell the book. Go to amazon.com and type in “learn Russian”. You could also watch my free videos here on How to read Russian.

Learn the most useful and practical phrases first…the ones that relate to you and your situation. If you’re learning for business, you should start with basic phrases about meetings and contracts, etc. (Again, go to Amazon.com and type in “business Russian”.)

If you’re learning for travel, I recommend learning these 30 words first.
If you’re corresponding with a woman on the web, you should know basic expressions useful in these kinds of relationships. I have a short article on this to get you started, called 17 Russian Phrases For Love (http://russian-video-blog.com/17-russian-phrases-for-love/).

Next, make flashcards. There’s no way around this. English on one side, Russian on the other. There are electronic devices which do this, plus applications for iPhones and whatnot, but I still recommend actual cards. The act of writing the cards yourself is part of the learning process. Study your cards in short intervals throughout the day. Try associating study time, perhaps, with mealtime. Instead of reading the paper at breakfast, you can study your cards. This way – between breakfast and lunch – you won’t need to set aside much additional time for studying.

You need two forms of audio to augment your flashcards. One type needs to be a recording where someone prompts you, “How do you say _____ in Russian?” You need to then hit pause until the answer comes to you, then listen to check the answer.

The second audio you need is a growing collection of the words and phrases you know, spoken first in Russian, by a native speaker. You again hit pause, and try to determine what was said, before hitting play for the answer.

Much of my time that I spent studying Russian was simply the preparations of these recordings and flashcards. But you are learning as you prepare them. You are, after all, your own teacher.

Finally, you need feedback from a native speaker. For most self-learners, this is the toughest part. Often, a student won’t get any feedback at all on their pronunciation until their first trip! But there are alternatives. For example, I went to my local university and placed an ad in the student newspaper looking for a Russian tutor. I didn’t want lessons, I just wanted to be sure she could understand me.

If you don’t have a university handy, you might find a Russian speaker online who could help, but services like Skype are not nearly as common in the FSU as in the USA. Getting feedback is the toughest part of the self-teaching process. If you don’t have any luck finding help, you can always feel free to try our innovative program, the R.A. Method.

So there are the five things you need to do. With those five things, and solid motivation, you absolutely can teach yourself Russian!

Good luck!

Learn Russian Now: In Context

September 21st, 2009 by Learn Russian 1 comment »

Learn Russian Now! just follow along

I’m here for exactly one reason: To help you learn Russian now. We’re not waiting, you and I. We’re…



Huh? Oh, I meant, “Now!” Seechas is the Russian word for now, though it oddly also means, “In a moment!” which is the very opposite of now. In any case, try to work it into your speech. Like, “I’ve got to head out right seechas or I’ll miss my flight.”

I usually teach basic Russian words this way, sneaking them into English sentences, but let’s have a little fun. I want to show you a useful Russian curse word. It’s not so bad that your babushka will smack you for using it…

but it comes in handy when things go bad. For example, if you miss your flight, you might yell out, “Yo my yo!” (Which could be written “yo mai yo.”)

“Yo my yo! I forgot my keys at the office!”

Stub your toe? “Yo my yo!” Anyway, keep your eyes open for that mildly profane phrase in the following story:

So, I was on the beach here in Sevastopol, Ukraine. Out of nowhere, this incredibly krasivaya blond girl lays her towel next to mine. I mean, she was a perfect 10, one of the most krasivaya girls I’ve ever seen here…or anywhere, for that matter. My heart starts racing, and I haven’t even said anything yet. I’d brought a six-pack of Heineken, because I was expecting my good droog Michael to show up, so I took a bottle and turned to the krasivaya blond, “Hi. Say, want a pivo?” and offered her the Heineken.

“Da, spasibo!” she said, with a big, friendly ulibka!

I stuck out my rooka, palm up: “That’ll be five dollars, pozhaluista.”

She laughed, knowing I was just joking. And there it was again, that broad, krasivaya ulibka on her face. She puts the pivo down on the sand and rifles through her beach bag. “Yo my yo!” she yells, out. “I left my wallet at home! I don’t even have money for the marshrutka ride home.”

“Well, I bet if you flash your krasivaya ulibka at the marshrutka driver, he’ll let you ride for free.”

This is a true story, by the way. What happened next is I got her mahbilni, and zvonil her that same night! What a great day at the plyazh!


September 18th, 2009 by Mark No comments »

In the previous article on Russian text issues, I discussed the shortcomings of computers when it comes to translating Russian text. Luckily there’s a few tricks we can use when going from English to Russian text. First:

Keep it simple.

English has far more tenses than Russian does, and they cause difficulty even for human translators. “I had been considering buying a new car, but then thought better of it.” That’s a nice sentence in English, but it’s tough for translating programs. Simplifying, you can still get across a similar message: “I was considering buying a new car, but I decided not to get one.” Even that will cause problems, but it will be clearer. (The problem is with the final word “one.” You and I know that ‘one’ refers to a car. The computer has no idea.)

Along with simplifying, try to avoid idioms at all costs. True, idioms liven up a language and can add deep meaning in a few words, but they lose all the deep meaning in translation. If someone asks you what you think of your new teacher, Ms. Hamilton, and you say, “Man, she sucks!”…think of the literal ramifications of this response. It changes from an innocent, idiomatic complaint into an R rated statement about Ms. Hamilton’s private life.

Mind you, it’s hard to avoid idiomatic speech. It’s ubiquitous and natural. Speaking without it makes you sound robotic…

…the very kind of text that computers are decent at working with.

The way to avoid idioms is to ask if any of the words in a phrase have more than one meaning. If yes, you might be using an idiom. If a word indeed has two or more meanings, be aware that it will most likely be translated with the first dictionary meaning. If Ms. Hamilton is a bad teacher, try to avoid saying that, “As a teacher, she stinks!” Inevitably, the translation will ascribe to our beleaguered Ms. Hamilton as having a foul stench.

So, if it’s vital you get your message across – and when isn’t it? – then try writing like a first grader. Before you put your English text into Russian using a translation program, imitate this kind of grade-school writing:

This is my teacher, Ms. Hamilton. She is nice. She makes lots of cookies. Can you come to her class on Monday?

Following this style, we can write a business letter to our Russian colleague:

This is my business proposal, Pipeline Retrofitting. It is ready. We will make lots of money. Can you sign the contract on Monday?

That’s the trick to working with translating programs. In a perfect world, you’d use a human translator, but keeping things simple and idiom free is the best way to work with translation programs.

Russian Language Text translator
Here’s another that is multi-language including English to Russian text.

Good luck!


September 17th, 2009 by Mark No comments »

Russian is a difficult task for translating programs. Perhaps all languages are hard to translate – I can’t say, because Russian is the only foreign language I know – but Russian certainly comes out of those programs looking far stranger than it really is. Much of that is due to idiomatic speech. After all, if a Russian person looks up the word-for-word meaning of, say, “You’re driving me up a wall!” they’re going to think you’re taking them in your car, up along the side of a building. Dictionaries and idioms don’t work well together. Unfortunately, a dictionary is all a computer has and it doesn’t usually produce perfect Russian text.

In Russian, there’s a common idiom, “Ты даёшь!” (ti dayosh), which has a meaning of, “Oh, come on now! You’re such a _____ .” But computers are literal beasts, searching for the dictionary meaning of each word, not able to step back and take in the whole phrase. Thus, they translate the literal meaning of the two words, which is “You give.”

Sure, a program could be changed so that, “Oh, come on now!” is the definition of “Ты даёшь!” but then the computer would inevitably give that translation every time…even when the literal meaning of “you give” is intended. Computers just don’t know when the idiomatic meaning is intended, and when the literal one is.

Basically, Russian text is hard to translate with computers because meaning has to be deduced from context, and computers are awful at this. Another way of looking at it is this:

What is the definition of “Whatever” ?

No fair checking an online dictionary. Think for yourself. Heck, you probably use the word 100 times a day, so what do you mean by it?

“Bartender, gimme a beer.”

“Not sure what we have left, sir.”

“I’ll take whatever.”

So, ‘whatever’ means, ‘anything’…at least in that situation. But later, you’re talking with a friend. “Eww, you kissed Sally? She’s gross!”

“Oh, whatever. You’re just jealous.”

Here, ‘whatever’ means, “I disagree with what you’re saying, but I don’t want to argue.” If you insert the word ‘anything’ in place of ‘whatever’, it won’t make sense.

Finally, here’s a simply test you can give to an y computer translator. Write a few typical lines of dialogue in English. Insert into a translating program. Have it translate to Russian, then cut and paste the result back into the translator, going now from Russian back to English. If you send people Russian text that you translated from English using a computer, the results will be unreadable, and usually hilarious. Try it with mine, below. Go to goole’s translator, for example (or one of your own choosing) and insert this text:

She asked me what I was up for doing and I’m like, “Whatever.”

Translated into Russian, you get this:

Она спросила меня, что я вскочил на ноги за это, и я хотел, “Все”.

And translating that back into English, here’s our original sentence:

She asked me what I got to his feet for it, and I would like, “All.”

I think now you’re seeing the difficulty of dealing with Russian text. In the next article, I’ll give some tips and tricks to dealing with computer translators!

Cheers from Sevastopol!

Must-See List of Resources For Learning Russian – Intermediate

September 11th, 2009 by Mark 1 comment »

Russian Video Blog’s list of resources for learning Russian.

The problem with most link pages (i.e. lists of websites deemed useful by someone) is that there’s usually FAR TOO MANY listed. When I ask the waiter at a French restaurant what he’d recommend, I don’t want him to read every single choice off the menu. Instead, I want his expert opinion on that small percentage of his establishment’s fare that is of the highest quality. It’s a problem endemic to the whole internet: Too much information is no better than not enough. In any case, here’s my expert opinion on that small percentage of Russian related websites that are worth the time.

Please note that they are all for at least intermediate-level students.

National Capital Language Resource Center:


This site is an incredible resource. First, it has Russian speakers reading news stories in slightly simpified speech. That alone makes it a valuable resource for learning Russian. But they also provide transcripts AND an explanation of words that are likely new to an intermediate student. Here’s how best to use this resource: First off, go straight to listening. Do NOT read a word about the newscast you’re about to listen to. Then, listen to it straight through to get the gist. Then, listen to it a second time and transcribe the whole thing, or at the very least, the parts you don’t understand. The process of transcription is not to be underestimated as a tool for mastering a language.

A Taste of Russian Podcast


These guys, Sergei and Alexsei put out great podcasts. As with the NCLRC site, they are completely transcribed in English. The new words are bolded, and then explained at length in the remainder of the podcast. The lexicon is hip and up-to-date. And they’re very approachable. Write them a question, and they’ll find the time to answer, and perhaps even do a podcast based on your request.

UCLA Business Russian:


Good, clean Russian. Here, the speaker brings up a business term and then discusses its meaning and application in Russian business structure. The podcasts are all in Russian. I didn’t transcribe these, but as I listen, I make sure I catch every word, even if I don’t know the meaning. That’s another vital part of mastering a language: You must learn to recognize words, not necessarily understand them (you can always stop the person you’re speaking with and say, “Oops, I’m sorry. What does ‘невыносимыйэ mean?”)

Golosa: George Washinton University


Great videos, shot on location, supplemented by a highlight of new words. True, the videos are NOT transcribed, but that’s the fun: You must listen, sometimes numerous times, to catch everything. Meanwhile, you’re seeing people’s homes and work and how they relax, etc.Culturally enlightening and linguistically indispensable!