Learning the Russian Tongue

This guest blog comes from Poppy Mankowitz, who is a fourth year PhD student in Philosophy at the University of St Andrews. Poppy’s research centres on the meanings of words used to talk about quantities (e.g. ‘the’, ‘a’, ‘some’, ‘three’, ‘every’, etc.), and the effect of contextual factors on the interpretation of these words. For example, speakers might interpret an utterance of ‘Every bottle is empty’ as meaning that every bottle in the refrigerator is empty, rather than that every bottle in the entire universe is empty. This is the sort of puzzle that occupies her time.

From July 22nd to August 13th 2017, I had the opportunity to visit St Petersburg and Moscow, after completing the SGSAH Speaking My Language programme the previous October. The Speaking My Language programme was an intensive introduction to Russian, a language I had become increasingly interested in learning. My PhD research centres on the philosophy of language, focusing on the meanings of words used to talk about quantities (e.g. ‘the’, ‘a’, ‘some’, ‘three’, ‘every’, etc.). I had wanted to learn a second language for a while, in order to move beyond an English-centric approach to philosophy of language. I had also become aware that Russian and English display some interesting differences with respect to the words I work on. For example, Russian does not have fixed expressions corresponding to the English words ‘the’ and ‘a’. A sentence such as ‘Кошка на столе’ – literally, ‘Cat on table’ – might be translated into English as either ‘The cat is on the table’ or ‘A cat is on a table’, despite the fact that English speakers will consider these two sentences to involve subtle differences in meaning.

Of course, there are also many sentences in English that have multiple Russian translations embodying differences in meaning. For example, the English sentence ‘I want to buy something’ might be used either when there is some item in particular that the speaker wants to buy, or when the speaker simply fancies a shopping spree and doesn’t have any specific item in mind; yet in Russian, there is a distinct translation for each sense of the sentence. These differences between the two languages, and their potential impact on the meanings that can be expressed within each language, became more intriguing to me over the course of the Speaking My Language programme. At the end of the course, participants were able to apply for a Study Abroad Award in order to further develop their Russian language skills, and I was delighted to receive one.


The Monument to the Conquerors of Space, Moscow.

I’d been studying Russian independently in the months following the Speaking My Language course, and felt that I’d managed to grasp a lot of the grammar. However, on arrival in St Petersburg, I realised that learning a language from a book doesn’t fully prepare you for real-life interactions with native speakers. Moreover, I’d relied on a textbook published in the 1960s, where the emphasis had been on phrases like ‘My comrades and I went on a parachute jump’ rather than ‘Please bring me the menu’! Thankfully, I had signed up for a two week course at the Liden & Denz language school. While the teaching was excellent, and the classes were small, I found that I was frequently too tongue-tied to take full advantage of the oral practice.

Fortunately, the language school allowed me to attend one-on-one classes in the second week, something that was invaluable in improving my verbal abilities. I found that the skills required to carry out a basic conversation within a new language are very different from those involved in grasping the intricacies of the grammar. Learning to rely on simple structures, and practising as much as possible, helped me to become less tongue-tied; though my conversational partners still needed to be patient if I was to reach the end of a sentence!


Beetroot salad with pickled herring and rye bread

I was also keen to immerse myself in Russian culture, both historical and contemporary. I explored the Hermitage several times, and also visited the St Petersburg Street Art museum to see some modern Russian art. Other memorable trips included Danilovsky food market (where you could buy anything food related) and Udelnaya flea market (where you could buy just about anything).  For Soviet culture, the architecture in Moscow was outstanding. The Monument to the Conquerors of Space was particularly impressive, consisting of over 350 feet of titanium.


The Museum of Street Art, St. Petersburg

I adopted the locals’ habit of eating many of my meals in ‘stolovaya’, canteen-style restaurants serving affordable and delicious food. It was there that I discovered the joys of buckwheat and beetroot, of which I’ve been eating vast quantities ever since. Normally, the various dishes laid out behind the counter had labels written only in Russian, hence my desire to make an informed choice about my meals provided significant motivation to learn the words for different animal parts. On one memorable occasion, the labels included English translations, with one dish described as ‘language boiled’! This caused me to realise another word that is ambiguous in one language but not the other: ‘язык’, meaning both ‘language’ and ‘tongue’.


Translation of an ambiguous Russian word at a stolovaya

Overall, my trip not only informed my research on philosophy of language, but furthermore instilled in me an interest in Russian culture that will remain with me for years to come. I also started to develop the skills required carry out a conversation in Russian, something that no amount of book-learning could have taught me.

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog please get in touch with Joanna via email at joanna.rodgers@uhi.ac.uk, or connect with the blog on Twitter

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