Before I started learning Russian, I had some confidence that if I could pick up Farsi/Persian, then Russian, surely, could not be much harder. Ever since reading Anna Karenina a few years ago, I wanted to learn Russian. Since (obviously) I read an English translation of the novel, and I’ve had very little exposure to the Russian language before, my desire to learn the language was based almost solely on how lovely all the Russian names sounded.
When I actually started learning Russian (about a month ago now), I was quickly dismayed by how hard it was to learn the alphabet. Of course, I knew their alphabet was different, but I thought it would be reasonably easy to pick up since they look similar to English characters. And, yes, several of the letters do look very much like English letters, but a lot of these also have completely different pronunciations.
In a way, Farsi was easier because the symbols were completely new, so I had no preconceived, in-built notions of how they should be pronounced. When I look at the Russian alphabet, however, my mind thinks these letters [ я, р, н, и, ч, в, х, з ] should be read in a same or similar way to their English counterparts. I mean, the first one is just a backwards “R”, right? And the second is just a P?
Нет, нет, нет! (No, no, no)
I think the letters that were hardest for me at first were и and н. The letter that looks like a backwards “N” is actually pronounced like “ee”, and the one that appears to be an “H” is actually the “n” sound.
In the first week or so of learning this new alphabet, I was afraid that as I got better at reading Russian, I’d run the risk of misreading English words, pronouncing the English letters as their Russian lookalikes. Thankfully that hasn’t happened because I guess English words are recognisable in my mind as single units, and I don’t have to sound out words by reading each letter individually (?)
So, anyway, I eventually kind of got the hang of things. However, pretty much all of my initial learning had been online, so I wanted to try handwriting things to reinforce learning. And that’s when the real challenge began!
As it turns out, handwritten Russian looks a bit different to what it looks like when it’s printed on a computer. And when it’s handwritten in cursive — well, that’s a whole other thing. For example, there is a Russian letter that looks like the English T (and is thankfully pronounced similarly), but when it’s written in cursive, it looks more like the English “m”.
At this point, I felt despair overshadow the little pride I had from learning the typed alphabet. It’s like I needed to learn three new alphabets just to learn this one language! But I had my heart set on learning Russian, and I was determined to get as close as possible to the same degree of proficiency that I had obtained for Farsi (which I suppose is not that great, but just enough that it was worthwhile).
Surprisingly, when I was telling people at work that I’m learning Russian, two of the other pharmacists said they had also attempted Russian in the past (using the same language-learning app as I’m using now). As far as I know, neither of them have Russian heritage or any intention of visiting Russia in the near future, so it made me wonder what motivates people (or, specifically, pharmacists) like us to take on these Random Challenges of Learning?
Both of them are currently learning other things too, like guitar and crocheting, and I’m also learning piano. Why would we, on top of our busy work schedules, want to learn so many new things? Well, at least try to, anyway. Unfortunately, both of them had very quickly given up on Russian — probably because of the difficult alphabet and lack of real interest.
I, on the other hand, am still doggedly trying to learn. To be fair, I’ve put less focus on learning the handwriting for now, but I can type (very slowly!) using a Russian keyboard. I’m still getting my head around some of the letters, and I sometimes slip up with the English-lookalike letters, but with daily practice, I think I’m getting better at spelling and reading.
Most importantly, I’m still enjoying it. And I guess that’s the real reason we take on Random Challenges of Learning. Deep down (or not even that deep down), we are nerds, and we get a thrill out of learning.