Throughout high school I studied the German language, and learned quite a bit about English in the process. Our English classes didn’t focus on grammer, and so while I was learning how to introduce myself in a foreign language I was also learning terms for parts and tenses of speech such as past participle or future perfect.

While my wife and I will occasionally say simple phrases to each other in German, her vocabulary has always been better than mine, and she’s largely kept up her amateur studies while I’ve let mine lapse in the nearly twenty years since my formal classes. As I started poking through various Russian-language podcasts, trying them out, I can across an idea that I think would have really helped me when studying German so many years ago.

In one podcast (Russian Made Easy), the teacher made a very specific point that it is important not only to learn the general translations of words and phrases (e.g. “здравствуйте” roughly meaning “hello”) but also the literal translation as well, so the flow of the language comes across and can be learned. With German this wasn’t that big an issue because the grammar is so close to English, but there were certainly cases where it would have helped.

In Russian, to ask someone’s name one would use “как вас зовут?” However, what that literally translates to is “how you they call?” – a question that sounds very strange to our ears but makes sense in the context of the Russian language.

Another, somewhat off-beat example from the folks over at DuoLingo, the app I’m using to practice my spelling:

Russian: “Мой багаж в такси”

Translation: “My luggage is in the taxi”

Literal: “My luggage in taxi”

Even though it’s just a small difference (the omission of  articles like “is” and “the”), being able to understand not only what is being said but also how it is spoken is important and the concept makes logical sense to me.

I’m not even at the point where I can properly pronounce all of the letters in the Russian alphabet, but already I can tell that learning both the symbolic and the literal will have a big impact. I have the RME podcast to listen to in my car and DuoLingo on my phone, as well as a few books and related online guides that I hope can help me through.

Learning a new language is real work, particularly without cause or opportunity to practice in real-world conversations. My wife is at the point in German that DuoLingo is having full conversations with her, asking questions and expecting responses, and I can only hope that one day I’m able to get my Russian there as well.