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Learn Russian: Face-to-Face and Online Classes Offered

About Learning Russian with Berlitz

Russian is spoken across the vast expanse of Russia: still, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the largest country in the world. Spanning eleven time zones, it extends from Kaliningrad, facing the Baltic Sea, to easternmost Siberia, facing the Pacific Ocean and the Bering Strait.

Of the country’s 145 million people, about 120 million are native Russians, with many of the rest speaking the language with varying degrees of fluency. Between 25 and 30 million Russians also live in the newly independent states that were once part of the Soviet Union, the numbers by country as follows:

Ukraine   15 million   Estonia   300,000
Kazakhstan   5 million   Lithuania   300,000
Belarus   3 1/2 million   Turkmenistan   250,000
Uzbekistan   1 million   Georgia   150,000
Latvia   750,000   Azerbaijan   150,000
Kyrgyzstan   600,000   Tajikistan   100,000
Moldova   500,000        

There are also now about 500,000 Russian speakers in Israel, 250,000 in the United States, and 40,000 in Canada.

Russian is the most important of the Slavic languages, a branch of the Indo-European family. It is written in the Cyrillic alphabet, which is based largely on the Greek, and named after a Greek scholar and missionary named Cyril who lived in the 9th century. While tradition holds that he and his brother Methodius were its inventors, it is now generally believed that they actually invented a different alphabet called Glagolitic, which is older but no longer in use. Cyrillic was probably invented by someone else at a later date.

Though appearing formidable to one who has never studied it, the Russian alphabet is not difficult to learn. A number of letters are written and pronounced approximately as in English (A, K, M, O, T), while others, though written as in English, are pronounced differently (B = V, E = YE, Ё = YO, H = N, P = R, C = S, X = Kh). The Greek influence may be seen in the Г(G), Д (D), Ӆ (L), П (P), and Ф (F). Other letters are Б (B), З (Z ), У (U), Ӝ(ZH), И (I ), Ц (Ts), Ч (Ch), Ш (Sh),Щ (Shch), Э(E), Ю (Yu), and Я (Ya). The Ы is a vowel pronounced something like the i in “bit,” the Й is used in forming diphthongs, and the ъ and the ь are the so-called hard and soft signs respectively.

But Russian is not an easy language to master, though many do. Its grammar is complex and it is notorious for its long words (e.g., zdravstvuyte – hello, chuvstvovat’ – to feel, upotreblyat’ – to use, dostoprimechatel’nosti – sights, zhenonenavistnichestvo – misogyny), long personal and place names (Nepomnyashchiy, Dnepropetrovsk), and for its unusual consonant clusters (vzvod – platoon, tknut’ – to poke, vstrecha – meeting). Nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and numbers are declined in six cases: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental, and prepositional or locative. The Russian verb has two aspects, each represented by a separate infinitive: the imperfective to indicate a continuing action, and the perfective to indicate an action already completed or to be completed. The genders number three (masculine, feminine, and neuter), with a different declensional pattern for each (though the neuter is similar to the masculine), and a fourth one for the plural. The stress is impossible to predict in an unfamiliar word, and frequently shifts in the course of declensions or conjugations.

English words of Russian origin include vodka, tsar, samovar, ruble, pogrom, troika, steppe, and tundra. The word sputnik entered the language in 1957, while the 1980s produced glasnost and perestroyka. The post-Soviet period has seen a huge influx of foreign, mostly English, words into Russian from the fields of business, politics, and computers, as well as from everyday life. A few among many are konsalting (consulting), defolt (default), konsensus (consensus), khaker (hacker), and killer (pronounced keeler). Legislation has been proposed to mandate the use of Russian words instead of their foreign counterparts but, as is the case in other countries, it is not likely to get very far.

Boris Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958.

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Authorized from the original edition of The Languages of the World 3rd edition by Keneth Katzner published by Routledge, a member of the Taylor & Francis Group.

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