Reading in Russian: Where to Start
22 November, 2016
Reading in Russian: Where to Start
In today’s classes, the topic of reading in Russian came up. Most teachers would agree that reading is the best way to consolidate the grammar and vocab that you’ve learnt, but this shouldn’t be restricted to reading texts and hand-outs from your teachers. To get a real feel for the language, it is important to read additional material that pushes you and allows you to get used to the way Russian is written; after all, to make your Russian sound the most fluent possible, it is important that you use Russian syntax and constructions rather than simply relaying your mother tongue with Russian words and grammar. However, reading beyond your textbook can seem daunting and it can be hard to pick the right texts for your level. But no fear, Ellie is here, and I’ve put together some top tips to help you find the best way to up your Russian through reading.
1. Read something that interests you!
If you are not interested in what you are reading, then you’d most likely struggle to get to the end of the text in your own language, let alone in a language you are just learning. Make sure that you’ve picked something that you know you would enjoy no matter what, so that the only obstacle ahead is Russian. That means picking genres that you find the most enjoyable and themes that you can relate to, but it is also a question of text type and length. If you know you hate to read anything longer than a novella, then why would it be any different in Russian? Be sensible and pragmatic in your choice of text. After all, the challenge of running a marathon is halved if you enjoy running to begin with, and the same applies here.
2. Pick works and authors to suit your level
As much as we all want to say we’ve read Crime and Punishment in Russian, be realistic. If this book is a challenge in your native language, chances are you need to have a lot of Russian under your belt to get to grips with it in the original. However some classics are a lot easier. Chekhov (Чехов), for example, is generally known for writing relatively simply – though the flip side is that there will probably be a lot of unknown vocab. However, wonderful literature is not limited to the age of Chekhov and Co.; Soviet literature is also amazing and makes for fascinating reads. For me, Soviet literature is a second golden age in the Russian canon, especially when it comes to satirical pieces. Try authors like Sergei Dovlatov (Сергей Довлатов) and Mikhail Zoshchenko (Михайл Зощенко), whose works are interesting and relatively simple as well as being not too long.
3. Don’t limit yourself to novels!
In spite of the above recommendations, that doesn’t mean you have to read only long works of literature. In fact, many Soviet authors wrote rasskazy (рассказы) or short stories first and foremost, including both Dovlatov and Zoshchenko. But if literature isn’t your thing or still seems rather daunting, then good magazines can be an alternative. I, for example, read history or biography magazines, as they are somewhere in-between journalistic and literary styles. They tell stories, but based on facts and so may appeal more to those of a real-life disposition. Furthermore, articles are never more than a few pages long! Just be careful to avoid more gossip-style magazines and the like, as they may use a more informal style and therefore be misguiding for those learning Russian as a foreign language.
4. Translated works maybe help
Sometimes reading a book or novella in Russian that you’ve read in your own language can aid understanding, so you can concentrate on language learning and not story-following. For example, no matter how many invented terms are in Harry Potter, I know the first book inside out, so it is always a super simple book for me to start with in foreign languages. Choosing something you are familiar with may also help you to know whether the language used is simple or not. Another way of preventing massive comprehension issues is to pick a story you know well from a film. For example, I recently read the Russian translation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. I know the story from the film and therefore, despite never having read the book in English, I found reading it relatively simple, whilst still learning new words and getting used to how Russian is constructed, helping me to avoid anglicisms in my own Russian.
5. Kids’ books are not always easier!
Despite me reading Coraline and finding it simple, that does not mean that all children’s literature is. Remember the books you read as a child? How many of them were set in fantasy worlds with mythical creatures and terms made up by the author? How many of them use dramatic language and require a lot of imagination to picture the scene? A fair few, I am sure. So unless you know the story well, I would perhaps stick to more contemporary and realistic works. One of the biggest myths is that fairy tales for children are simple: they may seem so in our own language because we had them read to us from a young age, but they often contain archaisms and are not particularly useful for practical language learning.
6. Don’t be afraid!
My biggest piece of advice is to go forth and read! There is something for everyone on the world’s bookshelves and in Russian language too. You just have to take the time to find it. Ask your Russian teacher what they would recommend, as they know your level and know what is out there. Ask Russian friends with similar interests for their ideas too: perhaps they could recommend magazines with interesting articles in good Russian or an author they think you would enjoy. Try sites such as Ozon.ru and Amazon.com to find a wider range of works, including many dual-language books that mean you don’t have to thumb through the dictionary for new words as they are written right there. And lastly, do not give up! Reading is great for maintaining a healthy mind in your mother tongue and for developing skills in your second language. Even if for the first part of a text you feel like you’re looking up a lot of words, don’t lose hope – a few pages in and you’ll be able to read more freely and will know enough context to work the words out so as to focus on constructions and grammar.
So go and get a nice, hot cuppa and sit down with some Russian reading. It sounds like the perfect way to spend a chilly winter evening if you ask me!
Ellie, currently studying Russian at Liden & Denz Moscow