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Learning a Slavic Language

by Lucy Markham

If you find learning languages as entertaining as I do, you've probably taken the time to understand the basic grammar and probably how to order a cheeseburger in other languages. But for those of us who are interested in branching out from the standard Latin-based language programs that are most popular in the public school systems around the country, it can be a little daunting. While there are many more cognates in a Latin-based language than a Slavic, Asian, or African language, there are still many tricks to master Slavic languages.

The Alphabet

Honestly, learning the sounds and usages of the letters was definitely the easiest part of learning a Slavic language. In fact, with many Slavic languages, just like Latin-based ones, the alphabet is the generally same, there are just different accents on letters that make them sound different to the English letters. Learning new sounds and accents for letters or characters is a given when studying a different language and if you are diligent, this can be mastered in mere hours. The Cyrillic alphabets encompass Russian, Ukrainian, Rusyn, Serbian and dozens more. If you have already mastered a few and your goal is to learn one or more Slavic languages, gaining a grasp of the variations of the Cyrillic alphabets is essential.

Memorize the exceptions, not stacks and stacks of rules

With a Latin-based language, the cognates save your life. Putting sentences together is always quite a bit easier when there are familiar words to work with in addition to hard fast rules and patters. For instance, when I was living in France and still struggling with my French, I always asked people I met what I could do to better my langauge skills. One French woman gave me the advice of a lifetime. She told me how most people don't understand how almost every word ending in -tion is the same in French and English, and that instead of studying my stack vocab cards furiously like I always did, I could work on that foundation. From that point on, my French skills skyrocketed and I was able to memorize exceptions, and recognize the cognates before I wrote them down for my vocab list. I've heard many students wasting time on going over and over rule after rule, when instead if they memorize exceptions, they'll make the connection of the rules. Learning how one thing is different is a great way to understand how 15 things are the same, especially in verbs!

Don't feel like you have to do it yourself

If you feel like there is no way you could ever learn a language outside of the Latin comfort zone, don't be discouraged, but be proactive in finding places in your community or online to learn a Slavic language. For example, when I decided I wanted to learn Russian after hearing two Russian girls speak to each other in my apartment complex, I made friends with them! Sure we didn't become best friends, but I invited them over to dinner to ask them questions about their language, and once I got more comfortable, I even asked them to only speak Russian around me. Also, even mid-sized cities have international communities of recent immigrants from eastern European countries that take part in events together and local cultural centers. I was living in a small city in Belgium, that even had a community center for Armenians! You can find one nearly anywhere!

However, if the opportunity doesn't present itself, a good way is to turn online. Be cautious, as with any online relationship, but finding a pen pal can be a great way to get your questions answered, and even help your accent if you're willing to skype. Also, consider going back to school! If you're near a larger university, they will have great language programs where you can simply audit a class if you're not interested in receiving credit. Or, consider taking online classes to fill your free time and give you the extensive grammar education that will benefit your language study exponentially.

Don't feel discouraged while learning a non-Latin-based language, particularly if you'd like to learn more than one. Memorize alphabets, exceptions, and if the opportunity to travel to the country that uses that language, then immerse yourself in continuing education and finding opportunities to speak it with native speakers!

About the writer

Lucy Markham worked as an academic counselor for several years before returning to school to pursue her master's degree in Education. She is a lifelong learner and enjoys studying both Romance and Slavic languages in her free time.

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