What Does It Mean That Russian Is An ‘Inflected Language’?

Anyone studying an inflected language?

Fluent Historian

Obligatory picture of Red Square. Obligatory picture of Red Square.

Before I started learning Russian, a lot of the sources I read said it was hard. Not only does it have a completely different alphabet, they warned, but it’s an inflected language. A quick search of this term—inflected language—revealed that Russian nouns change depending on where they are in a sentence. That is, nouns have different cases. Changing the case is called declining. The names of the cases used in Russian are nominative, accusative, dative, genitive, prepositional, and instrumental. This post will deal with nominative (used for the subject of a sentence), accusative (used for direct objects), and dative (used for indirect objects) in more detail.

To understand case in general, take these sentences in English: The cats eat and I love cats. In the first sentence, cats is the subject, while in the second, it is the direct object. It’s the same word…

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Can I have the language of origin? Language Knowledge is Key to Spelling Bee Success

“Bouillabaisse”, “Scherenschnitte,” and “Rhodochrosite.”

All three of the words above can be found in nearly any English dictionary, but they probably don’t look familiar upon first glance. While words like these do not typically pop-up in normal conversations, they recently made an appearance on national television during finals of the 2015 Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Spelling Bees are well-known throughout the United States as a platform for students, usually aged 9 to 14, to test their vocabulary knowledge by spelling words onstage in front of a large audience. These young competitors could encounter any word from the English language, but the biggest challenge is the uncertainty of which word they will face when they step-up to the microphone: will it be a common word, or something a little more intimidating, such as “pyrrhuloxia”?

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Since there are over a million English words listed in the Merriam Webster Dictionary, it is very likely that students at an advanced spelling level are asked to spell words that they have never before seen or heard. If you’ve never seen the word before, how could you possibly know how to spell it?

Your first instinct might be to spell the word the same way that it sounds.This can be helpful at times, but there are many English words that are not spelled phonetically (take for example “gnome”, “tsunami”, or “psychology”).

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During a Spelling Bee, competitors are allowed to ask a few questions about their word, such as its definition or how it would be used in a sentence, but the most insightful question of them all is the language of origin. It is very common for languages to adopt specific vocabulary from other languages, and English is no exception. By knowing the language that an English word originated from, spellers have a better chance of identifying special patterns from that language, especially if they have dedicated time to learning bits and pieces of foreign languages.

Learning German, for example, could be immensely helpful when faced with a word like “Gummihandschuh.” This word means rubber glove, but a literal German-English translation of this word is “Rubber-hand-shoe.” The German language is notorious for mashing numerous root words together to create one massive, compound word. By knowing the definition and recognizing the root words that make-up a compound word like this, a speller has a much higher chance of spelling a German word correctly.

Another helpful tidbit of knowledge comes with knowing which letters of the alphabet are exceptionally common in each language. Latin and Greek are the two most common languages of origin referenced during the spelling bees, but a very interesting distinction can be made between these languages in regard to the letter “k.” In a Latin-derived word,  you would rarely ever find a word that contains the letter “k.” This is very useful with a word like “hippocrepiform’, since it is much more likely that the /k/ sound is represented by the letter “c.” On the other hand, Greek-derived words are significantly more likely to utilize the letter“k,” which could make all the difference between spelling a word correctly or incorrectly.

Every word that composes the English language has a history behind it, and its spelling often reflects the characteristics of its original language. Whether you are a champion speller or just beginning to learn a new language, you may find your English spelling skills improving when you learn a new language.

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–Emily D.

Colorful Colloquialisms – “Nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy.” (Polish)

Anyone learning Polish? A great post and a great phrase to use!

living with linguaphilia

During a conversation with a coworker, she came out with a phrase I’d never heard before: “Not my monkey, not my circus.”  I understood perfectly what she was trying to say, but I was still amused by the phrase, so of course I had to look it up.

Shocked monkey Image via tanli at freeimages.com

A quick search turned up an entire page of results before I’d even entered the entire phrase, making me feel like maybe I should have known this one.  It turns out that my coworker’s version was slightly different from the original, “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” It means, basically, “not my problem” or “not my responsibility” – “I’ve washed my hands of this”.  Everything I’ve found indicates that this is originally a Polish phrase: “Nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy.”

This seems like a great use of an idiom to change a mood.  In a situation…

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Language Learning (and Life) Advice

Here at the Language Resource Center, we realize the winter semester has ended and it’s much too soon to be thinking about the coming fall. However, there is at least one subject that you might not want to forget about so soon– your language skills!

The LRC’s Student Advisory Board sat down together at the end of term to brainstorm some advice for retaining languages over the summer, starting a new language (especially for you incoming freshmen!), and practicing in new ways for upper level learners. Below are some great suggestions that these language students came up with.

Advice for the summer:

  • Learning outside of the classroom is a great way to learn about the culture of your language. Resources like foreign news clips and books can be your best friend. (Alex)
  • Remember that class cannot teach you all the vocab or skills that you really need to get around in other countries. Spend some time with non-class resources for better practice. (Todd)
  • Use Duolingo! (Alex)
  • Challenge yourself– listen to some slow news or a podcast or watch a movie without subtitles. You could even try to read some articles or a book without using a dictionary then go back with a translation and check how well you understood it. (Valeriya)
  • There’s always something new to study or listen to or read in your language. One trick for hands on practice is to change your internet and phone settings to be in your new language. (Cathy)

Advice for learning a new language:

  • “Learning” a language takes a LOT of time– and you are never really done learning it. (Todd)
  • Be realistic in your expectations of your language skills. Hitting a brick wall because you see someone excelling faster happens, but it’s better to understand that it’s a process that takes time and effort. (Kendall)
  • Worrying about succeeding in the next level of courses is completely normal but you can lessen that anxiety by getting together with others in your class or friends learning the same language! There are no grades and no worries. (Kendall)
  • It will be much more time consuming to put out the effort of writing an essay in your new language, but it is absolutely worth it. Writing an essay in English then translating is useless. (Valeriya)
  • You may feel like you are hitting a wall and should be understanding everything, and  and wanting to quit is understandable, but you have to keep at it! It’s worth it! (Julie)

Advice for incoming students:

  • Try to go to office hours at least once a week. The best way to learn a language is to practice it, so go talk to your professors– it doesn’t even have to be about class. Just go say hello! Start a conversation! (Alex)
  • If professors make you nervous, find an upper level student to chat with. Work at your speaking skills with them, no matter how long it takes you to get through a sentence. (Valeriya)
  • Don’t expect to be perfect. You may have come to this school having been the best in your high school, but there is no finish line or “best” in languages. (Jenny)
  • Don’t be afraid of sounding foolish. You will mess up and that’s okay; it will happen. To open you mouth and use it, to immerse yourself and try things is more important than getting it perfect. (Valeriya)

Advice for upper level learners:

  • It can be challenging to find upper level foreign language books in the US, but you can use your amazon account to log into foreign amazon sites and find new resources that way. (Todd)
  • It’s not about communicating your own culture through direct translation. True fluency comes from thinking in that language through that culture to express ideas. (Cathy)
  • Past the 250 level or so, your grade is based not on fluency or accuracy but effort and participation. (Valeriya)
  • Grades are just an empirical metric for your progress; they do not entirely sum up your abilities. Those skill measurements can be a great help though– getting a certification or something similar can be incredibly useful in job hunts. (Todd)
  • Going outside of your textbook and your classroom is incredibly important. Generating knowledge as opposed to regurgitating what you’ve been told is the ultimate sign of deeper understanding. (Valeriya)

We hope that some of this advice is helpful to you and we’d love to hear your own tricks and tips for keeping up those language skills! Share your own advice with us in the comments below, and happy learning!

Online games to learn Russian (and other languages!)

Привет! In this post I thought I’d share a few games that I like to use to practice Russian – vocabulary, listening, the case system, and typing!

Ba Ba Dum is four games in one. Practice vocabulary (and listening and reading) with matching and spelling games that involve only pictures and the target language – no translation, so you can get used to thinking in the language! For extra fun, it’s available in 13 languages:

  • Portuguese
  • Romanian
  • Greek
  • Swedish
  • Japanese
  • Russian
  • Italian
  • French
  • Spanish
  • German
  • Polish
  • American English
  • British English

Russian Case Roulette helps you learn the 6 Russian cases through a series of visually-appealing games. Grammar terms are presented in both English and Russian.

Finally, keybr.com is a fun, multilingual, highly responsive online typing tutor. It keeps track of which letters you are struggling with and presents them more frequently, so you can get extra practice. I like to get a little typing practice in every evening – you can do a few minutes at a time, and your data will be saved. Under Settings -> Keyboard Layout, you can set the language to one of these six:

  • English
  • German
  • French
  • Italian
  • Portuguese
  • Russian

I hope you have fun with some of these games, and learn a little Russian (or Portuguese, or Greek, or Spanish…) along the way!

– Amelia