Improvised Russian: Tricks From a Language Fool in Kazakhstan

I've got a guest post that took me down memory lane today, back to my old job which had me travelling to Kazakhstan on a regular basis. The country became one of my favourite travel destinations. Kazakhstan is exciting, lively, full of nomadic promise, and delightfully different from my own country.

Guest writer Marta is Polish, and recently spent a few nomadic weeks in the country. I was so excited when she agreed to tell us her story!

Off to Kazakstan!

Crossing a busy four-lane road in an unmarked place with bags of groceries for a mere £10, my mind woke up — I’m in Kazakhstan. One of these “weird” countries that I could always find on the map (being the 9th largest country in the world it’s pretty hard to miss…), but whose mention did not conjure any images in my head. Well, at least not up until one famous comedy film. Borat certainly raised awareness about the existence of this vast land, but at the same time permanently stained the popular opinion about it.

A pack of 20 cigarettes costs the same as a taxi ride here: 60p. Yes, less than a pound. (*Ed.: 60p is roughly $1 US)

Last time I was in a bar I paid around £3.50 for five beers. If those are the prices of typical “luxury” goods, imagine how cheap food here is.

Here's how I got on on the language front:

Annoying Russian

Russian is one of the languages that annoys me. As a native Polish speaker I always expected myself to just “pick up” Russian with a mild amount of effort, but, to tell you the truth, I never had motivation to put even this mild amount of effort into learning Russian.

Due to the history of the last 70 years the language is still demonised among my family members who lived during the USSR, and even among my peers. I saw no reason to study Russian. I also managed to convince myself that I was incapable of memorising the Cyrillic alphabet. Buying into my own fairytale has made it much harder for me to learn it: like a self-fulfilling prophecy, or a bad teacher who stifles students’ interest in a subject due to a lack of talent.

Surprised Kazakhs

Why am I talking about Russian though if I’m in Kazakhstan, is there not a language called Kazakh? Well… Kazakh has a status of a “state” language here and even though it’s spoken by the majority of the population (over 60%), the de-facto official language of wider communication here is Russian. This means that most Kazakhs are bilingual, especially in cities, and the 30% large Russian minority has no reason to learn Kazakh.

All road signs are bilingual and most shops or cafes have notices and menus in both Russian and Kazakh (sometimes also in English). Government employees are required to speak Kazakh and you do hear it a lot on the streets.

However, Russian remains a lingua franca and hearing a shelyeldyk (foreigner) speaking Kazakh provokes a very surprised and enthusiastic reaction, probably similar to the feeling I experience when a foreigner knows even two words of Polish.

If I had to choose whether to learn Russian or Kazakh, I would have definitely tried to learn some Kazakh during my stay. However, because my mother tongue belongs to the same language family as Russian, for survival purposes that was my chosen language of communication. Although you’ll decide for yourself to what extent you can call my speaking attempts communication.

Embracing the "Imbecile"

Your travelling fools. There is a lot of pollution and dust in Almaty

Your travelling fools. There is a lot of pollution and dust in Almaty

Originally the Kazakhs are descendants of nomadic Mongol tribes. This fitted quite nicely with the purpose of my visit to Kazakhstan which was to practice a modern nomadic lifestyle — not so much sleeping in yurts, but combining remote work with travelling.

I was planning to do what I mostly do at home, with occasional sightseeing ventures and excursions. I say all this only to provide myself with an excuse for not having learned more Kazakh or Russian while there, otherwise who would be writing for the LinguaLift blog and helping the students? I realise it’s a bit of a lousy excuse.

The point here is that even without learning anything formally I still had to communicate with people and, get things done.

In the process you will abandon timidity and that sense of shame a lot of us have when we speak a foreign language imperfectly and come across as simpletons, imbeciles or simply ignorant foreigners.

The Magic Word in Russian

A word that became my favourite and one that my Russian speaking friend teased me about was the word можно, mozhna. It means “one can”, “it is possible” which is exactly the same as Polish word można pronounced almost identically. It became my keyword and a magic spell to accomplish the impossible, like buying salads on the market or anything requiring communication really.

How To Use можно

  • Say Можно and point at things.

Very handy if you purchased a membership to a gym in Almaty (like I did) and want to ask whether you can use a piece of equipment which someone turned into a shelf for their phone.

  • Say Можно with gestures.

A door is closed and you want to get into a building? Give the guard a questioning look and make a forward motion towards the doors. You’ll be sure to find out when the answer is no.

  • Use Можно + noun.

If you were clever enough to look up a required noun before jumping straight into talking attempts (not like me then!). In comparison with option 1, this gives you endless opportunities, such as buying 300 grams of салат из моркови с чесноком for 60p.

Here is my favourite “salad lady” from the Green Bazaar.

Here is my favourite “salad lady” from the Green Bazaar.

If you realise you know nothing in the local language try to find an equivalent key word. Combined with gestures and pointing it will work wonders.

The Polish connection

Because of the degree of similarity between Polish and Russian, sometimes I forgot I didn’t actually speak the language. I don’t think I have to remind you that passive understanding and creative verbal production are two different things.

When we travelled to Kyrgyzstan for two nights (for the necessary re-entry to Kazakhstan to prolong the tourist visa) we booked a room in a guesthouse. We arrived late and the only people on the site were two elderly builders who clearly had no idea that anyone was meant to appear so late in the evening.

I opened my mouth and... no words came out.

I realised I didn’t know the word for room, book, reserved, email, message or anything that would explain the connection between the guesthouse and us two standing in their unfinished front yard!

Thankfully it wasn’t too hard for the men to figure that two foreigners with backpacks at a late hour out of the tourist season could only be looking for a room. And sure enough when they said the word комната I exclaimed да! with relief.

Polish and Russian are quite similar, but really not to the point of mutual intelligibility. Yet, I have a feeling that identifying yourself as a fellow Slav can produce a warmer attitude and potentially lower prices.

Knowing I was Polish, the instructor in my gym tried to convince me to be more chatty, a very optimistic reaction to me saying that I understood him only немного (“a little bit”).

The taxi driver in Cholpon-Ata in Kyrgyzstan having heard I was from Польша (Poland) simply started to refer to me as Польша.

*Польша, все нормально? (Everything ok, Poland?) were his last words to me when we were leaving the cab.

Mixing Languages: A Fluency Trick

Preserving endangered languages, buying locally grown vegetables — I am all for supporting anything and everything local. However, there were moments in Kazakhstan where linguistic globalisation provided me with some much-needed vocabulary.

On the way back from Kyrgyzstan we had to catch a marshrutka (mini bus) in Bishkek. We didn’t have enough som (Kyrgyz currency) left, but we figured since the bus goes to Kazakhstan the driver would also accept Kazakh tenge.

The key was to ask.

Fearlessly I approached the driver with two sets of notes in my hands and while vawing them in front of him I asked “mozhna mix?”. After a 3 second thoughtful calculation of the amounts he said slowly: mozhna. Success!

The lesson here is to figure out the words that can be present in the other person's reality. Regardless of where in the world you are, you will find some piece of shared reality with the locals.

все нормально - That's all good

Travelling opens our eyes to our own ignorance.

I confirmed that Russian and Polish are similar, I’m less shy than I thought, and that it’s possible to communicate even with a very limited amount of vocabulary if you keep your ears and mind open. It has also evoked a desire to actually master Russian (since I work at LinguaLift, I'll be trying our own course.

Maybe next time I will be less of a walking circus of pointing and gesturing. все возможно!

Do you have any stories from a Russian speaking country?

How far did you get with немного, "spaseeba" and можно yourself?

Marta Krzemińska is a language coach and blogger at LinguaLift - she's an aspiring nomad and a speaker of Toki Pona.

How To Get Germans to Speak German To You

One of the most common questions I hear from you guys is how to deal when other people refuse to practice your target language with you. I'm excited to present some awesome advice from Anja at The Germanz in Australia.

Matching this awesome topic, I've created the new guide Make Your German Sound Amazing, featuring 26 Key Phrases For Conversations with German Speakers. Just click on the little black button here to download it and use it alongside Anja's tips.

Germans and their love for English

When you get lost in Australia, the States or the UK and ask for directions, people will most likely answer in English. When you get lost in Germany, people will most likely answer in English too. 

Studies suggest that (only) 62% of the German population is actually able to hold a conversation in English and most movies and TV shows are still dubbed into German. In fact, most German customers still prefer things the German way and speaking German is still a necessity no matter where you live in Germany (with the exception of Berlin).
 
So why is it that German learners complain that Germans respond to them in English? 
 
What if I told you that you don’t just have to take it? No doubt, you can help Germans stay on track and chat away in German for ages. 

I’m German myself and I’m going to tell you about a few easy things you can do.

Why Germans Switch To English

Germans switch to English for three reasons. 

  1. Sometimes they want to help you
  2. Sometimes they want to help themselves
  3. Sometimes they just prey on the vulnerable and make you the practice tool

But most of the time, they just don’t know any better. 

1. They want to help you

Sometimes Germans simply think it’s being polite. They want to help you communicate more efficiently.

When you ask them, “How goes you? I not finds the station train”, they will most likely help you out in English without speaking a word of German. ‘Oh, that’s cool, they tried in German. They’ll probably understand better when I tell them where to go in English!’, the efficient mind will think.

Germans love speaking English, even when speaking German. Even though many Germans learn at least one foreign language in school, some of them fail to remember that only practice makes perfect.

Additionally, some seem to forget that the comprehension skills of a learner usually outweigh their speaking abilities.

The innocently English speaking German simply doesn’t get that you may understand, that it would be polite and helpful to respond in German. It’s like they buried their teenage memories somewhere in the deepness of their minds, along with that sneaky first kiss behind the school building.

Germans will think you just want to break the ice by saying a few words in German. They will return that favour and will try to make the conversation as unconditionally comfortable as possible for you. In English.

2. It's easier for them

But Germans are not always driven by lovely innocence. Some Germans are simply not patient enough: ‘It will be quicker and easier if I just tell them in English. I’m almost late already!’
If their guesstimate places your German skills below their own English proficiency, they might respond in English.

For Germans, it’s all about communicating efficiently. No overexcited small talk, no politely beating about the actual topic, no exchange of unnecessary information, but rather direct communication, cutting to the chase and getting this question answered as accurately and quickly as possible. In English.

3. Germans want to practise their English skills

Of course, let’s face it, a few Germans simply want to practise their English on you because they know how awesome it feels to finally speak in your language of choice. 

Moreover, they want to show off how good their English is to impress you (and others). They are going to take advantage of you. 

Imagine how convenient, they don’t even have to leave their country to get what they crave. Speaking English. ‘Perfect! This guy from England gets to speak German every day; doesn’t he live here in Germany?’ 

They quickly forget that a lot of others see their opportunity as well, and this poor guy from England and his German skills fall by the wayside.

Here’s what you should do, as well as what you should avoid, to keep up the conversation in German. 

How to Make Them Speak German

How can you fulfil your dreams and get those Germans to speak in German to you? Embrace these two rules that everything boils down to:
 
1. Speak no English to Germans

And

2. Make your German sound better than it is.

These two rules are the magic tricks that will lead to a happy life in Germany. 

Let’s have a look at how to put them into practice with concrete examples and workarounds.

Respond in German

To really cash in and get the Germans speak German, you want to stay away from English as much as possible.
 
Certainly, it will take some courage especially when you think your German is not good enough. But you know what? The Germans will work it out. If they don’t get what you mean, they will ask (in English or German, it doesn’t really matter). 

But if you’re asked, you’ll get a second chance to say it. You may even get some valuable feedback.
 
More importantly, when someone starts speaking English to you, just keep responding in German. 

If your German is already good enough, try to translate the English response into German and say it back to them in German. Be patient and stick to German to get them back on track, no matter what.
 
If you don’t understand, ask them what it means, in German

Once more, under no circumstances switch to English.
 
If you can’t remember the word and you really need to know it, do the following:

Describe the word in German and ask them about the correct word.

  • Was heißt nochmal das eine Pedal im Auto? -Nein, das andere. Ach, ja, das Gaspedal. - What would you call that one pedal in the car? -No, the other one. Ah yes, the gas pedal.) or

Ask them for the translation in German.

  • Wie heißt nochmal ‘dog’ auf Deutsch? - What’s the word for ‘dog’ in German again? 

Work on your pronunciation

As Germans like to switch when they think that communicating with you might not go too smoothly, how about you make your language skills less of a problem? 

If Germans think that you’re comfortable speaking in German, they are less likely to switch.
 
One way of making your German sound better than it is, is to be amazing at pronouncing things. Just practice the proper pronunciation and know how the intonation pattern of a sentence works.

Use phrases and conversation fillers

You could also use phrases and conversation fillers to make your responses sound more natural. 

The idea is again that we want to make our German sound better than it is. It’s like saying, “Keep going, nothing to see here”.
 
To keep up the flow when speaking, it’s a great idea to have handy the vocabulary you will need. But also don’t forget that natives use clichés and filler words, and they say ‘uhmm’ a lot. 
 
Here are some examples:

  • Ach wirklich/Echt? - Ah really?
  • Cool!
  • Macht nichts!/Kein Problem. - That’s alright!/No problem.
  • Hört sich gut an. - Sounds good.
  • Ach so. - Ah yea.
  • Stimmt!/Genau - I agree./Yeah, that’s right.
  • Na ja, vielleicht. - Yeah, maybe.

Compromise

Let’s face it, sometimes there’s no way that subtle hints will get them back on track. 

Please don’t take it personally, they might not even notice. The only thing that will help here is to be very clear about your goals, about genuinely wanting to learn proper German.
 
Apart from saying “Bitte nur in Deutsch”, you can decide to blitzkrieg and offer a language tandem. Your compromise could be
 
One hour speaking in German, another hour speaking in English.
 If you see them every day, you could agree to speak English from Monday to Wednesday and German from Thursday to Sunday.
 
If the two of you agree to correct each other properly and also provide alternatives for certain sentences and phrases, you could both benefit from the language tandem quite a bit.

Make (new) German friends

As your language skills progress, you’ll be able to chat away on more and more topics. You will be developing your ‘German You.’ It may be the same as — or completely different from — the English-speaking you.
 
With your ever-improving skills, making new German friends will become a lot easier.
 
If you have moved to a German-speaking country, you’ll hit the jackpot by joining a club (der Verein) in the German countryside, but clubs can be found anywhere across Germany, even in the big cities. Similarly, you want to get involved and lend a hand at the local Tatort night, the German-speaking weekly handcraft meeting or the local climbing hall.
 
Try to maintain a healthy ratio of English-speaking and only-German-speaking friends. You have a choice among about 100 million German native speakers in the European Union alone.
 
Don’t forget, the more you get to speak German, the easier it gets. Just let Germans know you’re up for a challenge. They will be up for it as well. 

Summary

In summary, please don’t get turned off by responses in English, keep learning German and remember these two fundamental rules: 

  1. Don’t speak English to Germans.
  2. Make your German sound better than it is.

On a concrete note, you could:

  • Always reply in German.
  • Ask for missing words and explanations in German.
  • Improve your pronunciation.
  • Use conversation fillers and ‘uhm’ a lot.
  • Compromise by offering language tandems.
  • Move to the German country.
  • Make (new) German speaking friends.

You’ll find more nifty tricks on learning and speaking German on my German language blog. 

Don’t forget to tell me in the comments about your favourite strategy in dealing with English speaking Germans. 

This article was written by Anja. Anja lives in Melbourne, Australia, is originally from Germany and writes about the German language and culture on her blog when she is not busy teaching German language classes. Hang out and have a chat with her on Google+ or Twitter.

These fun videos can get you motivated to start learning a language

There's some poetry in advertising, isn't there? It tries to tell us about what our most burning desires are, and what the world would look like if we satisfied them. Or, well, some adverts take the other route of showing us just what we miss out on.  Here are two that really stood out to me because they do it so, so well.

The Coastguard

Ultimate proof that a sense of humour is deeply ingrained in every German's brain. I have known this ad for YEARS and still laugh out loud every time I see it. Thank you to Berlitz for summing up the whole point of learning a language properly.

The Lost Opportunity

D'oh! Noooooo! Oh man, how much time could we think about what could have been if that guy had only studied some Korean!

Come on now.

You don't want to be like that speechless coast guard when a pop star walks by, do you?  Take a biased piece of advice from me and book yourself onto a Fluent Language Tuition lesson. Locals in Lancaster have the chance to join a group starting on 27 August, and anyone anywhere should take the chance to meet me online.

The core of language learning: Why my approach is communication-based

This afternoon, I spent a little bit of time diving into my YouTube archives. I discovered this video, featuring my own contribution to the "Staycation Challenge", and it reminded me of one of the core things I believe about language learning.

This is all about communication!

When you're hard at work with verb endings and word field exercises, chances are you run the risk of losing sight of your goal. Language learning is meant to bring people together. In fact, it's any kind of communication that brings people together. You can say a lot with a smile or a gesture!

Does the thought of communicating without language seem strange to you?

Here in Britain, it's not unusual to meet language learners who have learnt a bit of German or French, but whose levels of confidence just aren't rising. There seems to be a belief that it is important to be able to get it really right before you go and inflict your language skills upon anyone else.

What I believe in is a communication-based approach to language learning. There are so many times when students might make a small mistake in a sentence which is perfectly fine, but does this impact on your message?

As a language tutor, I will certainly correct them but it's important to make sure that you don't lose focus of what really counts - language learners want to connect, to be understood, and ultimately to share a smile much more than impress anyone with their pitch-perfect grammar.

Do you agree, and do you learn language with the same attitude?