Russia and Canton – The Twain Shall Never Meet?

This week was my third week of Russian lessons, and although the teacher insists stubbornly on talking about Anna who is a ballerina and Anna and Maria being ballerini, I’ve decided to practise what I preach.

I tell my students, all of whom keep telling me they want to learn Cantonese so they can talk to Chinese people, that to achieve this they have to actually talk to Chinese people. This is what many of them won’t really believe. They think that after a few months of being in the same room as me for an hour a week, they will miraculously emerge as fluent speakers of Cantonese and then start rabbiting away with locals in flawless Canto.

Well, that’s not going to happen, for the same reason as being in the same room as a swimming teacher won’t teach them how to swim. They have no problem understanding that in order to learn how to swim you have to get in the water, but when it comes to learning a language they think you can somehow just absorb it for a while and then come out on the other side, chrysalis-like, fluent.

Unfortunately I’m not living in Russia at the moment so I’m not surrounded by Russian speakers. Bummer! But at least I can put all the other advice I give my students into practice.

So here is what I’m doing to conquer Russian and lay the groundwork for when I’m wading through a sea of Russian speakers when I go to Kazakhstan later this year:

The first thing I’ve done is obviously to get a dictionary and semi-learn the order of the Russian alphabet. I put the study material, grim as it is, into a ring-binder. I log onto Pravda in Russian and translate a little bit every day. I go over and over the dialogues in the course, reading aloud. I’ve bought a small index book where I write in an orderly fashion all the words I’ve encountered and translated so far. I take notes from lessons in a notebook, then transcribe the words into said index book later.

Many of my students who have been taking lessons for two or three months have just a heap of random papers, no order, with notes all over the place. If they even started making their own personal dictionary for handy reference, much would be gained.

They should take notes on the course material I send them, then write it again into a notebook and then from there, into a small indexed notebook. Order is the order of the day here. You can’t expect things to become orderly inside your head if you don’t even know where to find the word you’re looking for in a heap of floating papers.

I’m dead set on learning Russian and I know I can crack it. I know learning a language takes time and effort, and above else, speaking that language incessantly.

My students have a huge advantage over me in that they have Cantonese speakers all around them. Also: When I send them a new dialogue, a new list of words, who says they must wait passively for the next lesson to roll along? Can’t they be a bit proactive or whatever it’s called – ask Chinese people how to say the words so they (my students) can start using those words immediately?

As mentioned in an earlier post, apart from really wanting to learn Russian, I wanted to walk a mile in my students’ shoes, see what it’s really like to be a total novice and start from scratch, in order to sympathise with their plight.

Therefore I’m doing all over again what I did when I really wanted to learn Chinese, minus the opportunity to converse in that language every day, starting with the two words I initially knew, and then building up.

And I can tell you now: Chinese is so much easier than Russian. Every word one syllable, now word endings, no sixty-three different words for ‘you’ depending on the situation.

So please my students and others really, really wanting to learn Cantonese: Get your words in order. Talk to Chinese people every day. Write out various dialogues based on the same theme, then read them aloud. Have a huge and immovable desire to learn the language and spend an hour every day immersing yourself in it one way or another. Have goals, such as: Today I will talk to three different people in Cantonese. Find people who don’t speak English and order the same dish/talk about the same weather/ask for the same direction from them each time, then branch out.

It’s only a language for Christ’s sakes. And so, so much easier than bloody Russian, each of whose words consists solely of consonants.

Contact us today


to find out how you can start learning Cantonese.