I’m a first-generation American, which means I occupy a strange position in the cross-cultural strata: I never fully blend in with most of my peers, and I also stumble through my own native language with a thick American accent that I didn’t have when I was three or four. I spoke Russian before I spoke English — well enough to pass for a little toddler fresh off the boat from Moscow, and also well enough to have an entire stack of Russian folktales completely committed to memory. At age 29, I have an established writing career in English, but I barely even remember how to write in Russian. This phenomenon is known as first language attrition: the forgetting of one’s native tongue.
With just a few weeks to go before I visited Russia for the very first time, I cracked open my Babbel app to see if it would help me refresh my language skills and reverse my first language attrition. Here are a few of my observations.
I was surprised by how much more I remembered than I thought I did. I speak Russian much better than I read it, and I’m not even sure if I’ve ever actually written in Russian — as in spelled out words and sentences from memory. I was worried that the beginner lessons would be too easy for me, but each lesson is broken up into different parts so you can practice your pronunciation through voice recognition, match phrases to their meanings (a.k.a. reading comprehension), spell words correctly, and complete an interactive dialogue (which lets you understand the language in the context it’s normally used in). I was pleasantly surprised by how many vowel endings I actually got right.
I knew that my accent was off, but Babbel called me out on my pronunciation errors and wouldn’t let me proceed until I made a subtle shift in the way I was pronouncing “y.” I actually struggled with the pronunciation part a bit until I thought about how I would say the word in a sentence. The app held me to a high standard, but the repetition was helpful.
The app held me to a high standard for pronunciation, but the repetition was helpful
Also, Babbel made sure I knew how to pronounce “vodka” in Russian pretty early on in the beginner’s course. Well played, Babbel.
Now I kind of know how to tell people what I do for a living. Though the pronunciation and spelling were super helpful to review, some of the subject matter in the beginner lessons was fairly basic. After briefly reviewing pronouns, basic greetings and learning how to introduce myself, I skipped around to various lessons, like Beginner’s Course 5, where you learn words for clothing and everyday objects, or a special course on “death” (you have to know how to sound sufficiently morose to speak Russian well), or a course that’s focused on emotions, attitudes and even sexuality. Oh, and one on internet lingo, for good measure. I, for one, can attest to the fact that my parents never taught me how to say “blog” in Russian.
There’s even a special set of mini-courses designed for tourists like me. In “Russian For Your Vacation,” you can learn words and phrases you’ll need to know when you’re eating out in Russia (or when you’re at the airport, at the hotel, navigating local transportation, and getting around by train). I already knew what pelmeni were, because I’d grown up eating them at home. But Babbel also packs these lessons with lots of helpful practical advice and cultural context for a newcomer to Russia: “There are many fast food chains in Russia that serve typical Russian dishes, like pirozhki and pelmeni,” the app offered. I also learned that you should generally tip 10 percent for good service, and to leave the tip in the folder with the bill. Because I also rarely ate out in Russian restaurants growing up, I never really learned how to say things like “keep the change,” but Babbel had my back.
Babbel packs these lessons with lots of helpful practical advice and cultural context for a newcomer to Russia
The app is more focused on hands-on learning, but it serves you with tips when appropriate. As a native speaker, I never formally learned grammar rules, so it was informative to learn that the Russian “e” is pronounced like an “i” when it isn’t stressed. For instance, the present tense form of “to be” isn’t used in Russian. After my third lesson, the app let me know that it would no longer use parentheses with the present-tense form of “to be” because I’m already familiar with the structure. The training wheels were off.
Babbel was cleverly preparing me for real-life conversations, as well as realistic situations. My favorite part was probably the interactive dialogue in which a man showed some recent party pictures to his female friend. It was for a lesson on pronouns, so the friend asked a lot of questions like, “and who is he?” The conversation came with a surprise at the end. “We’re together,” he said when his friend asked about a woman in the photos. “You’re together? How?” she said, sounding taken aback. There was no other context or explanation provided. Who is she? Why is she so aghast? Did these two have a history? “Who is she?” is a question we’re all bound to wonder eventually.