HOW TO SPEAK RUSSIAN FASTER WITHOUT CONSTANTLY THINKING ABOUT GRAMMAR
Speech tempo is a tricky thing that depends on many factors.
For example, on your personality: some people are calmer and speak a bit slower naturally, and that’s not really a problem.
Also, novice Russian learners always speak slower than learners with an advanced level of Russian: everything is new for them and they are just starting to get used to Russian pronunciation, new vocabulary and new ways to express things. Even easy phrases are not so easy for a newcomer. Even saying “здравствуйте” can be challenging.
So this is often not a problem to be solved, it’s rather a natural characteristic of the beginning stage. If all your language skills develop in balance, the more speaking experience you have and the more your level grows, the faster your speaking tempo will be. (Have a look at my free e-guide Beginner Russian Grammar and Speaking Roadmap if you’re unsure as to what to expect.)
However, no matter what your Russian level is, if you speak too slowly because you keep thinking about grammar rules that you’ve learned and it takes you forever to say a sentence, this might be a problem.
If you’ve ever thought anything like this:
“I wish I was able to use Russian grammar more quickly when I speak”
“I’d like to have more automatic use of correct cases and verb tenses”
then read on, and you’re going to find out why you speak slower than you wish you did and how to change that.
…But first, let me tell you that I totally understand you. Sometimes you want to talk to native speakers but you realize that not all of them are patient enough to listen to you. Some of them prefer switching to English just because they find it more efficient. Sometimes they assume that you already finished your turn and they interrupt you while you were just going to get to the point. It’s painful, I know.
THE 2 MOST COMMON STRATEGIES OF RUSSIAN LEARNERS
These are the 2 most common strategies that I see Russian learners use to fix it:
- just continuing doing written grammar exercises hoping that one day quantity will turn into quality;
- giving up on grammar because it’s just too frustrating to think about all these endings under the time pressure of a conversation.
Unfortunately, none of these 2 strategies is ideal.
With the first one, you become a master of grammar exercises and sometimes your accuracy in writing improves. Yet speaking under time constraints remains as challenging as it used to be.
With the second one, you sacrifice your accuracy for the sake of speed, and you definitely feel more comfortable in simple everyday situations: you can buy yourself some food, you can ask the time and participate in small talk quite efficiently. However, when you find yourself in a deeper conversation, your sentences sometimes sound ambiguous and even incomprehensible (this depends on the extent to which you ignore grammar).
You might not always realize it. Some people smile and nod when they speak to you. You think they understand you but sometimes they just want to be nice, especially if you are a beginner – “Isn’t it cute and respectworthy that this foreigner has memorized a few words in our “great and mighty” Russian language?” But that might be the reason why they still prefer switching to English, are still impatient and even start avoiding you if you insist on speaking Russian.
Luckily, there is a third way, and I’m going to talk about it in just a minute. But first, let me tell you about the
2 KINDS OF KNOWLEDGE
It turns out, whatever knowledge we have falls into one of the 2 categories:
- theoretical knowledge about things: what this concept is, why it works like that, if … then … (rules), and so on → this is called declarative knowledge and it’s about information;
- practical knowledge of how to do things and being able to do them – this is called procedural knowledge and it’s related to skills.
In fact, in Russian, we even have two verbs to describe these 2 knowledge types: знать (know the theory) and уметь (be able to do).
Both of these knowledge types are important for learning, but if you want to speak Russian well, you can’t rely on just one of them.
Declarative knowledge is great because it has generative power. When you’ve memorized a sentence and practiced saying it many times, it’s now your procedural knowledge. But the problem is – you can just say that one sentence. When you know a rule (declarative knowledge), you can apply it to all the vocab you know and say hundreds and potentially unlimited amount of original sentences.
Declarative knowledge has one drawback: it is slow. You can’t rely only on your knowledge of rules if you want to have conversations because it’ll just take too long to apply all those rules. You probably have already experienced it.
By the way, that’s the reason why language education at schools in many countries is not successful: it’s just too much focused on the rules, and the most important skill that is trained in regards to grammar is the skill of doing written grammar exercises. The result is that many people can’t speak the foreign language or don’t feel confident to speak it.
Another unfortunate result is the “grammar trauma” that many people have.
Yet you don’t need and shouldn’t give up on grammar if you want to be a successful Russian speaker.
Procedural knowledge, on the contrary, is fast. So it might be a good idea to use that one when you speak (while still benefiting from your declarative knowledge).
HOW CAN YOU DO THAT?
By transforming declarative knowledge (knowledge of rules) to procedural knowledge – being able to apply the rules automatically when you speak. By turning rules into speaking habits.
To do that, written grammar exercises are not enough. You need the next step: using the grammar in speaking.
There is something you can do right now: find a patient speaking partner or a tutor who is ready to listen to you no matter how long it takes, and you will soon see progress. If you don’t make many mistakes, have good self-editing skills and your only problem is that you speak slowly, then getting more speaking practice in a friendly environment might be the only thing you need to do.
If you speak slowly and make a lot of mistakes, just speaking might not be enough.
In case some grammar structures bother you to the extent that you can’t use them in speech no matter how long you think (even if you’d learned them), then it’s a good idea to deal with them one by one. You can turn each of them into a speaking habit, a micro skill. You will go step by step, and as a result, you won’t have to think about grammar because it’ll be automatic and you’ll be able to concentrate solely on your message instead.
THERE IS ONE MORE THING THAT YOU CAN DO
Find some comprehensible input (audio and texts at your level) and listen and read a lot. Eventually, you’ll have encountered certain expressions so many times that they will start jumping out of your mouth! That’s a sign they’ve become your procedural knowledge.
This doesn’t always work if you want to improve accuracy, but it definitely helps a bit to “untie your tongue”. This strategy is a little time-consuming but it’s relaxed. So you can easily find some time slots in your schedule for these activities, especially if you read or listen to something that you enjoy.
There is one disadvantage – it’s hard to find a lot of enjoyable stuff to watch, read or listen to as a complete beginner in Russian. But you can use materials for learners.
THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND
If you are a beginner, it’s good to focus on the grammar you’ve learned and practice it as much as possible in speaking. If you try to simplify your complex thoughts and explain them in the simple language you know, you will have more opportunities to practice your target grammar and become more fluent in using it in speech.
If you speak Russian too slowly because each time you want to say something, you have to think which rules to apply and which endings to pick, it doesn’t mean something is wrong with you and you should necessarily just “relax and speak” and give up on grammar. You respect for accuracy is valid.
If you want to speak faster and automatize your grammar, then both having more practice and getting enough audio and text input at your level will help you. You will benefit the most if you use both of these strategies.
With enough practice, you’ll succeed at that. Even if now you feel like a tortoise and grammar seems an obstacle that you can’t overcome, don’t give up. You will reach the point where you won’t feel limited. After turning grammar rules into micro skills, you’ll be fluent within your level. You’ll speak much faster and enjoy it more. Many people have done it, and you can too.
P.S. The photo was made in Moscow by Alexander Popov