Getting Around Moscow While Learning How to Speak Russian

So, you’ve decided to go to Moscow. Even as a tourist, it is next to impossible to get around without learning how to speak Russian — at least a little!

Subway Station Prospekt Mira

Subway Station Prospekt Mira

Public transportation is very accessible, with many options, but sometimes station names will be written only in Cyrillic and announcements are usually not made in English. However, once you learn to recognize some station names, you will find they are easy to remember. Most are named after important people or places, like the station Biblioteka imeni Lenina, named for the Russian State Library nearby (which used to be named after Lenin), or events, like Oktabrskaya, named after the October revolution. In fact, once you learn to navigate the Moscow Metro (English site is available), you may even find yourself spending a day just riding around to all the stations!

That isn’t as unlikely an idea as it may sound. The Moscow subway, constructed under Stalin, is famous for its stunning Soviet architecture and design. Each station is distinct and represents Soviet values, ideals, and triumphs. Gold-embossed frames around mosaics of important people, rich marble pillars, intricate tilework, candelabras, statues: everything is made on a grand scale, with intent to impress. Stations in otherwise unremarkable places become tourist attractions in and of themselves.

How to navigate the Moscow metro system (even if you don’t know how to speak Russian)

It is relatively easy to navigate inside the stations.  Maps are easy to find and read. Arrows and color-coding will ensure that you are walking towards the correct track in the correct direction—some stations can wind around seemingly endlessly, with numerous staircases and hallways. A common sight along the hallways is old beggar women who stand silently, heads wrapped in scarves and bowed in supplication, holding out containers for spare change. Why are they always old women? This, I never figured out.

The layout of the Moscow subway is logical, with 10 color-coded, numbered lines connected by a ring line. The lines all have names, but it is much easier to refer to them by color or number—even for someone who knows how to speak Russian, ‘Sokolnicheskya Line’ is harder to remember than ‘Number 1’ or ‘Red Line’.

Other public transportation options in Moscow

There are also above-ground streetcar, tram, and bus lines. The most noteworthy of these are the marshrutki, which are small vans that run along a predetermined route. There is usually a sign in the window that gives the route number and some vague stops, but they will stop anywhere you ask them to along the way. There are no tickets, you just pay the driver when you get in. Marshrutki are trickier than other forms of transit; if you don’t know the area or how to ask the driver to stop, you may find yourself lost. But they are certainly a fun and authentic way to get around the city.

Of course, if it is late or if you are too tired to navigate public transit, there is always a ‘taksi.’ Say it out loud … Yes! Taxi. While the word is similar to ours, the system is different. When you’re wandering the streets of Moscow at night, especially if you’re in a group of college-aged girls, you will be constantly assaulted with calls of “Taksi? Taksi?” People who aren’t even near a car will ask you if you need a taxi if you look like you’re going somewhere. Should you accept, you’ll literally just be jumping into some random guy’s car. As an American, this scenario screams “stranger danger” and seems like the beginning of a bad crime thriller. But, in Moscow, it’s a perfectly legitimate way of getting around that is cheaper, faster, and less likely to rip you off than the licensed taxis you can call. Just be sure to negotiate your fare before you get in. Since the subways stop running at midnight and don’t start again until 5AM, you may find yourself making use of this method—unless, of course, you plan to take an example from hip young Russians and party until dawn and the first train.

Learn Italian and a bit of Italian Music History Along the Way

L’italiano è la lingua della musica!” You can probably figure out at least two of those words (even if you never tried to learn Italian) and come up with a basic understanding of what the sentence means:  Italian is the language of music.  You were able to make that out because a majority of English words derive from Latin, and of all the modern Romance languages, Italian is the closest to Latin.

Pianoforte or Fortepiano?

You can learn to speak Italian con brio (lively) and pronounce it piano or forte, but always con passione.  No matter your native language, with few exceptions, these words or phrases, describing how music should be played, are in Italian.  Learn Italian A nodding acquaintance with music notation will reveal a generous list of Italian expressions that you may already know. Many of the words will be a ready-made list that will go a long way in increasing your vocabulary while helping you learn Italian.  Just considering these two words, piano and forte, it’s a good starting point as you learn other meanings of these terms in different contexts.  In addition to “softly,” in everyday Italian piano also means “slow.”  Forte is “loud” and it also means “strong.”  Around the turn of the 18th century, the Italian Bartolomeo Cristofori invented a new keyboard instrument. Unlike the harpsichord, it could produce a sound from loud to soft, so someone decided to call it a fortepiano. Later it was changed to pianoforte. It flows better in Italian. Now you know that just calling it “piano” is only half the story.

Learn Italian for speaking and singing too!

You may already know that singers who want to have a career in opera, or in musicals where a more developed voice is required, start by learning Italian and singing old Italian arias.  You may think this is because a lot of operas are in Italian – yes, Italians invented opera – but that is not the reason.  The vowel sounds in Italian, though similar to vowels in other languages, are not articulated exactly the same way. Italian has the purest of vowel sounds.  They are all produced in the front, closer to the nose and lips, and not from the back of the throat.  That notion of speaking or singing “forward” is called in maschera in Italian. Yes, you probably guessed “mask,” and you are right.  If you think of those Venetian masks that cover the upper part of the face and part of the forehead, than you have the idea of where to produce the sound so that it is projected more clearly.  Learning Italian will naturally lead you to speak or sing “from the mask.” Along with proper breathing, learning to pronounce Italian will help develop this technique.  It won’t guarantee you’ll be an opera singer, but you will be enjoying forming those vowels and feel as if you were making music already.

So now you have discovered that while learning Italian, you not only learn a new language, but you also learn quite a bit of Italian culture and history.  And you also know why “L’italiano è la lingua della musica.”

Want to learn to speak Portuguese? Why choose Pimsleur? (Part 1)

So you need to learn to speak Portuguese – for business or for pleasure. Perhaps you’re going to Portugal to meet some potential business partners?  Or maybe you’re going to Brazil – for Carnaval? For the World Cup or the Olympics?  For a vibrant, relaxing, and rejuvenating get-away?

Want to Learn to Speak Portuguese

Want to Learn to Speak Portuguese?

Once you’ve figured out which dialect of Portuguese is right for you to learn, the next big decision is which language course you’re to buy, which method of language learning you think might work best for you.

I’m not just a Pimsleur writer, but I’m also a customer

Now, obviously, this post is on a Pimsleur website, so you can probably guess which course I’m going to recommend. But in a “Remember, I’m not only the Hair Club President, but I’m also a client” kind of way, I’m not just a gal who wrote the new edition of the Brazilian Portuguese course, but I also really love Pimsleur and swear by its underlying methodology. If I were going to another country, there is no way I’d use anything but Pimsleur to get me ready to go there – because I don’t have time to waste on less-effective learning methods. (And I also don’t have an inexhaustible frustration level: learning a new language is hard work, so given my choice, I’ll always go for the easiest way to learn it.)

Most other language courses tend to be the “same old same old” as the type of language instruction you got in school – and you know how that worked! I never get over being excited about Pimsleur because Dr. Paul Pimsleur had such a good idea (one which, in retrospect, is pretty obvious, like so many great ideas), which other language courses just don’t touch:  the best way to learn a language is do it as babies learn their first language (or “milk language,” or “mother tongue”).

Learn a new language the way you learned your first language

And that way involves hearing it – and trying to reproduce the sounds and speak them back – and then feeling the immense satisfaction when you do. That last bit is really important – as part of every Pimsleur course (built in to every unit) is to get you, the “learner,” to feel satisfaction at your progress. We course writers want you to succeed, and we write the courses so that if you put in the effort, you will come away from that “half an hour a day” knowing you’ve made progress. Because frustration doesn’t help you learn – learning can (and should!) be fun.

Babies don’t learn by reading, nor by flashcards, or using software. They learn by hearing those around them talk, and trying to talk back to them, in turn. They make mistakes, and learn from the mistakes. But the main thing is, language-learning is aural/oral, and it’s not built around mindless repetition, but actively trying out words and putting together sentences – listening for replies as confirmation, and learning from them. And that’s how Pimsleur courses work. (Well, there’s a good deal more science to it than that, but it’s where each Pimsleur course starts.)

Spilling Pimsleur Secrets (How do they do it?!)

So, we’re back to you wanting to learn to speak Portuguese.  How does any of the above help you? Because the Pimsleur course is built, from the first unit, to make it as easy as possible for you to succeed – with pleasure – at learning Portuguese.  In Unit One you start by hearing a conversation which you can’t understand … and then, by the end of the unit, you hear it again, and can understand it – and respond!

But it doesn’t stop at just generally helping you to learn to speak Portuguese.  We Pimsleur course writers also know that becoming fluent in another language takes a while (each Pimsleur course takes a month to complete as a learner) and maybe you’ll only have time to do Level I before setting off for Brazil for the sun, food, and culture – or maybe your boss only gave you a month’s lead time before that business trip to Portugal.

So we pack each unit with important words for A.) travel, and appreciation of the country once you get there and B.) building a workable vocabulary so you can best continue learning while your boots are on the ground, and you’re surrounded by Portuguese speakers. (Because, of course, the best way to learn any language is to go to the country, surround yourself with people speaking that language, and just do your best every day to communicate with them. Pimsleur, for as wonderful as it is, comprises only the first steps to real fluency in a language. We give you the boot-straps, as it were, to pull yourself up to getting along in a foreign country in a foreign tongue.  Once you’re there, building a real fluency will happen as you talk to people, learn more vocabulary, and get a more in-depth feel for the rhythms of the language and the more subtle nuances that no language course or class can ever teach you.)

So there is no “La plume de ma tante” (nor “my hovercraft is full of eels”) in Pimsleur – you are taught words you need and can use, and while you are being given those useful vocabulary items, at the same time you are taught the rest of the parts of the sentence to put around them, so that you can talk about yourself, or another person, ask questions – or, if you make a mistake, you can explain and correct that, and learn from it.

The world opens up for you when you open your mind by learning a new language

So that’s why I don’t just work for Pimsleur, I’m a Pimsleur customer. I know that any language I want or need to learn, I can just grab a Pimsleur course, make room for half-an-hour in my day for the guided learning, and I will be able to go to any country – say, Brazil – and communicate with the native speakers of the language. (And, sadly, even if I only have one month to do Level One, they will be surprised and impressed, because, let’s face it, Americans don’t have a very good reputation around the world when it comes to showing up knowing the language.) And that’s why, if you want to learn to speak Portuguese, I would recommend that you, also, grab a Pimsleur course (whether it’s the brand new edition of the Brazilian Portuguese which I just worked on, or the excellent European Portuguese course) – because I can tell you that each course has been built with the express purpose of teaching you the vital language skills you need, in the least amount of time, with the least amount of frustration, so that you can be enjoying a trip to the beach in Portugal, or a museum in Brazil (or watching soccer in either place!) and enjoying new cultures, new friends, and the way the world opens up for you when you open your mind by learning a new language.