My Russian language course gets under way at RAF North Luffenham - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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My Russian language course gets under way at RAF North Luffenham

By the time my Russian course started on 11 October 1976, I had already learned all the Russian letters in their various printed and handwritten forms. Thanks to my part-time study with the Linguaphone Russian Course that I had bought soon after the aptitude test at North Luffenham, and assisted by Vera Ristich, one of the civilian instructors, I could read Russian texts out loud quite well. Our instructors were a mixture of British civilians headed by the one we always referred to as Headmaster, much to his amusement and the disapproval of all the other instructors, and a group of splendid men and women who hailed originally from various eastern European countries and who spoke English as their second or third language. For all I know they were naturalised British citizens but the need to enquire into that never arose and they didn't encourage questions about their past. One of them was the delightful Oleg Grigorievich Kravchenko, a portly gentleman with a ready smile and endless patience - and he certainly needed the latter when teaching us.

The first thing Oleg Grigorievich taught us was how to pronounce his first name properly. Most English speakers pronounce it wrongly as "Oh-leg", with the stress on the 'o'. To be correct, the 'o' should be very light, almost like a very short 'a' (as in English apple) and the stress should be on the second syllable, pronounced with a palatalized 'l' thus: 'alyég'. Oleg Grigorievich did not see the joke when we, rather cruelly, suggested that perhaps he spoke pre-Revolutionary Russian. Incidentally, we always had to use both his first name and his patronymic (the Grigorievich part – which means son of Grigori) when addressing him in Russian or English; to miss off the patronymic would have been very disrespectful.

Because of my pre-course study, I started with a slight advantage over my fellow students but that didn't last more than a few days. I have always, even in French and Latin lessons at school, found it difficult, and tedious, to learn vocabulary. The school method of teaching languages back in the late 1940s had suited me: learning paradigms of conjugations and declensions by heart from written tables (amo, amas, amat; bonus, bona, bonum; and all that). At North Luffenham most of the teaching, and all of Oleg Grigorievich's, was done entirely in Russian. I could not get on with that: I needed to know the grammar rules; simply listening to Russian did not work for me. I delighted in the 'aspects' of Russian verbs. For example, the English sentence 'I went to London' is capable of several interpretations which have to be inferred from the context. The Russian form, or aspect, of the verb 'went' in that sentence precisely indicates whether I went yesterday, a long time ago, regularly, or infrequently, or whether I remained in London when I got there and returned sometime later. Think how useful that is!

I was particularly fascinated by the many Russian verbs of motion. That same English sentence, 'I went to London', merely tells the listener that I went to London at some unspecified time in the past. In Russian, different verbs are necessary to indicate how I went: on foot, by train, by sail, in a car, on a bike, on skates, etc. Incidentally, we learned that one has to be very careful using the Russian verb 'to skate' (кататься - katatsya). Changing the first 'т' in the Russian word to 'к' (какаться - kakatsya) changes the meaning to 'to soil oneself' (to put it politely), which is an entirely different sort of motion. We giggled like teenage students when we learned that. Fortunately, I have never had the need to employ either of those Russian verbs - except here!

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