Word Structure and Meaning in Teaching Russian at the Intermediate Level

Alfia Rakova, Harvard University

At the intermediate level students become more familiar with the Russian morphological system. Many are acquainted with Russian word-formation and start to accumulate different patterns of word types, roots, suffixes, prefixes, meanings, related words, etc. The whole process is very interesting if the students know why they are doing it, if their learning process is meaningful. “Learning should always be meaningful; that is, students should understand at all times what they are being asked to do” (Alice Omaggio Hadley, 1993, p.101). I propose a paper in which I would like to discuss one of the confusing issues in teaching Russian morphology, and how to make the whole process of developing students’ language and cultural competence more appealing.

At the intermediate level it is very important to maintain our students’ interest in the Russian language itself, teaching them interesting processes that exist/existed in the language proper and how language reflects history and culture. Above all, this process involves teaching them the language, which is our most important task, and not merely about the language.

When students are asked to find a word root when there is no longer an easily identifiable root in the word’s modern meaning, they cannot be expected to grasp an underlying relationship unless their instructor explains it to them. The instructor’s role is crucial in guiding students towards meaningful morphological analysis as well as building their grammar and lexical competence. And in doing that the instructor must pay great attention not only to structure, but to meaning as well.

For example, take the verb proščat′-prostit′. After introducing the conjugation of these verbs and reinforcing them through short role-playing situations, I turn the students’ attention to the structure of the verb: the mutation st/šč, identifying the root, and illustrating related words. The students find the root prost- and immediately want to present more related (as it seems to them) words—prostoj, prostynja. The questions—Are they related? Are they semantically close?—naturally arise. If so, what does prostit′ have to do with prostoj? Basically what the students are trying to do is find a pair to this word. And their natural conclusion is that prostit′-prostoj-prostynja are not related now, but they probably were at some point in time when the meaning of prostoj was different. Word-formational analysis then is followed by etymological analysis: at some point in the past prostoj meant prjamoj, straight (which it still means in Polish). In the past, when people were guilty of some act, it was associated with the fact that they bowed down in asking for forgiveness; once they were forgiven, their body again assumed an upright position. Students then can easily understand that prostynja was derived from prostoj-prjamoj; it meant a straight piece of fabric. In modern Russian prostynja is an underived word. Students come to understand that words are derived from other words, that semantically and structurally words are connected with one another. On occasion, however, the connection no longer exists in modern Russian, or is not readily identifiable in the modern language. In these instances etymological analysis will broaden the students’ interest in both the Russian language and culture.


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