Russian is less commonly taught in the United States than other major foreign languages and is considered one of the most difficult foreign languages for Americans to learn.
The complexity of Russian derives not only from its highly inflected systems of nominal declensions and verb conjugations, but also from certain sentence structures that differ from those of English. Although Russian and English are grammatically completely different languages, as a means of communication they have something in common. In this paper I shall share my experience in teaching pronominal-correlative sentences based on a comparison of Russian and English sentence structures.
The pronominal-correlative sentences (PCS), such as Otec pokupaet to, čto syn xočet are a special type of complex sentence in Russian. They are characterized by a relative pronoun (wh word) in the subordinate clause which always correlates to an obligatory demonstrative pronoun in the main clause. The case of both the relative and demonstrative pronouns depends on their function in the clauses, and the subordinate clause of the PCS may often be moved in front of the main clause, for example: Kto ne rabotaet, tot ne est. In Russian sentences of this type the demonstrative and relative pronouns are strictly correlated to one another and compose pairs, such as tot (te, vse, každyj, vsjakij)—kto; to (vsë)—čto; tam (tuda, ottuda)—gde (kuda, otkuda); tak—kak; takoj (takov)—kakoj (kakov); stol′ko—skol′ko, and nastol′ko—naskol′ko.
The strict structure of the pronominal-correlative sentences is difficult for American students to learn. However, I have found that sentences of this type are similar to English definite free relative clauses, and it is possible to teach these sentences based on the students’ knowledge of their native language, English, thus helping them overcome the difficulty in their study.
The pronominal-correlative sentences are a special type of complex sentence with structures peculiar to Russian. However, they are similar to English complex sentences with definite free relative clauses because: (a) Both the subordinate clause of the PCS and the definite free relative clause look exactly like an indirect question, although neither of them is an indirect question. (b) The subordinate clause of the PCS that is introduced by a certain type of relative pronoun plays the same syntactic role as the demonstrative pronoun does in the main clause. Similarly, the definite free relative clause that is introduced by a certain type of phrase can serve as a phrase of the same type in the main clause of which it is a part. (c) Both the subordinate clause of the PCS and the definite free relative clause may have residual ambiguities in structure and meaning. Nevertheless, we must remain aware of the differences between the PCS and the definite relative clause.
Based on the students’ knowledge of English, this comparison facilitates their grasp of the special characteristics of the PCS and thus helps them improve their skills in reading and writing Russian.