Authors try to simplify difficult aspect of Russian language

Stephen M. Dickey Credit: Rick Hellman / KU News Service

LAWRENCE – Stephen Dickey has specialized in the thorny problem of aspect – which has challenged linguists and learners of Russian around the globe — when it comes to the proper usage of verbs in the Russian language.

“I have researched this category as a linguist for a few decades, but I've never written any instructional material for it until now,” said Dickey, professor in the University of Kansas Department of Slavic, German and Eurasian Studies.

Together with two native Russians – KU doctoral student Kamila Saifeeva and KU doctoral graduate Anna Karpusheva, Dickey has written a new book titled “Russian Aspect in Conversation.” Published earlier this year, it is part of KU’s Libraries’ free, online Open Textbooks initiative, and the authors have been promoting its availability at a series of national and international teachers’ conferences.

It's not a course textbook, Dickey said, but rather a complementary work that explores and allows mid- to advanced-level Russian language learners to practice verbal aspect.

“It’s a book about a very stubborn part of Russian grammar,” Dickey said.

That’s because, Dickey said, there is no equivalent in English.

“The category that we're talking about is more or less on a par with English ‘was reading’ versus ‘read,’ ” Dickey said. “So you've got one verb form that refers to a completed action, and then you've got another verb form that refers to an action that's ongoing. And any time a Russian uses a verb, they have to make this choice. So we rarely say ‘be reading’ as a command to somebody. We will say ‘read this’ and ‘read that.’ But Russians will say the equivalent of ‘be reading’ all the time.”

These Russian verbal categories are known as “perfective” verbs for actions that are or have been completed, and “imperfective” verbs for actions that are or might be ongoing.

“The mind-bending part of this is that it is more about reference,” Dickey said. “The difference between these two forms in Russian is kind of like the meaning of saying ‘the book’ versus ‘a book’ or ‘books.’ It's about specific things versus nonspecific things.

“And if you think that this doesn't make any sense, you're in good company, because we just don't think about verbal actions as being specific versus nonspecific. They take that kind of referential opposition and they lay it onto the verbs. And then you have the ‘read’ form, which is specific, versus ‘is reading’ or ‘be reading,’ or what have you, which is the nonspecific one. And it is extraordinarily difficult for people to get.

“There are people who do speak Russian for decades and don't perfect it, and that is really the impetus for this book.”

It’s a crucial thing for approaching fluency, Dickey said.

He and his colleagues created a book with some brief introductory material and a series of more than two dozen practice modules to help students get it.

“You read a series of dialogues, and then you answer multiple-choice questions about them ... that are designed to get you thinking about what is the relationship between the speaker and the hearer in the dialogue, and what the speaker wants to accomplish,” Dickey said.

Choosing the correct answer gets the student a confirmation with a gold star appearing on the screen/page. If they choose the wrong answer, the text lets them know that, too, and they can try again to get it right. Each module concludes with some explanatory material, summing up the section.

Dickey said while working with a teacher’s guidance would obviously be helpful, the book is designed to be able to be used independently by students. Moreover, he said, students can dip in and out of the book, taking on one bite at a time.

“That's the challenge,” he said. “To take to take what is ultimately a very difficult category and break it down so students can acquire it and use it.”

Dickey said that since the book was published earlier this year, he and his co-authors have been promoting its availability at a series of national and international teachers’ conferences.

Image: Stephen Dickey Credit: Rick Hellman, KU News Service.

Mon, 08/28/2023


Rick Hellman

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Rick Hellman

KU News Service