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Our man in Russia, how he learned to talk to the natives

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So you want to read ''War and Peace'' in the original tongue? Or maybe just understand what the Russian spies are saying to one another in the James Bond films - without reading the subtitles?

Either fancy requires some familiarity with Russian, the language of some 270 million people in the Soviet Union. And an acquaintance with Russian is invaluable for anyone traveling to this country, which, after all, occupies about one-sixth of the world's land area.

''Russian isn't that hard,'' you'll undoubtedly be told. I respectfully disagree. People who say that, I've discovered, almost invariably come from one of three groups: people who majored in Russian in college, salesmen for language courses, or Russians.

I recently learned basic Russian - very basic Russian - in preparation for a reporting assignment in Moscow. My own opinion: It is a difficult language to learn. But it's not impossible, and once you've mastered a few of the fundamentals, you get an unusual sort of satisfaction from deciphering those long strings of Cyrillic characters.

Before beginning to study the language, you should define your goals: Do you want to understand spoken Russian, speak it yourself, and be able to read it and write it? Or do you wish to learn just one or two of these skills?

My own view is that verbal comprehension and speaking should come first. I am persuaded by the argument that, as children, we first learn to speak and only later progress to writing.

Besides, I found written Russian exercises far more time consuming - and far less interesting - than verbal drills. Other students with whom I've spoken tend to agree.

Next comes the process of finding a teacher - not as easy as it sounds. Should you have a Russian who speaks English or an American who speaks Russian? Native Russian speakers tend to disparage the teaching done by native English speakers, arguing that students end up with the wrong accent. American teachers, on the other hand, argue that many Russians lack the patience and the familiarity with American teaching methods necessary to ensure a student's success.

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