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Book review

by Lyndall Morgan

Modern Russian grammar: a practical guide
John Dunn and Shamil Khairov

Published by Routledge, 2009-01-14
ISBN 9780415397506

It is gratifying to see that, at a time when the role of Russian as a lingua franca throughout the world has been much diminished, guides to the study of the language continue to appear. There have been numerous excellent English-language instances in the post-Soviet years. Wade’s A Comprehensive Grammar (1992, 2000) [Citation details], Smyth and Crosbie’s Rus′ (2002) [Citation details] come immediately to mind, not to mention the many courses produced in the Russian Federation, such as the publications of the Zlatoust publishing house in St. Petersburg.

This grammar serves as yet another illustration (if one were required) of the profound difficulties presented by ab initio teaching of a foreign language as structurally complex as Russian to tertiary level students. It applies the descriptive analytical approach (as opposed to the communicative) and covers the basic areas usually treated in the first two years of language acquisition. It claims to be a useful reference work for advanced students and those with an interest in Business Russian. Like others in the series (which includes guides to Mandarin Chinese, French, Spanish and German), the book is divided into two main sections: Part A – Structures, Part B – Functions. Not surprisingly, but in contrast to other guides in the series, Part A is noticeably longer than Part B.

Part A covers the topics which one would expect to see in an introduction to the language: sounds and spelling, nouns, verbs, adjectives, the case system, pronouns and numerals, preceded by a useful Glossary of grammar terms (xv–xx). On the whole the explanatory material is presented clearly and is well organized. It is obviously the work of someone who has taught Russian for some time (some thirty years according to the Introduction) as there are numerous alerts to the pitfalls for the English-speaking student. A welcome addition for me was the inclusion of a section on the transliteration into Russian of English words (17).

The section on Functions also includes the sort of material which needs to be brought to the attention of students with chapters such as: ‘Establishing identity’, ‘Establishing contact’, ‘Being becoming and possession’, ‘Negation’. This section is perforce to a degree grammar-based for all its thematic ordering. Expressing attitudes deals with among other items the differences between the verbs ‘to love’ and ‘to like’ with all the attendant grammatical implications, while the chapter on obligation deals with the many modal words which are used with the dative. Part B concludes with a chapter ‘Communication strategies’ which provides useful guidelines in the selection of various registers from formal written to informal spoken.

It is however the style and content of the illustrative material in Russian which marks this book as not just a guide to Russian but an appreciation of its linguistic resources. This will not suit everyone and indeed might prove to be off-putting to some students. The provision of such sentences as С тех пор, как он уехал за границу, от него ни слуху ни духу as a case of the use of the partitive genitive (32) before any grammar has been broached may prove to be a step too far for those who prefer a more incremental approach. Occasionally the italicized words exemplifying the rule under discussion relied on grammar yet to be broached. For instance, in a discussion of impersonal constructions with the dative, the sentence К вечеру больному стало лучше: он уже не кашлял, и температура спала (63) uses the dative of the substantive form ‘patient’ when the adjectival forms are only commenced on page 135. The examples are framed in lively, contemporary and sometimes colloquial language, but there are few concessions made to comprehensibility, even though in all cases English translations are provided. I personally found the material exciting and stimulating but suspect that my Australian students would consider the vocabulary issues insurmountable.

In my view Modern Russian Grammar could be useful as a reference work for students in the first two years of their studies, who could then progress to Wade for more advanced work. It cannot easily be used for class work because it is essentially descriptive and the examples are too sophisticated. Each student (and each teacher) has to chart a path between knowledge of grammatical paradigms and an ability to manipulate them. This book fills a useful role for those embarking on the study of Russian who wish to tackle the language through its structures but it would have to be used with a range of other materials in order to achieve a corresponding level of oral communicative skills.