The New Penguin Russian Course
by Nicholas J. Brown
Release Date: December, 1996
I've compared dozens of books about learning Russian from scratch, and this one is the best. There are advanced grammar texts out there which have more information, but they aren't geared toward beginners. The beauty of this book is that if you know absolutely nothing about Russian, you can start at the beginning and work your way through each lesson in the order presented, and by the time you're done, you will have a solid understanding of Russian grammar. Not only that, but you'll have a vocabulary of some of the most useful words in the Russian language.
When I first started studying Russian, I had no teachers or classes or cassette tapes to help me. My eighth grade math teacher gave me a copy of the original version of The Penguin Russian Course, which was compiled by J.L.I. Fennell and published in 1961. The methodology was logical and straightforward with no spoonfeeding or watered-down grammar lessons accompanied by cutsy cartoon pictures. In each lesson, you would first memorize a list of new vocabulary words. Then you would study several concise grammar principles which were clearly explained. Third, you would examine a brief Russian text which incorporated the new vocabulary and applied the new grammar principles which you had just learned in the lesson. Finally, you would translate an English text into Russian to test yourself on the new vocabulary and grammar. At the end of the book was a key which showed the correct translation of the English text into Russian, so you could check yourself.
This new version of the Penguin Russian Course is not as concise and straightforward as the first version, but it's actually better. Nicholas J. Brown has incorporated the original structure of J.L.I. Fennell's version enough that the effectiveness of the lessons is preserved, but Mr. Brown has added much more in this modern version. He has provided numerous additional Russian texts and conversations so that you can see how the vocabulary is used in context. And in this new version, the answer keys at the back of the book show the Russian-English translation as well as the English-Russian translation of the exercises.
The best part of this book is the translation exercises at the end of each lesson and their corresponding answer keys at the back of the book. Translation is probably the best way to test whether or not you really understand the grammar and vocabulary taught in the lessons, and this book gives you plenty of opportunities to test yourself in this manner.
Another advantage of this book is that it's small enough to carry anywhere, unlike those bulky Russian 101 textbooks used in college classes which use a slow, watered-down, almost infantile approach to teaching the language.
If you want to learn Russian, buy this book and work through the lessons. The only major drawback is that you'll never really learn proper pronunciation without listening to native Russians speak the language, and this book doesn't have tapes to accompany it. Other than that, however, you won't find a better book for beginners who want to learn Russian.
As far as learning a new language goes, I think that starting with being able to read it is equally important to being able to speak it. They go hand in hand with adult education. I was sick of discovering that most of the russian books out there are devoted almost entirely to teaching you catch phrases to "get you going". This book starts with the alphabet. It is detailed and actually does "get you going." Russian is a tough language to learn, but this book will help you through it without condescending you. I would highly recommend it for people who are serious about learning the russian language.
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