Understanding Spoken Russian – Learn Russian Ep. 11

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* NOTE *

All phrases intended for translating/listening practice have been deleted.

Welcome to Episode 11. Before we get started, I just wanted to say: If you’re feeling more confident now and are ready to start actively speaking Russian, I encourage you to get my Russian Made Easy podcast. I promise, it’ll have you talking right from the start.

Anyway…here’s our new word for this episode. попробовать

Let’s see if we can get it from these Russian conversations.

(cooking sounds)…Mom’s in the kitchen…Andrei comes in…

Привет, Мама. Что ты готовишь?

Я готовлю спагетти.

А это соус?

Да, это соус. Хочешь попробовать?

Да. (slurp) Mmmm! Вкусный!

Now Dad is in the kitchen when Sophia wanders in…

Привет, Папа. Что ты готовишь?

Я готовлю гамбургеры.

А это рис?

Да. Хочешь попробовать?

Да. (crunch chew) Mmmm! Вкусный!

So попробовать is a verb, and it translates as “to try,” or “to sample”

Can you guess how the past tense would sound? Let’s say babushka is making a salad. Perhaps венегрет, which in Russian is a salad, not a dressing. She sees you, and lifts a spoonful. Listen to Alex say, I already tried some.

Я уже попробовал.

Literally just: I already tried.

Then Nastya walks by. Again, grandma and her spoon…

Спасибо, Бабушка. Я уже попробовала.

Let’s say you’re curious to sample some. Say: “I want to try.”

Я хочу попробовать.

To help you recall the word, try to make this connection: When you try something, you’re essentially PROBING it, seeing if you like it. The word “probe” leads us to попробовать

File that away for a minute and let’s talk about today’s main topic. Let’s imagine you own a Russian/English dictionary and are trying to look up a word. Maybe, “to give.”

You flip thru the pages. There it is: дать

Now we learned that verb in Episode 6. Try to say: Jeff gave the key to Clark.

Джеф дал ключ Кларку.

But the dictionary is telling us the word is дать. It sounds like it ends with a weird T, doesn’t it?

That’s what we call the infinitive of the verb. Its most basic form.

Take the English verb “to be.” That’s the infinitive. And then you have the conjugations:

I am. You are. He is.

And in the past tense: I was. You were.

Well, the verb we learned today was in its infinitive form. Do you recall it? Say…

I want to try.

Я хочу попробовать.

See how it ends with that odd T sound? Not all, but almost all Russian verbs end with this odd T sound in their infinitive form. What’s making it sound odd is something called a “soft sign” at the very end. It looks like a tiny, lowercase English b.

попробовать <—The last letter is not a letter at all, but what’s called a “soft sign.” Like a pronunciation instruction to Russian speakers.

To help you hear it, I’ll have Alex say the last three letters without the soft sign, and then with.


Darina, can you do the same thing?


I’m not a stickler on pronunciation. My thoughts, which are echoed by others like Tim Ferris and Benny the Polyglot, are that you just need to say it well enough to be understood. But here, getting that weird ending, it will definitely help native speakers understand you. And it’s really not that tough. Let’s listen to another pair. We’ll hear D-A-T …first as is, and then with a soft sign at the end.



Let’s try a different vowel.


I’ll test you on these some more in a moment. For now, let’s return to our new verb. Imagine Vova doesn’t want to try Grandma’s pie. How would Grandma say: “Vova doesn’t want to try?”

Вова не хочет попробовать?

So let’s listen to that construction as our speakers insert other verbs we know, but now in their infinitive forms. See if you can guess the translation. Ready?

– – –

We actually did a bunch of these in Ep. 9, but I didn’t explain that we were using the infinitive. I just kind of snuck it in there. But hopefully you’re starting to hear it, now.

As a warm-up for our Russian Immersion section, let’s listen again to those opening conversations in the kitchen. This time you’ll be asked some questions. As always, if you don’t know, just say so…

(cooking sounds first)…Mom’s in the kitchen…Andrei comes in…

– – –

This last one will have lots of words we don’t know, but many are cognates, and the rest you can probably get from context. So, Babu – babushka– has just made a rather unpleasant smelling pirog, which is a Russian pie.

(oven dings)

Кто хочет попробовать мой пирог? (тишина) Вова? Иди сюда.

Ээээ…не я, Бабу. Я не очень люблю пироги.

Вова, перестань.

Хорошо. Попробую.

Ну, как?

Здесь есть брокколи? И киви? И карамель?

Да. И бекон. На. Возьми ещё кусочек.

Спасибо. Я дам папе.

For a transcript of that, and a good laugh, head over to the site and you can read the whole thing. You can even get grandma’s recipe…

Random grammar quiz. Quick, tell me: What is a verb infinitive?

If you said it’s an ingredient in grandma’s pies, you’re close. But here’s the answer I was looking for:

The infinitive is the basic, unconjugated form of a verb.

In English, we use two words for the infinitive: To cook, to eat, to gag, and so on. In Russian, it’s just one word, but they—almost always—have a recognizable ending. That —ть that we listened to. And that I’m going to test you on now. All I want you to do is tell me ДА or НЕТ…Did the speaker use a verb infinitive?

– – –

<< tip of the day>>

If there’s one thing worse than a Russian teacher who forces you to memorize grammar charts and declension tables, it’s one who drowns you in rules and grammar jargon. The following is from an actual online Russian lesson aimed at beginners. I kid you not.

<<Passive participles can be used to modify persons or objects but only if the nouns they are modifying are in the accusative case. Present passive participles are formed from some transitive imperfective verbs. To form the present passive participle using the one-stem system, add “em” and the adjectival ending to the stem…>>

That kind of quote-unquote “teaching” literally sickens me. It’s lazy. It’s thoughtless. It’s presumptuous. And ultimately, it’s not only unhelpful, it is detrimental to the student’s success. It doesn’t just frustrate the student, it puts them down. And that was light on the jargon. There is so much out there far, far worse. It pains me. Russian should be a joy to learn. Not a nightmare of complex, confusing grammar terminology and rules.

What’s the tip? There are times when grammar terms are inescapable. Today, I had to bust out the word “infinitive.” But I tried to explain the meaning. And I tried to keep it at that. But if your teacher spouts grammar terms and rules without end…it’s probably time to look elsewhere.

<< end tip >>

Hey, another random question: What do you think the word вкусный means? We heard it in our opening dialogs. Listen again…

Да, это соус. Хочешь попробовать?

Да. Mmmm! Вкусный!

Да. Хочешь попробовать?

Да. Mmmm! Вкусный!

Вкусный translates as tasty or delicious.

Imagine you’re with some Russian friends having dinner in a restaurant. About your soup, try to say: “Delicious! Want to try?”

Вкусный! Хочешь попробовать?

You’ll often hear it shortened to вкусно! It just depends on exactly what the speaker is describing…the food, or the taste. Don’t worry about it. It’s just cool to spot it.

So let’s end with a fun quiz. You’ll hear the speakers describe various things as tasty. Notice how the word вкусный changes to match the noun. And see if you can translate…

Вкусное…вино. /…пиво. /…молоко.

Вкусный…пирог. /…венегрет. /…паштет

Вкусная…каша. /…кукуруза. /…колбаса.

Вкусные…блины. /…грибы. /…помидоры.

Alright. That was a fun lesson. See you in Episode 12!