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.

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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.

My own view is that both sides have some valid points. So shop around. Don't be afraid to question instructors' qualifications. Listen to their pronunciations and compare them with tapes of native Russian-speakers. (Berlitz publications, for example, markets a cassette of ''Russian for travelers'' that is useful for comparison purposes.) And don't hesitate to switch teachers if your needs aren't being met. The language itself is challenging enough. You don't need a testy or pedantic instructor to complicate matters further.

Your choice of instructors may be wider if there is a Russian immigrant community in your area. Ask around at local colleges, universities, churches, and synagogues. Private instruction, arranged directly with a teacher, is probably going to be cheaper than lessons arranged through a language school.

Berlitz, one of the more popular language schools, does have some excellent instructional materials in Russian. But Berlitz courses can be frightfully expensive, despite discounts that climb as you sign up for more lessons. Again, shop around. But beware of language schools that don't regularly offer Russian training.

Fortunately, there are highly regarded university programs in Russian on both coasts - at Middlebury College in Vermont and at California's Monterey Institute. A number of other organizations sponsor (or can provide information about) specialized Russian courses. These include the Council on International Educational Exchange, 205 East 42nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10017; the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies (currently headquartered at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.); and the American Council of Teachers of Russian (815 New Gulph Road, Bryn Mawr, Pa. 19010). Some of the courses are held in Moscow and Leningrad, thus providing an opportunity for immersion in Soviet culture.

All of the above might sound discouraging to a would-be Russian-speaker. It shouldn't be. Russian is a rich tongue, and learning it can be exhilarating. I recall my own pride the first time I succintly informed one Muscovite that I wished to arrange an interview with Soviet leader Yuri Andropov. His mouth flew open, then stretched into a wide grin. I still don't know whether he was impressed by my pronounciation or astounded at my impertinence. I haven't met Mr. Andropov yet, but I haven't given up trying. And that's the key to learning Russian: Don't give up trying, and do assume the Russians are sharing your pride in trying their language - not laughing at your attempt.

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