From beginner to conversational in three months of learning Russian: My takeaways
I'm posting this outside of the language learning thread because I worry those not currently learning languages are skipping it altogether :) In this post, I want to share general advice and takeaways about language learning, so this is for everybody, not just current learners!
Today, I've hit I think a big milestone: I am now comfortable calling myself "conversational" in Russian. This comes on the heels of a 30 minutes, all-Russian, naturally-flowing conversation with my coach who was very impressed, and a couple days after having participated in a total of 4+ hours of conversations that included a native speaker who doesn't actually speak English (training wheels are off, now!).
The goal I set myself mid-may to reach in 1 year, has been reached in 3 months. My Duolingo streak is on 87 days (or 89? I don't know if it counts the two streak freezes that were used), but I picked up DL a week after I started.
During this time, I journaled my progress here on Tildes (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 - really, I hope Tildes isn't getting sick of my spam!), and rekindled my love for learning languages. I think it's time for a recap: What worked, what helped the most, etc.
I didn't follow one specific technique or guide. Everything from the beginning has been improvised, based on experience from previous languages, and gut feel.
I talked about my methods in-depth in the journaling posts, but here's the bird's eye view of it:
- Learn the script first, and how it's pronounced (I had already done that years ago, kinda)
- Rigorously followed a single, complete-beginner crash course to get me started. In my case, a 9-hour, 30 episodes youtube series called Russian Made Easy, at an average of 45 min/day.
- Started using Drops to start accumulating vocabulary; this replaced Flashcards for me.
- After a little while, started the Duolingo course (but I don't use Duolingo the way most people do - See the old journals for details) and kept up with the streak since.
- Started listening to spoken material on YouTube, as much as possible, even before I could understand what was being said.
- Force myself to interact with the language by switching away from English in a variety of devices and apps
- Watch loads of short videos on various bits and pieces about grammar, etymology, word lists and misc advice
- Started writing in Russian on IM apps (at first using Google Translate, then without) with natives. Ask for feedback on it all.
- Regularly try to speak, to whomever would have a conversation with me.
- Regularly introspect: appreciate my progress, share it, and think about what I need to work on
I wrote about how important motivation is. People start learning a language and then abandon it after a few weeks like a gym membership purchased on January 2nd. Having a motivator that goes beyond "this sounds cool" is really important, because all this is a lot of effort and your brain won't see the point of making all that effort if you don't have a proper need to go through it all.
I found that motivation is not a constant, either. It is something which has to be maintained. Sharing this experience with you all has been immensely useful in that process. And having native speakers in your life who can really appreciate your progress and encourage you is excellent.
The most useful part of my "method" is definitely the variety of the language diet. It seems to me that following only a set of single-source courses will just leave you with huge gaping holes as soon as you leave its bubble. It'd be like learning to read by only reading the same 100 words, over and over, until you become very quick at reading specifically those words. And then you're done and you come across the word "exhaustion" and you're like, what the fuck do I do with this?
So yes, a variety of activities that will cover all types of input (reading, listening) and outputs (speaking, writing and thinking). And with the varied diet, one should also be careful not to burn themselves out by doing too much. I ensured that a lot of what I was "doing" was passive: Switching my phone's language, leaving audio in the background, asking others to speak to me in the language and translating if I need, etc. My active learning was only being done when I felt like it. This circles us back to the motivation aspect: If that's rock solid, then you will want to keep studying/reading/learning, and you'll do more.
So yes, quantity and regularity are also important, and keeping the language in your brain every single day is, I believe, critical to help it develop. The languages I do not think about on a regular basis don't develop. Despite speaking Greek my whole life, only interacting with that language once every couple weeks at most has kept it from evolving beyond a pretty basic level, and now I'm convinced my Russian is better than my Greek. Oof, this puts shame on my supposed bilingual heritage.
I think it's easy to get frustrated at a language you're not yet good at, because you're so used to how you normally do things, that communicating is SO FRUSTRATING when you don't have your whole toolkit.
Speaking in the target language, with people who know your primary language(s), can also highlight that frustration because the barrier feels "artificial". For me, I have not particularly enjoyed speaking to non-natives, and that hasn't motivated me much. However, speaking to natives has been much easier because it's really nice to think "Hey, you've been making all these efforts to speak in a language I understand, let me do the effort this time".
And well, finding a way to be comfortable speaking is critical. Olly Richards mentions that, if you start speaking too early and in an unsafe space, you can scare yourself into a "bad experience" and regress because of that. I can definitely see that, and I personally was careful to challenge myself without trying to push too hard.
Over time, you can get very good at getting a sense of how difficult a certain activity or material is for you. You have three grades: Things you are comfortable with (level+0), things that are challenging and teach you (level+1), and things that are straight up too difficult for you (level+2).Input-based method proponents often advise staying at +1, without really defining what that means, but it's true you kinda know it when you see it. For example, watching Let's Plays in Russian is still my_level+2 for me, but I see them slowly edging towards +1, and that type of material is super effective because, any time you see the progress happening, your motivation is massively improved.
Developing on comfort: You have to be comfortable making mistakes. This is what really scares everybody, and it was definitely the case for me as well.. I was (and still am) ashamed of my bad grammar especially, and if I don't know how to say something properly, I hesitate to say it at all. But you gotta push through that. There's a balance to strike as always, and you still need to be ok with
How I use Google Translate
I've been doing something which has helped a lot, and in hindsight it's obvious to me why, so I want to share this and popularize this technique.
I started writing to native speakers on IM very, very early (people often use and recommend Tandem for this). Because I didn't have a good enough control over the language yet, what I would do was: Write in Google Translate what I want to say. But without writing long, complex sentences; instead, I would write things I felt I wanted to be able to say. So instead of "Hey, I'm super hungry right now, do you wanna meet me and grab a bite on the way?", I would write "Hey, I am a bit hungry. Can we go eat together?".
I would take the translation, understand it, and usually I would write it again on the keyboard rather than copy-paste (this helps with memorization). Sometimes I would use voice input, because cyrillic keyboard hard.
Then, over time, as I got better at output, I would think about what I want to say directly in Russian and write that into Google Translate to check it (and sometimes do a little back-and-forth dance to see if it suggests alternate forms).
So, yeah, this has been extremely helpful because it's given me a way of using the language as a tool from pretty early on. It's great because Google Translate really is going to adapt to your level, so if you want to be at "level+1", you just have to figure out what that looks like for you in your native language.
Wow, what a journey. Of course it's not over, but I've actually hit my goal... with nine months to spare! That's enough time to make, like, a whole baby.
I want to keep improving, not stagnate, so I'm now going to keep using the language and I think wait that full year before I really start learning a new one. (Ukrainian was next on my list, but I'm shocked at how much I now understand of it, it's much closer to Russian than I thought; so I'm still undecided).
I have loved sharing this experience with you, Tildes, and I really, really hope I motivated some of y'all in your own language learning journeys. If these threads have helped you in any way, please do share it with me here or by DM, I want to know!
Это был замечательный опыт, и мне было очень весело. Русский язык прекрасен.