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    1. 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...

      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:

      1. Learn the script first, and how it's pronounced (I had already done that years ago, kinda)
      2. 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.
      3. Started using Drops to start accumulating vocabulary; this replaced Flashcards for me.
      4. 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.
      5. Started listening to spoken material on YouTube, as much as possible, even before I could understand what was being said.
      6. Force myself to interact with the language by switching away from English in a variety of devices and apps
      7. Watch loads of short videos on various bits and pieces about grammar, etymology, word lists and misc advice
      8. Started writing in Russian on IM apps (at first using Google Translate, then without) with natives. Ask for feedback on it all.
      9. Regularly try to speak, to whomever would have a conversation with me.
      10. Regularly introspect: appreciate my progress, share it, and think about what I need to work on

      Deep dive


      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.

      Finding comfort

      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.

      12 votes
    2. Flags are not languages

      Ten years ago, I got my first job in the field of languages. I was a "translation engineer", working on tooling for translators. I very quickly was told to never represent a language by a flag....

      Ten years ago, I got my first job in the field of languages. I was a "translation engineer", working on tooling for translators. I very quickly was told to never represent a language by a flag.

      I'm sharing this here because this is something you either know, or don't, and many people don't.
      Why is simple: languages do not map 1:1 to a country.

      • A country can have multiple languages
      • A language can be spoken in multiple countries
      • A language can exist without being spoken in any country
      • A country can exist without an officially recognised language

      Today as I sit here, I'm at a language meetup where language tables each have a flag on them. Well, none of us at the Russian table are comfortable with that Russian flag, so we just turn it around and write "RU" on the other side.

      Wikipedia has an article about this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flag_icons_for_languages

      So how are you supposed to do this correctly ? ISO 639 has a list of 2-letter and 3-letter codes for languages:

      • You want to represent a language, use ISO 639-1: a two letter code. For example, "English" is "en" and "French" is "fr".
      • You want to represent a language, but wish for a larger code for some reason (such as disambiguation with state or country codes)? You can use ISO 639-2/T: 3-letter codes for the languages. For example,
        "English" is "eng" and "French" is "fra".
      • You want to represent a language, as spoken in a particular country? ISO 639 and ISO 3166 work together. You can represent "English as spoken in England" as "en_GB", "American English" as "en_US", "Canadian French" as "fr_CA", and so on. (This is a very flexible standard, allowing for a lot of variations and a topic for a more motivated person than me. Also see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IETF_language_tag)
      • You want to represent the abstract notion of translations or internationalization, such as for an icon to change the language? This wikipedia article may help. The two most common variations I've seen are an icon that has "A" and "文" together, or some kind of globe icon.
      • You want to represent a currency? Use ISO 4217 currency codes: "USD" for US Dollar, etc. Some countries have multiple currencies, don't use a flag without disambiguating somewhere.
      • You want to represent a country? You can use a flag, I don't care. But even then, ISO 3166 will probably be less political :)
      27 votes
    3. Cain and Abel

      Cain and Abel The Story you Might know: Cain was Adam and Eve’s first son, Abel was No. 2. “in the course of time,” Cain, a farmer, brought an offering of his harvest. Abel, a “keeper of flocks,”...

      Cain and Abel

      The Story you Might know:

      Cain was Adam and Eve’s first son, Abel was No. 2. “in the course of time,” Cain, a farmer, brought an offering of his harvest. Abel, a “keeper of flocks,” also brought “the fattest part of the firstborn of his flocks.” Cain got a God Thumbs Down, Abel, a God Thumbs Up.” Cain was pissed, killed Abel. God exiled Cain and put a “mark” on him so no-one would kill him.

      You Might not Know:

      Cain goes on to found a city and have progeny, one of whom is the father “of those who play stringed and wind instruments,” another becomes the father of “all those who keep flocks,” another the father of those who make tools. So like, everything you could do in the ancient world except farming.

      The father of these three is a guy named Lamech. Perhaps merely coincidentally, Lamech is the name of the father of Noah, the next story in the Genesis. Bible Purists obviously distinguish these two, but we’re talking about the Law Books of Moses here, seems like they would have chosen these sorts of things pretty carefully. I am not a Bible purist (or scholar, for that matter).

      Something in this story dings a low-pitched gong deep down in my psyche. Granted, I was raised in a certain christian religious tradition where lots of time were spent on certain bible stories, of which this was one. But it was always presented as a simple morality tale: God wants animal sacrifices, and it’s wrong to kill your brother. Also don’t read anything past where God, who is clearly so merciful, put a mark on cain to save his life.

      I turned to the internet, and most of the Christian exposition points to a few New Testament passages that clarify Abel was more righteous and had better faith. I found that wholly unsatisfactory. So I looked for Jewish exposition. One, an academic at a (presumably reformed) Jewish university, basically was like, God, wtf? (totally my summary). Others had various moral expositions, albeit far more eloquently reasoned and rhetoricized than the christians, but still unsatisfactory.

      Questions based on the English text alone:

      What was really wrong with Cain’s offering, and how would Cain know in advance? Sure, all the whole rest of the bible is about animal (and human) sacrifice, but at this stage? After all, God requires Adam to be a farmer, so Cain is just being a dutiful son, and offering what he has to offer. The implication from the text is not that it was wrong in kind, but that it wasn’t “nice” enough, suggested by the text’s additional detail about Abel’s offering being fat and firstborn.

      Also, how can Cain’s descendant, born well after this incident, be the of father those “who keep flocks,” when that’s what Abel did?

      How did Cain ditch his curse?

      What other people were there to kill Cain? At this point, technically, there’s only Adam, Eve, Cain (and dead Abel). Also, where’d he get a wife? And don’t say Adam and Eve were busy. The text says their next child after Cain and Abel was Seth, born after all this mess.

      Other than the nature of the offering and the curse, these questions are really only important to Ken Hamm and his pals.

      Based on preliminary research:

      The questions don’t easily resolve, as some scholars believe that what Cain offered was flax, which would have been the best of his crops. Also, what Abel offered was goats, when the best offering would have been cows. Conclusion: god doesn’t care what kind, so long as it’s the best of that kind. Or, God prefers a Chevy with full options over a base model BMW (better get that heated seat subscription now!).

      Cain’s name might mean “blacksmith.” The father of tools is Tubal-Cain. “Abel” might be a transmogrifation of “Jabel,” the father of those who keep flocks.

      Lamech is the same Lamech in both stories, what we are seeing is an attempt to include and combine two traditional sources into one text. Assuming that is true, would keeping the name the same be an effort to signal the reader needs to understand we are bridging two stories? I mean, if I were trying subterfuge, I’d change one of their names. If I were trying to be real, I’d add a footnote explaining it. But then again, I don’t have to write on papryus by hand.

      Later interpretations:

      In the late middle ages/early post middle ages, depictions of this story show Abel as clean shaven, smaller, with soft features, and wearing fine, aristocratic clothing. Cain is bigger, bearded, aggressively countenanced with sharp, angular features. He’s wearing the clothes of a field-hand.

      Why I am writing this:

      Like I said, it bangs a ceremonial gong. I feel like there is an important truth embedded here. It’s more spiritual, and important, than merely accepting it as an artifact of changing and competing cultures. There’s some talk of two traditions merging here, one priestly, the other “YHWH-ist,” especially when you consider the preceeding and succeeding texts (Adam <> Noah). The competing cultures are nomadic, pastoral (these two are not exclusive), and agricultural, and also urban “industrial.” Everything comes from Cain—nomadicism, agriculture, technology, music, animal husbandry. Some jewish scholars say Architecture is included in there, too.

      My interpretation:

      I deign to practice midrash. When Cain lets his displeasure at God’s judgment be known, God says something like, don’t you know if you do right, I will lift you up? I think what is being said here is that what Cain did was not good enough—for Cain. That is, Cain could do better. Abel did the best he could, he gave some juicy meat. But God had bigger plans for Cain. No offering of mere crops, or money, or even cows would have satisfied coming from Cain. No, Cain needed to literally found civilization. And following that path is when the blessings started to flow.

      Side-note, In old Egypt, Osiris was the first-born brother of Set, and created culture for humans.

      Abel the first capitalist.

      I believe that medieval interpretations were attempting to perpetuate feudalism. The depictions of poor, innocent Abel, righteous and faithful servant of God, as aristocratic, against aggressive, crude, farmer Cain as a peasant, is meant to keep the judgmental finger of God pointed firmly and clearly at the heart of the serfs. God’s (through his faithful feudal Lord) is going to expel you if you act like Cain. Keep offering your crops to God (through your faithful feudal Lord) plus some phat veal.

      It’s also possible that the story was holding up an early form of capitalism. I’m getting speculative (and casual) here. But whereas farming is a very labor intensive endeavor, flocking is very capital intensive (and also, like modern big capitalists, is very good at externalizing costs). Farming does require land-capital, a few tools, and seed, but mostly crops are grown through effort. Pastoral endeavors, otoh, require capital, namely, the flock. The inputs are externalized-water and pasture not owned by the shepherd. The flock largely persists, producing milk, wool, and babies (ROI!!), requiring much less effort to maintain than dirt. Don’t believe me? How do you think David had all that time to sing those psalms?

      Thanks for reading.

      11 votes
    4. On language discrimination within Ukraine (Twitter thread)

      @Voytsekhovskyi: A thread about why many Ukrainians speak Russian and why it was not actually their choice but rather consequences of about 400-year #RussianColonialism. Today we'll review just some examples of how Russia methodically was banning 🇺🇦language and forcing Ukrainians to forget it. 🧵 pic.twitter.com/HIuxrLFdpc

      8 votes