Some Thoughts on My Russian Language Learning Journey

Update 11/15/2022: This is an older blog post I wrote before publishing my book, Fluent Forever, and developing my groundbreaking language learning app and Live Coaching program. 

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Well, so much for updating over the summer! I think I imagined having a bit more free time to fill, but instead, I worked ~14 hours a day all the way through.

So! Here are my Russian thoughts and results.

Initial conditions: I took 5 years of Russian in high school and expected that I’d remember quite a bit when I started back up again last December. That didn’t turn out to be the case, unfortunately.

I remembered the alphabet and phonetics fairly well, with some vague impressions of a few of the cases, a few fragments of poetry that we memorized in class, and around 20 words. It’s hard to say how much time it spared me, had I never taken Russian in school.

I’d like to point out that I had good teachers – they cared, they had good Russian accents, and they did a good job of stimulating interest. I don’t remember my classes very vividly, so I’m going to need to really look into typical high-school curricula to figure out what tends to go wrong at this stage.

I suspect that the major issue is that most language classes are descriptive. You look at the language and talk about what it’s doing. You memorize poems and talk about what they mean, but it’s from the outside looking in.

There’s grammar and vocab study, but again, it’s looking at the problem from the outside: the best translation of this word is X, if you use this grammatical construction, it’s closest to the English Y, etc.

You are thinking in English the whole time, coming up with English ways to describe the language, and ending up learning more about the language than how to use it to communicate.

I hope to talk more about some of the issues in standard language classes, and what might be some curricula and pedagogy changes that would help produce more effective classes.

This isn’t a case of teachers being lazy or anything. Teaching language may be an even more complicated problem than learning it, and coming up with solutions for that takes a lot of careful thought and research.

Anyways. That’s where I started in late December. (One of the benefits of an Anki deck is you have data regarding what you did when and how much time you took.) Here’s my progress.

December: A very intense 10 days to start off (yay winter vacation, where I can work more than when I’m not on vacation!)

I was studying ~6–8 hours a day, working with Brown’s New Penguin Guide to Russian, watching a ton of Russian cartoons with text transcriptions, nabbing as many words from a Russian frequency list that I could, and writing as much as I could on Lang-8 to get some sense of how these words work together.

I added 1,300 cards to my Anki deck in that period. Insanity.

January: I learned the cards I wrote in December at 25 cards a day, and continued that rate up until May or so. This ended up being 30–45 minutes a day.

My reviews took longer than I expected (French took my consistently 25 minutes/day if I was doing 25 reviews a day) because I was trying to save time by only using 1 card per word.

You can get away with this in French somewhat; not so in Russian. The words are simply too foreign, and as soon as you try to remember a word that’s more than a week or two old, you can’t.

I fixed this in February or March, and my reviews sped up considerably.

February: I did my next big card-making binge in mid February – around 880 cards over a week vacation with a lot of long train trips. I used more of the New Penguin course to get more grammar and continued adding easy picture cards from my frequency list.

Any grammar or usage questions I put up at lang-8. This was when I learned most of the cases in Russian.

March: I was still doing 25/day new cards on the subway. I wrote ~300 new cards on the weekends, still choosing easy picture candidates from my frequency lists.

April: In April, I came up with mnemonic imagery for easier memorization of verb conjugations. This is going to be a big theme in the book because, at this point, I’m using it *all the time.* Very, very helpful.

In short, you pick arbitrary concrete images and tie them to abstract concepts like verb conjugations, gender of nouns, word stress, pronunciation patters, prefixes, etc., and you link them to the words you’re learning. I also started reading the Assimil book and sticking interesting constructions into my Anki deck. I wrote ~400 new cards that month, many of them relating to mnemonics.

May: At this point, I was beginning to be able to write very simple example sentences and stories about my day. This let me begin learning more abstract words from my frequency list. I covered things like adjective endings in various cases, some basic prepositions and their associated cases, etc. I wrote ~500 new cards and started turning up my new cards/day count to 35, then 45.

June: I got a lot of free time in rehearsals in June, and I used most of it to write new cards – around 900 new ones before I got to Middlebury on June 22nd.

In June, I started picking up the ability to think in Russian without working at it. I had huge holes in my vocabulary, but the words started to flow together such that I could form some complete thoughts in my head in many circumstances.

I started writing examples for abstract words in my frequency list without much difficulty and submitting them to Lang-8. I used each example sentence in my Anki deck as a definition for the word I was trying to word, and I used each correction for those sentences as a grammar lesson.

I also started using Google images inside of Google Translate in order to give me good contexts for each word. I basically switched to Lang-8 corrections as my main source of grammar at this point.

On June 20th, I had an Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) according to ACTFL standards. This would be the first time I spoke Russian with a real person for more than 2 minutes on the subway (that was May).

We spoke for 20–25 minutes on the telephone. It was somewhat terrifying, and I couldn’t think fast enough to switch words into their proper cases, but I was able to talk for that whole time about myself, my city, my friends, my profession, as well as a surprise role-play in a restaurant.

I was rated 1.5, ACTFL level Intermediate-Mid, and placed into level 5/7 at Middlebury. The written test I did when I arrived also confirmed level 1.5.

Middlebury: June 22 – Aug 17. Middlebury was madness, especially this time. While I was placed into level 5, I switched up to level 6/7 after a couple of days. I was in over my head for a week or two, and caught up by week 3 or so.

Middlebury provided 4 hours of class every weekday, including a 1-hour film class daily, and expected you to spend 2–4 hours on homework per day. There were numerous clubs and activities to fill your days if you had time (I was too busy playing catch-up to participate in many of them).

Each Friday, every class had a test. The 6th level had a 1.5-hour written/audio test and a 15-minute oral monologue on 2 of 4–5 subjects you’d find out about on Wednesday.

I learned a lot. I took every homework and test correction and put it into my Anki deck, along with all the vocab we were expected to know for a given weekly test. I cranked my daily Anki use up to 55 new cards per day, which meant about 60–80 minutes a day of reviews by the second week.

In those 8 weeks, I wrote ~2,500 new cards. I had about 100 left to learn at this point.

On August 7th, I took another Oral Proficiency Interview (ACTFL OPI) with the same tester as my first one, this time officially. I scored a 2.0, Advanced-Low on the ACTFL scale. We discussed my language learning history, the referendum system of California, language learning methodology, ways to improve high schools in the US, and the job market in Vienna.

Our role play tripped me up a bit (it was a scenario where I got into an accident while borrowing a friend’s card). But for the most part, I felt comfortable, used high level vocabulary, and didn’t have to think much about grammar.

My written test scored 2.9 (Advanced-High) according to ACTFL standards, although that wasn’t an official ACTFL test.

At this point, I can comfortably talk about pretty much whatever I want, though there are some situations where I have to make some strange maneuvers around vocabulary I don’t have.

I can understand most texts without a dictionary, including newspapers, and probably excluding some forms of poetry (and maybe some types of literature, at least in terms of understanding *everything* – my class focused on current events and politics, though I started in on Harry Potter without trouble, so I imagine most literature would be fine.)

Current plans: To cope with the aftermath of Middlebury’s insane Anki schedule, I’ve turned off learning new cards until my reviews return to sane levels (during Middlebury, I was doing about 230 reviews a day).

I’m at 180 reviews a day now (about 30 minutes if I really focus), and will start learning new cards again as soon as I hit around 100 reviews a day. I didn’t have any time or brain space in Middlebury to play with my frequency list, and so I’m going to work through it over the next 3 months.

I picked up an addiction to the American TV series Lost in Russian over the summer, and watched 2 seasons (no subtitles, used Wikipedia in Russian if I had some difficulty). I’ll finish the next 4 seasons over the next 3 months.

I didn’t do as much reading as I expected at Middlebury, so I will likely finish Harry Potter 2 in Russian just to get a good chunk of literature into my head.

I plan to meet up via Skype with some friends at Middlebury on a weekly or every-other-week basis to chat in Russian for 30–60 minutes a week and help integrate new words into my spoken vocabulary.

Final expected results by the end of the year: I’m speaking pretty well and my sense of grammar is pretty solid at this point. Both of those would improve naturally after Middlebury for another few months as the dust settles, but they will improve even more as I continue to review my Anki deck.

My vocabulary is already pretty flexible, and by the time I add another few hundred more words from my frequency list, it should be about what I want it to be.

My listening comprehension of native Russian speakers is not yet where I want it to be (one of the disadvantages of Middlebury is that most of your listening input is from students, rather than native speakers). Watching TV in Russian has been extremely helpful for this, and I imagine 4 more seasons of Lost without subtitles will solidify that pretty well.

By the end of the year, I suspect I’ll have what I wanted to have: solid fluency around the C1 level.

I learned a lot about language learning in general through this process. Russian is about twice as hard as French, and it helped me develop a pretty effective toolkit to deal with it. I’m really excited to write all this down over the next couple of months (the manuscript is due Nov 1).

I went down to the Random House building yesterday and met my editor, my agent, and my publisher in person for the first time. They’re all simply great people, and I’m so fortunate to have them on board. This book is going to be really, really good; way better than I could ever have done on my own.

In terms of site updates and videos and things, the vast majority of my time is going to be spent writing, which means that I won’t have time to finish the French videos/Anki decks, or start the German, Italian, or Russian video/Anki deck series until the book is done.

If I can get it done and edited early, then I have a shot at getting it published in 2013 instead of 2014, and so I’m going to do whatever I can to do just that.

If some of you were waiting until the end of the summer for those resources, please accept my apologies.

For French, I’ve heard really good things about the free pronunciation course (with recordings). Take that course and stick whatever you feel like you’ll need help remembering into your Anki deck, and you should be ready to start building vocab and grammar.

Your goals are to learn to hear differences between new sounds (rue vs roux, for example), and ideally to learn the spelling rules so that when you see a new word, you know what it probably sounds like. That way, you won’t have to spend time memorizing pronunciation for each word individually and can just focus on the few exceptions to those rules.

PS: To those who sent emails and questions, I’m going to be working through my backlog of emails over the next week or two, so I’ll get to you as soon as I can!

Check out our guide on How to Learn Russian for more effective tips to reach fluency in the language, fast.

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