Real Language Stories: Ten Years of Russian
What started with a nerdy "crush" on the Cyrillic script ended up launching Dack into a 10-year love-hate relationship with Russian. Here’s what he learned.
Note from Elise
Do you remember the moment your language became real for you? I remember my moment. It was tiny, just a few seconds, but I’ll never forget it.
I was in Moscow, at Mendeleevskaya Metro Station, a rather famous metro station known for its bronze statue of a dog with a peculiarly shiny nose polished daily by the hands of commuters who rub it for good luck. I had to make it all the way across the city in less than an hour, before the trains would stop, and I knew I needed to take the Red Line train. But I had no idea where in the multilevel station to go.
I clearly needed to ask someone for directions. But while I had been trying to teach myself Russian for years, I was still petrified to speak the language even now that I was finally in Russia.
Still, I really needed to find that train. So after a few agonizing minutes of panic, I finally stopped a fairly friendly looking older woman and said, in the best Russian I could muster, “Excuse me, I need to find the Red Line, do you know where I need to go?”
Not only was the woman kind enough to point me in the right direction, she said I spoke very well for an Englishman (close enough, I didn’t bother to correct her). All that fear and worry turned out to be for nothing.
As I sat on the train, I realized that I had finally done it, I had spoken my target language in-country! Not only that, I had done so successfully — I communicated well enough to be understood, and I understood what was said back to me. It was even pleasant and fun! I came away from that experience energized and motivated, and while learning Russian can certainly still be a challenge sometimes, I have grown enormously as a speaker since that day at the train station. Today, I’ve achieved a comfortable upper-intermediate, or B2 level, on the CEFR scale.
And I am here to tell you: if I can do it, you can do it! I hope that my story can help encourage you, wherever you are on your language learning journey.
It started with a crush — on Cyrillic
My first target language was Russian. I’ve had a bit of a language “crush” on it since I was a nerdy kid playing Cold War video games. For me, it was all about the Cyrillic script — it was so cool and mysterious with its unfamiliar shapes and… is that a 3!? I started teaching myself with what few resources I could find on the internet in 2008 and have had a love-hate relationship with Russian that has lasted ever since.
When I started learning, I used every well-designed app I could find. After all, if it’s popular and well-designed, it must be made with some secret science sauce, right!?
Unfortunately, that’s not really the case. For me, The Almighty Owl (Duo) was not the end-all guide to my learning, nor were Memrise, Fluent Forever, or Babbel. I gained vocabulary, and I could ask for directions, let me tell you! But at the end of the day the language was not yet “my own.” It had not worked its way down into my soul.
For whatever reason, no matter how much knowledge I accumulated, I couldn’t turn it into comfortability and fluency. That surprised me, after all, gaining knowledge and making it into everyday usability is natural, what gives?
Studying only gets you so far
It turns out that I was making a very common, but tragically still underappreciated mistake- I was not acquiring a language, I was studying a language.
In my mind now, it’s the difference between knowing all there is to know about Abe Lincoln, and being his best friend. I had the right idea about making routines and forming habits around study, but I still had a nascent understanding of how to incorporate the language into my everyday life.
When I found the right courses, there was another key to learn: there are lots of good resources now that ALL work, so don’t think that you just haven’t found a resource that works yet- they all work, seriously! But being consistent and finishing a particular course or resource will help build your efficacy and readiness to tackle the next level.
But not matter how good a resource is, it will only take you so far. As I learned Russian, I was shocked to discover how much faster I improved once I learned to deal with my fear of messing up and just put myself out there to talk to people.
At first, I was terrified to speak and somehow believed that just by reading and listening, I could somehow learn enough words and grammar to start speaking fluently one day, “when I was ready.”
Reader, we are never going to be ready, and that’s fine!
Whether you start speaking on day one or wait six months, just accept that you’re going to be uncomfortable and feel silly for a while, but it really does get better, and what surprised me most is how motivational and empowering it felt when I finally did stick with it and started speaking regularly!
As someone very comfortable with textbooks and classrooms, I assumed that I would accumulate enough book-knowledge to avoid being embarrassed when I spoke. That was wrong, kind of. It’s impossible not to make mistakes, but the embarrassment wasn’t ever that bad. The truth is that native speakers of your target language are often excited that you’re even trying to learn their mother tongue and are more likely to encourage you than they are to judge you. Had I known that, I think I would have saved myself a lot of wasted time and started to speak Russian spontaneously and reflexively much faster.
This isn’t to say that today I have a perfect language-learning routine down pat and all of that. I think that we often imagine that the goal of language learning is to one day be as comfortable in our target languages as we are in our own native tongue, and for most of us that just isn’t realistic unless you plan to relocate and build your life where the language is spoken.
My method still changes all the time as I find resources that mesh with me as a learner. And as a teacher, I’ve learned that every student is different: some of us like or adhere to certain materials more or less easily, so being a good student means almost being like teachers to ourselves and staying curious about what methods, resources, and habits are most effective for us.
Rather than be focused on the product of our learning, we need to learn to be focused on the process of our learning, find ways to study that are enjoyable, things that don’t feel so much like chores. When that happens, you begin to immerse yourself and assimilate the language into your being.
Pausing isn’t quitting
For my part, my relationship to Russian (and to language in general) ebbs and flows like my relationship to all of my hobbies. I go through highly motivated phases and then sometimes I just sort of stop for a while. Sometimes for a long while.
Most recently I stopped for nearly six months when I went back to school, but when I managed to reincorporate even just Anki back into my daily routine, I was so excited! So if you want to quit right now, or even if you are currently in one of those long periods where you just can’t bring yourself to study, that’s alright. Don’t build it up in your head like you’re failing somehow.
Sometimes, we just need a break. At least in my experience, coming back has been like rediscovering music, or painting, and now it’s part of my daily life again, and I hope it stays that way!
Thanks to some of these hard-learned lessons and many wonderful polyglot mentors I have encountered on the way, I am currently sitting pretty at B2 in Russian, and a fairly strong A1 in Spanish (as strong as A1 can feel, anyway!)
B2 doesn’t mean speaking like a Russian, or easily quoting lines of classic literature as I would Shakespeare in my native English, but it’s comfortable. I listen to pop music, I read novels (Dune really should have been written in Russian originally, it’s perfect for it), I watch TV shows, and I spend hours talking to my friends. And after all, aren’t those the sorts of things we start out wanting to be able to do in our TL?
Of course, not everyone has to spend a decade on their first foreign language. As many will tell you, learning a language gets easier with each one that you learn. That has certainly seemed to be true for me in the six months or so since I started to study Spanish. And even though I’ve spent a decade with Russian, the bulk of my meaningful learning took place within my first year and then later, over the last two years.
But I gained something critical in all that time: the belief that I can do it, that I can learn whatever I set my mind to. I don’t know about you, but not believing in myself has held me back more than anything else.
As of this post, I am still studying. Spanish is my main focus because of an impending work-related move to Barcelona this year, but I still try to make lots of calls to friends and consume Russian content regularly. My hope for Spanish is to reach B2 by the end of next year, and C1 in Russian the year after, hopefully picking up Turkish as a pet project after that.
After all, I make the rules and the sky’s the limit — and the same is true for you.
Bonus: 4 pieces of advice and favorite resources
As I refine my methods and study plans and try to develop my own personal routines, I think I can sum up some of my favorite lessons, which I hope will serve you, thus:
- Adjust your standards, take it easy on yourself, and enjoy the journey.
- Do some research to find the methods that are backed by evidence and you think you can stick with.
- Accept that your motivation will ebb and flow, let yourself take breaks if you need it, the language isn’t going anywhere.
- Enjoy the process, find the things you enjoy. The learning really will do itself. (Just ask Dr. Stephen Krashen!)
And finally, maybe some of these resources can help you get through whatever slump you might be in or may be in in the future. Some are backed by scientific evidence, others are simply likable or best practice:
General language resources:
- Krashen’s theory of comprehensible input
- Ikenna Obi’s Fluency Made Easy method
- Olly Richards’ channel
- Zoe.language’s channel
- Anki spaced repetition flashcards
Russian specific resources that helped me:
Dack Powell is an American educator and wannabe polyglot, and musician. He likes making friends and hopes to do graduate work in linguistics.
He can be found on Twitter and Instagram at_ @dackiechan_ and @dacktheripper respectively.
This post is the second in the “Real Language Stories'' series, which tells the real stories of how language learners of all stripes (and all levels) learned their first foreign languages. Have a story you’d like to share? Email firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.