What’s it like to start learning a language?: Lauren’s 6 Week Update
I’ve now been studying Russian for 2 hours a day for 6 weeks.
In some ways, I can’t believe it’s already been 6 weeks. In other ways, I can’t believe it’s only been 6 weeks! I’m so pleased that I’m able to actually communicate in my “Tarzan” Russian with my teachers – some of which are starting to feel more like friends.
I’ve been getting a lot of questions about what it’s like to learn Russian from scratch.
In today’s post, I’m going to answer them.
Following along those same lines, in today’s video I want to show you what learning a new language really looks like. To do that, I’ve compiled clips that track my progress from the terrible, clueless Russian I had on Day 1 to my still-untidy but way-more-effective Tarzan Russian on Week 6.
Language learning is messy. It doesn’t really look like the 6 minutes you see in my video updates on Youtube. Those 6 minutes don’t (and really can’t) show you the long minutes of silence it takes to look up the right phrases, or the hundreds of awkward attempts to pronounce new words that every language learner goes through.
At the beginning of a language mission, when you for the first time utter strange words in a new language, it’s slow, and more than a little painful.
But each time you have your next conversation, you get a little better, then a little better. My mentality has been simply to try to suck a little less each time I speak Russian. Before you know it, you’ve leaped forward in your progress!
Enjoy today’s video (subtitles added on Monday). Now onto the questions you’ve been asking me for the past 6 weeks!
I'm curious to know if learning Esperanto first has helped Lauren at all with Russian?
When I was learning Esperanto, I encountered several moments of frustration when I realized that the words I would use to express something in English were expressed in a totally different way in Esperanto. When you learn a new language for the first time, this is a mental hurdle you have to jump. You need to develop a new way of thinking. It’s uncomfortable.
This happens for every new language, of course. Not just Esperanto; not just Russian. And because I got used to this while learning Esperanto, now that I’m learning Russian I’m not surprised or frustrated when the language expresses something very differently from the way I would in English. In fact I’ve come to expect that things will be different.
Plus, Esperanto introduced me to cases (through the accusative), and I’m really, really glad that the first time I ever heard of cases wasn’t with Russian. I think I would have had a lot of misplaced frustration with Russian if I’d never seen cases before.
Is Russian hard?
Yes and no.
Like I said, starting out, I fully expected Russian to be completely different from English. I prepared for it. And I’ve been pleasantly surprised by some unexpected similarities!
For example, In English we use the words “I'm afraid” in two different ways that don’t relate to each other at all. We said “I’m afraid” as in “something scary is happening” and we say “I’m afraid” as in “I'm sorry to say.”
Russian does the same! I expected Russian to use different words for these two concepts, but surprisingly, the Russian word for “I'm afraid” (боюсь) can be used in both instances!
The same is the true of the word “better” which in English can be used to say something is superior, but also to say “I better start jogging more!” And you can do the same in Russian with the word “better” (лучше). Esperanto doesn’t even let you do that without rephrasing the sentence.
One last example. In Russian, you don’t need the words “is” or “are” or articles like “a”/“an”. So if you want to say I’m a writer, you just say “I writer” (Я писатель). If I want to say “Benny is an engineer,” I just say “Benny engineer” (Бенни инженер).
That being said, there are definitely parts of Russian that have been hard for me. There are long strings of consonants that take a lot of practice to pronounce. I can’t for the life of me pronounce the word “for” (для) – as you’ll see in the video – an unfortunately common word. And Russian does have a very complicated case system, which I’ll start tackling in Month 3.
Just curious how you keep the motivation to study so constantly? I've been trying to learn many different languages on and off but I get burnt out quickly and stop for a long time so this keeps me from really grasping any of them.
Motivation is a major problem for all language learners.
For me, the fact that I have to upload progress videos on the blogs every 2 weeks is excellent motivation. Otherwise, if I skip studying for a few days, I feel really crappy about it, and avoiding that feeling has also been a great motivator.
For you, I think relying on your own willpower alone to keep up with studying is really hard. I wasn’t able to do it before I announced an official project for the blog. And I know of other big polyglots who also share in that struggle.
So I’d suggest finding someone or something else to hold you accountable. There’s a great Facebook community called the Add1 Challenge (now the Fluent in 3 Months Challenge) that’s been very effective at helping learning stay accountable for their language projects. It’s a place where people learn together in teams and share goals to keep each other motivated.
Another technique I like is just to book a bunch of italki sessions. Once they’re booked, I can’t back out unless I want to disappoint my teacher. Also, I like to work with multiple teachers who all have different styles. When I’m feeling unmotivated I reach for my “silly conversation” teacher, since that doesn’t really feel like work.
In the blog, Lauren talks about using several teachers. Is this advantageous to using only one teacher intensively? In some subjects this would just lead to confusion. I'm a piano teacher and I wouldn't recommend people learn a musical instrument that way – does it work the opposite way around in languages?
I prefer to work with multiple teachers.
Right now I’m working regularly with 4 teachers, all from italki. Some of them hold more structured classes, and they introduce me to parts of the language I probably wouldn’t have thought to start learning on my own.
But other teachers I call up just have “casual chats” with. I really like having the mixture, so that if I’m feeling low energy I can just have a silly conversation with a “casual chat teacher”, or if I’m feeling extra motivated I can dive into detailed conversations about Russian with my more structured teachers.
How do you explain what you intend to do to your tutors, do they know in advance you just want to work on greetings for instance ? I have a hard time getting my tutors to actually do what I want.
The first few minutes of any italki session are always a bit of a mystery. I never know what's going to happen. Most of the time, though, teachers use the first session to chat with you and gauge your level. And then after that they’ll usually ask about how you’d like to progress in the lessons.
I like to start my Skype lessons with a homemade “bingo card” of new words or phrases that I want to practice that hour. Very often, I don’t actually get a chance to practice those phrases, though, because the conversation never flows in that direction. When that happens, it’s my fault.
If I want my teacher to cover a certain topic with me, or if I want to practice in a certain way, I will tell them in advance via italki’s chat feature, and they will always do what I’ve asked. But in the case of my bingo cards, my teachers don’t know I want to practice those phrases. And since they’re not mind readers, it’s my job to steer the conversation in that direction. If I don’t, I won’t practice the phrases that day.
I’d recommend for other learners not to be shy or passive about your lessons. If you want to learn in a certain way, say so! And it’s perfectly okay to switch to English to express this to your teachers if you need to.
How are you finding Assimil's book? I've used it for French and I've considered getting the Russian one once I get back to learning it.
At first I really struggled to keep my interest in the Assimil lessons. Especially when I compared them to my lessons on RussianPod101, which are funny and use plain language. I knew Assimil was helping me, but I didn’t find it very fun.
However, the deeper I get into my project the more I’m enjoying Assimil! It's a bit technical, but as I understand more about Russian and start to learn “grammar-ese” the technical bits don’t bother me as much. These days I’m reaching for the technical explanations more and more.
Something I’d like to do for the next update is to try out into several other coursebooks on Russian, and share some insights for you here on the blog. There are so many books to choose from, and not much information online about how they’re different or how they suit different learning styles. So I’m planning to be the guinea pig and test out a handful of other popular Russian coursebooks.
Until next time!