On learning Russian
February 03, 2018
In the truest sense of the phrase, I have been pissing around with the Russian language since 2015. In the past few months I have begun approaching it with something that remotely resembles seriousness. I have found The Pissing Around™ stems from a complete lack of structure, direction and meaning.
In the past I would have one to two week bursts of interest that would abruptly end for months on end, this is due to a variety of personality and environmental reasons, but nonetheless resulted in next to no progress with the language. I believe I have since learned how to mitigate this and learning Russian is my first chance to put it to practice.
Although everything within this post will relate to learning a language, specifically Russian, even more specifically, pursuing the Russian language for no reason other than personal interest, it is the base from which I will be pursuing all future interests and augmenting existing ones with.
I believe the foundation upon which you build your pursuit of learning the Russian language (especially for fun) must be a diverse set of “Why’s”.
The reason this is so important to flesh out is because one day - many days, in fact - you will be tired, hungry, annoyed, not-in-the-mood, bored and you will look for a way out, anything, and I mean quite literally any excuse that will justify your not studying or progressing with the language. This is only emphasised when you are learning for fun with no consequences. Now when this day inevitably rears its seductive head, you can easily rationalise skipping today, because what importance does missing one day really have? But then one day can turn into three, and before you know it, months of in-consequence passes by and consequence lands at your feet. This disrespect of the importance of each day has played a large role in the failure of previous pursuits.
Every day I become more respectful of habit and routine, I believe that they are a prerequisite for becoming proficient. Though I have come to find they only make up the structure. You must paint the walls with abstract emotional reasoning, you must day dream of achieving your desired goal and use that feeling to drive you. My experience with mindlessly chasing habit streaks and checklists is one that comes to a screeching halt after a handful of days.
Below are my why’s.
To improve my understanding of how the world communicates with one another. To experience how language shapes thoughts, emotions, action, culture. To overcome the nature of being raised with English as your primary language, resulting in the requirement to learn a secondary language all but absent.
- Fyodor Dostoyevsky
- Fyodor Emelianenko
- Dmitry Klokov
- Mikhail Koklyaev
- Leo Tolstoy
- Alexander Pushkin
- Mikhail Bulgakov
- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
- Vladimir Putin
- Soviet History
- Folk Songs
- Russian Rap
Overhearing conversations between native speakers who assume you do not have a clue what they are saying about the people (and you) around them on the London Underground.
Having a reason to strike up conversations with strangers who otherwise you would have no need or reason to.
Being exposed to new TV shows, film, music, art, literature, comedy.
An obstacle of learning any language is overcoming the deficiency of your native language. It has brought to the forefront my understanding of the English language being almost entirely intuitive rather than informed. Learning what an intransitive verb (a verb that does not have an object) is in Russian, first requires you to know what on earth one is in English.
I would love one day for my effort to pay off in the form of being able to help someone in need, to translate a meaningful conversation, for example.
You simply never know what doors will open as a consequence. The world shapes itself to the mould of what you are reaching for. You will meet people you may never have met, experiences that would have passed you by may land at your feet, good or bad.
A general notion that held me back for a long time - one that is discussed in my post about my learnings from Infinite Jest - revolves around the quest for perfectionism. This was remedied in one swift revelation after a conversation with someone whose English was their third or fourth language. Their English was objectively not good and it was quite hard to understand them, but at the end of our interaction they had successfully communicated what it was that they wanted, and I had responded. Communication. Conveying information, receiving information, nothing else. This became my goal. To be able to communicate. I, for some unknown reason, thought that anything short of reading Dostoevsky and writing a thesis on Crime & Punishment in Russian was a failure. I now take a lot of satisfaction and achievement from being able to have a simple interaction, a simple exchange of information. An interaction that may never had happened had I not known the slither of Russian that I do know.
I believe this approach solves a lot of the issues I faced: fear of speaking with natives, getting bogged down with grammar rules and feeling completely overwhelmed by the scope of what you are trying to learn.
Overcoming the fear of speaking with natives will be the largest boost to your productivity. To help you get over that hump I can tell you up front:
- Some natives will have absolutely no interest in speaking with you. A tiny, tiny minority will have a negative reaction to you even trying.
- You will be constantly asked to repeat yourself, even when it feels like you are saying it correctly. Over. And. Over. Again.
- You must drop the fear of not being able to continue the conversation past your memorised phrases and words. Breaking through the realm of the known is how you learn the unknown.
- Come to terms with conversations dying abruptly.
- Striking up conversations in Russian, outside of Russia, when you are so obviously not Russian, will almost always result in them responding to you in English - some natives do not switch at all, others slowly do. Give people time to understand what is going on.
- Understand that (with Russian particularly), natives will be both deeply flattered and utterly perplexed as to why you are learning, let alone wishing to practice with them.
- People are busy. Be respectful toward them and their time. You are essentially using them them as a sounding board for your child like (at best) grasp of their native tongue.
- Yeah it’s weird, you feel weird, they may feel weird. But one day it won’t.
English as a Second Language
An interesting, but intuitive consequence of learning Russian is a much better understanding of why Russian natives use English in the manner that they do. Their choice of words, pronunciation, sentence construction etc. A minor example being: “He is a Doctor”, in Russian would be: “Он Доктор” (he doctor) not a particle in sight! Russian is very much to the point, this is due to a myriad of linguistic reasons that are way above my pay grade to explain, but the point stands.
The Willingness to be the Fool
Do it badly. A tiny bit at a time. You need to make mistakes to understand what you need to learn. Your up front sacrifice of willing to be the fool is what will transform you. In five years time you will not remember the thousands of mistakes you must make, you will be too busy enjoying your new skill set. The only thing you can do wrong in this pursuit is to stand still. If you move forward, you will be rewarded, challenged, forced to grow. If you stand still, you will be pushed back, you will shrink.
Now for the practical part. This will be tweaked and improved over time, as of now it is working well for me.
- Slow Russian Podcast
- Russian Rap
- Michel Thomas
- Infidelity (Tv Show)
- Mosfilm (Soviet era films with subtitles)
- Inadequate People (Film)
- iTalki (referral link),
- Out in the real world
- Language swap meet ups
Trying not to be hyperbolic, but still maintaining the level of importance that is required, here goes: you can apply all of these techniques, hundreds of hours of listening, reading, studying and it be almost not worth the time if you are not going to visit Russia (or a Russian speaking country). Knowing a language in theory is only half the battle, it’s learning how to use the language within its cultural origin is what really matters. Without the understanding of why phrases and words are deployed and more importantly, their significance, the 10,000 word vocab you have memorised will lack context.
Above all else, remember that this is supposed to be fun, something you want to achieve. Do not enforce a tyranny upon yourself. If you lose the sense of enjoyment and wonder learning a language should bring you, your enthusiasm will turn to resentment, your progress will cease to exist.
Good luck and thank you.
Удачи и Спасибо.« return home