Thoughts on learning a language

Six weeks ago, I started learning my fifth language: Russian. As of this writing, I’m at an A2-B1 level, and seeing rapid progress every day. In talking to other language learners, I noticed some recurring fears, issues and misconceptions which I’m hoping to help alleviate in this post. I also wanted to share my method, and some general thoughts on language learning.

Please remember this post is based on my experience, and some parts will especially not apply to the CJK family of languages.

First, some background. I’m French-Greek by blood and speak both languages (Greek much more poorly than French). Like most French kids, I learned some awful English at school, but after dropping out at age 14, I learned English fluently on the internet and through TV series and video games. I learned Swedish at 23 when I moved to Stockholm (What a beautiful language! By far my favourite), but stopped practicing it after moving away from Sweden.

I love languages. I wish I had taken the time to learn more of them, and learn them better. I intend to fix this in the coming couple of years, as I’d like to actually learn both Dutch and Spanish to a conversational level.

As one learns new languages, it becomes easier to learn more of them, especially when they share common roots.

First, obviously, you get an increased “etymological” vocabulary: You are able to identify more word stems, and associate concepts more with a general “sound” than with a specific word in a specific language.

Beyond words themselves, you are able to recognise more idioms and special constructions. You are able to quickly and easily build up an instinct for how to think in a completely new language. Pattern recognition in general, as a skill, gets sharper.

And there’s just more concepts you are already familiar with. When approaching a completely new language, it’s the overwhelming amount of new information that can scare and demotivate you. You have to keep so many things in mind. But as more knowledge carries over from previous languages, you can more easily pick up new ones. (Developers will recognize this applies to programming languages as well)

But it’s also a lot to do with the improved efficiency that comes with developing your own method, knowing and trusting what works for you, and not wasting time on what you already know doesn’t work.

So, I want to talk about my current method: Not just what I do, but also why.

Language fluency is usually broken down into three phases: Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced.

I also want to break skill in the language down into the following categories: Reading, Listening, Speaking, Writing, and Thinking. The first two are input skills, the last three are output skills.

Based on my experience, I am a huge fan of what the language teaching community calls “input-based methodology”. That is: Methods that focus primarily on what you take in (tv, music, books, listening to friends…), rather than what you produce (writing and speaking exercises). But, as you improve in each category, the learning process should also evolve with it, and output is an important part of the process as well.

BEFORE YOU START: Figure out your motivation. This is the absolute most important thing.

What is your motivation for learning this new language? If you cannot answer this question and convince yourself this is something you really want, sit down and figure it out because otherwise, you will quickly drop out. I say this from experience: I have abandoned learning far more languages than I can currently speak, just because I didn’t have or know my motivation.

For Russian, my motivation is clear. Beyond a variety of personal reasons, I have several native Russian speakers in my life I want to be able to better communicate with. My girlfriend is Russian and I want to understand her better. These are rock solid motivators, that won’t disappear after a couple of weeks. I also happen to like the language, which is very important.

Okay: First steps in the language, complete beginner. If you’re dealing with a different alphabet, learning the script is the first prerequisite: You should be able to read, ASAP. Just… do it. For simple scripts, the small effort you put in early on will pay immediate dividends. Learning to go from a letter/word to a sound, and from a sound to a letter/word is extremely important for “input-based learning” to be effective.

Once that’s done, I work on finding ways to immerse myself. One of my first moves is to change the language of all my devices to match my target language (in fact, Duolingo very recently wrote about why you should do this).

I will also work on finding interesting material in the language. YMMV: For me, it’s TV series and music. For Swedish and Russian I have also enjoyed watching Disney animated movies in the language. Specifically, Frozen and Tangled — you might laugh, but they’re cool movies with beautiful songs, lots of vocabulary, a plot I already know that is easy to follow, and unlike with live action the dubbing is actually bearable.

It’s easy to integrate music as a staple of my playlists, but I have a preference for songs with clear and comprehensible voicing. Metal is out; classic songs are great though!

For Russian I have also started leaving podcasts running constantly in the background. I don’t listen: I just hear. It’s free, it’s passive. I even leave them while I sleep. Even without paying attention, I believe this to have helped train my ear to distinguish words, recognise grammatical patterns, and get used to native pronunciation. (A language spoken by a native to another native is very different to the type of language spoken in your lessons or during your coaching sessions, even in pronunciation). And as I absolutely do not intend to move to Russia, this also restores some of the passive benefits of moving to a country that speaks the language I’m learning.

I think a “crash course” type lesson is very important to do early on. They’re often free (eg. on YouTube), there’s many of them to choose from, and they get you bootstrapped with the basics to find your way around the language. For Russian, I followed the “Russian Made Easy” podcast (30 episodes, ~10 hours), and I have actively been watching videos from “Be Fluent in Russian” YouTube channel (hundreds of videos on specific words, expressions and topics, between 3-15 mins). The content needs to be fun for you to follow through on it; if you’re already bored at this stage, it’s bad news and worth looking at different sources.

I have found Drops to be useful to learn basic vocabulary through repetition. I strongly dislike the “tourist” approach it takes to learning, though, and the benefits are basically over once you reach an intermediate knowledge of the language (where it starts focusing more on full sentences, and your ability to learn and distinguish new words improves and needs less repetition). Most people use Flash cards; I think Drops is an acceptable replacement for them but I’m not you, and this might just be redundant if you are ok with flash cards.

The controversial one: Duolingo. Most polyglots will tell you Duolingo is trash. I agree you will not get to fluency with Duo alone, but for me at least it’s a fun enough app to productively kill time. I also have a premium account and use it in a very unusual way: I don’t do lessons, and instead systematically test out of every single level, which trains my ability to recognize new words by reverse engineering them through context. I also actively use the “previous mistakes” practice after making several mistakes.

I find that the Russian course is pretty well designed to help recognize cases and declensions, which are one of the more difficult parts of that particular language. I DO NOT MEMORIZE TABLES OF CASES AND CONJUGATION. I refused to do this when learning French, I refused to do it when learning English, and I think it’s an utter waste of time. It’s better, IMO, to first get familiar with the patterns, build up your intuition of them, and THEN learn the rules around them. Either your intuition will be proven correct, or your understanding will improve as your made-up rules will be simplified.

After a couple of weeks of familiarity, I picked up a Russian book. I came across Olly Richards on YouTube and liked what he had to say about learning “through stories”. I wanted to give it a try, and I can absolutely see the advantages. It’s been really fun to read and re-read through the “Short stories in Russian” book, which has short chapters meant to be read multiple times, built-in markers for verbal stress, limited vocabulary, and a glossary for some advanced words. I can recommend it, though be aware that it’s not super high quality and is full of mistakes that shouldn’t really be present in educational material.

Being lucky enough to have Russian speakers in my life, I have also been able to read this book to and with them. I also intend to pick up a translated copy of The Little Prince, which should make for a great short read.

I’m now solidly in the “intermediate” phase of the language. My next steps are to find TV series and movies I will enjoy watching as new material, and watch them with exclusively Russian subtitles. I have a fluency camp starting today (the one from BeFluent), I’m quite curious how it will go.

Having used an input-based approach, my output is much weaker. I’m not worried, that’s quite normal, but it is still frustrating as the imbalance is so apparent. I have a very difficult time finding the right words, and even still confuse basic ones. My strategy here is to continue to speak to natives, both face to face and by text. I’m significantly better by text as I can take my time, and I pretty systematically check my sentences on Google Translate to give myself some confidence in my own grammar. I also use my phone’s voice input to write (speech to text), as the Russian keyboard is … quite a beast. I feel a bit guilty about it, but it trains my pronunciation.

I am also at the point where, if I want to remain efficient, I will need to figure out a way to more efficiently look up words I come across. Maybe install a dictionary extension for my web browser. I fear this is also a weakness in the “Russian series with Russian subtitles”, as looking things up is very slow and difficult. I will probably have to learn that damn keyboard at some point. Yeesh. I kinda wish Russian had a pinyin-like input method on Windows — Google Translate has it, it’s magnificent and allows me to very swiftly type in Russian on my qwerty desktop keyboard.

I want to end this by saying that this has so far been the most fun I’ve had learning a language, ever. It’s such an incredible feeling, seeing the doors unlocking, the communication barriers being lifted one after the other. Google Translate can only get you so far, you know? There’s already been several instances where my communication partners made English mistakes, and I was able to immediately understand why they made that mistake. I genuinely feel more connected to them than I’ve ever been before.

If you’re not doing so already, take this opportunity to start learning a new language today. Pick one you will use, and that really can motivate you. Good luck on your own journey, and please reach out if you want to talk about it.