*this is a draft and still in progress, but if I don’t publish it now, I’ll probably never publish it.
It is almost the second week of May and I still haven’t worked towards my goal of learning Russian. Maybe I am afraid of the large challenge ahead of me, to really take learning Russian serious for a number of weeks. But what do I have to lose other than spending time talking with people from Russia and maybe realizing that my app doesn’t work. Also, due to this Corona thing, this may be the closest I get to a holiday abroad this year. If you’re interested to join me in my 15-day approach, join me here on facebook messenger: https://m.me/teamLingophant?ref=russian_intro
I am convinced anybody can learn a language in a year, but I do not have time to waste. I like languages for communication purposes, not necessarily the act of learning it. I love learning in general though, and to me language learning is the queen or king of learning: it combines logical, empathetic, memory, fine-motoric and listening skills all at once. And at the end, it opens the gate to interacting with whole nations in a new language in an authentic way. It is an act of appreciation of humanity and culture. And speaking to someone in their language allows me to see the person in their own authentic light.
Why Russian though? Well, there are three reasons. Firstly, it is a European and Asian country with a rich history and culture and familiar yet weird looking script. Being able to understand that authentically seems like an awesome superpower. Secondly, it is a language which is spoken in many other countries. Speaking Russian basically opens up the caucasus region, and allows me to connect, например (for example)￼￼, to the older generation in Georgia who still learned that language in school (although the younger generation doesn’t like it much and speaks English). Thirdly, it is a Slavic language and not an easy language with its cases and grammar rules. This makes the challenge of learning it even bigger, and that is exactly what I need to verify if my language learning tool, Lingophant, is worth the effort of continuing.
Lingophant is a product that was mainly built out of frustration with existing apps, and with the classroom-based standardized learning methods. I wanted to learn efficiently and I wanted to learn through conversations. Already in high school, I wasn’t very fond of the so-called “Vokabelheft”, a little notebook with a line in the middle of each page, and a word on each side of the line. Me and Michi the laudable computer nerd of our school used Teach2000 to practice the words effectively on the computer, and although my memory is pretty bad, we still managed to get a good grade in French. This is because software can track for each word how well you know it already and how much you still need to practice. (If interested in the topic, this is the most comprehensive review I have ever seen about a topic, and it is about Spaced Repetition Systems.) And the part of learning through conversations is like riding a bike, or learning how to cook. You learn how to ride a bike best by trying it, not through theory. And likewise, if you’re a hobby cook, there’s no point in learning dishes you don’t like. You need to try your new skills in practice. And like that, you learn a language by talking to people. It is hard to keep your motivation going in an unnatural setting.
Five years ago I already thought, we have all these incredible modern tools available, like voice recognition, machine translation, video and audio recordings, spaced repetition algorithms, there must be a better way to learn a language nowadays. I guess that’s what most people think, which explains why some applications make so much money out of tapping on a screen. They’re great for getting a first impression of a language, but a 30 day streak in Duolingo is nothing compared to 30 conversations with a native speaker.
But back to the Russian challenge
The reason why I am writing this, is because I recently found out that Vitor from Brazil and I both want to learn Russian. This is cool, because Vitor is a language teacher and polyglot, and we met through the free German conversation sessions that we are offering as Lingophant through Instagram. Check this link for his school. From a small city in Brazil, Vitor has learnt six languages, and wants to focus on Russian now. And all that without ever having travelled outside of Brazil. In fact, I was the fifth or sixth person he ever spoke German with, and he was basically fluent already. So I think we can really help each other in learning, and I dropped the idea of doing a 15 or 30 day language challenge with him. He agreed, and we set our goals:
- Understand a complicated YouTube Video (Vitor’s idea)
- Sing a song in Russian (Alex’s idea)
- Have a 15 minute smooth conversation with a native speaker (both’s idea)
So there we are, now it is up to us to create a plan for those 15 days, that ideally is not just made for us, but it can be easily followed by other Russian learners too. By accepting this challenge I will first plan and then go through the most effective activities we both can think of.
What is the best way to learn a language.
Слушать, Слушать, Слушать, that’s what Artiom from the YouTube Channel Russian Progress is saying. It means listen, listen, listen. Vitor suggested watching this YouTube video by Russian Progress over and over again, take the transcript, translate it word for word, listen to it again, delete the text, try to reconstruct it from memory, mark the words you already know, and so on. I guess that is some work for up to half of the days.
So I already sat down and watched / listened to the first four videos on Russian Progress.
It was amazing. Even though I only had five 30-minute conversations in Russian with Lingophant last summer, I was able to understand basic parts of it. However, I noticed a few things:
- Listen, Listen, Listen. It makes so much sense to train your ear for the new sounds, as much as possible. And hearing a calm voice, like the one of Artjom can really help with that. Especially now that we live in the 21st century and we can just play a video over and over again, while translating it and recognizing patterns, it is sheerly amazing. The question is if this is enjoyable to everyone, but I think it can be, with help from some scaffolding: clear steps and a progression.
- Lots of fluency means knowing fillers, sentences and expressions you can rely on if you don’t know what to say, or if you’re connecting thoughts. Mobile apps cannot teach you these since they are on a meta level. Listening and speaking can though.
Alright, soo let’s say half the challenges are working with Vitor’s method and half the challenges with my method: getting comprehensible input through conversations.
The other half of the challenge combines three things I enjoy most,
- Speaking to people from a very different place.
- Trying to make myself understood.
- Being effective in learning from them.
In April we have organized our first German conversation sessions and I was leading the German ones. It was great fun to be a host and I hope I can find someone who can do the same in Russian. Irina, Eugene, Sofiya have joined my German lessons so I hope they may be willing to help with Russian. Also there is Masha who is a good friend an made the current Lingophant logo, who may also help me with a Russian conversation.
The German sessions took place five times a week, but that is quite a lot. Since the program should consist of 15 challenges, and I want to spend half of the challenges talking to someone, I will aim for 7 conversations.
Additionally I will practice all my phrases every day. Today I was looking down to the street from my window during a break from my job, drinking a coffee in the sun, while practicing Russian phrases. It may well have been the nicest moment of the day. It takes building a habit, and maybe I’ll need to fixed daily time for it, but it is probably the only way to become fluent in Russian within one year. Practicing every day. Let’s say I need 1500 phrases to speak good russian, with 300 days of practicing per year, that is 5 phrases per day. Let’s say each phrase needs to practiced 6 times in total for it to be in long term memory, that is 30 phrases per day on average. That is absolutely nothing compared to the joy of learning a new language. I can sit on the toilet in the morning and practice, I can drink a coffee and practice from the window, or I can take a walk and listen to phrases and practice. And at the end I could speak a language? Awesome.
I’m really excited to experiment with finding the most effective way to learn Russian. Combining pure listening with comprehensible input from conversation and effective practice may be the most effective way I can think of. I will try it for 15 days and then reevaluate. My hope is really that I can learn Russian within one year. The Foreign Service Institute (for American Diplomats and Intelligence Services) says learning Russian takes 1100 hours for a typical American. I will challenge myself to learn it in 550 hours, that means 2x faster. It also means that each month I have to spend at least 45 hours, or 1,5 hours per day learning and practicing. Uhfff. Well let’s start with the rest of May and if it is enjoyable I can add another month.
Invitation to join.
Learning languages together is more fun than doing it alone. So join me in my adventure and you can follow the same steps and exercises I am doing right now.
The program you can join consists of three parts:
- Join our conversation sessions.
- Follow the basic introduction, which sends you an activity each day.
- Join our community to share ideas with others.
1. The weekly conversation session, you can sign up through this link
Lingophant is effectively separating input from output sessions. Input means to learn and collect things to say around certain topics or situations. Output means to actually remember them, and being able to reproduce them.
During the weekly discussion sessions, a group meets up with a host. This host speaks about topics that interest the people who are present. The host records phrases with our app, and afterwards sends a link to the people that participated through our community discord page.
I have been the host for around twenty German conversation and I must say it was a super experience. You hang out with people, ask questions that help you get to know their culture, and instead of correcting mistakes you just record the sentence in the correct way. Every session had around 20-30 new phrases that the participants could download. And then practice them most effectively, so they would go to the long term memory as fast as possible.
EDIT: we are currently setting up our program and will probably fully launch in June.
2. Follow the basic introduction, with daily challenges.
What held me back learning Russian by myself so far was that I had to come up with an activity each day, and then actually do it. You need to invest energy into deciding what to do, and then energy to actually do it. This makes starting double as hard as just doing something.
Therefore I though long time ago of an automatic message sending that would ask me “wanna do something today?”, and then tell me a fun activity to do.
Therefore I have built a pretty dumb facebook messenger chatbot, that will send an activity (we call them “challenge”) each day to either listen to a video, practice some phrases that were already recorded, or join a session where new phrases are being recorded and you can talk to a native.
I will create a video before and after each challenge, so that you know you’re not alone.
To try it out, it’s as simple as tapping this link (you need facebook’s Messenger though)
EDIT. 11.May.20 this is working now.
3. Join our community, through Discord or Instagram
Learning alone can be boring, learning together can be more fun. We have found Discord to be the most effective channel for our community.
We are also very active on Instagram, and love chatting with people there. So follow us there if you’re not already doing so.
On Discord we have channels for each language and will also post the results of language sessions there. It’s easy to create an account and join, just follow this link: https://discord.gg/VWRnsaa
My goal is to learn Russian so I can speak and understand on a basic level. What is your goal?
It can be a substitute for traveling, to watch a YouTube video, to read a newspaper in Russian, to sing a song, to read Cyrillic, or to just meet and hangout in a productive way with other people.
Think about why you’re interested, and then join our challenge and conversation sessions. Let’s learn Russian together.
If you’d rather not go through Facebook Messenger, you can also sign up for an in-person event to get to know us and then join our Russian sessions.