submission for the polyglot project. my language learning journey

This is my draft for Claude (see


My language learning journey; or: How I learned Russian despite the cultural handicap of being British


skyblueteapot, United Kingdom.


I went to school in England in the 1970s and 1980s and therefore have am handicapped with foreign language learning. It was taught very  badly, you see. French, German and Latin were taught using the Classical Method, which mainly consists of writing irregular verbs up on the board and making everyone learn them for homework. I was startled, on visiting France at the age of eleven, to discover French children speaking French, easily and naturally and without even having to look words up in textbooks. The idea that it was anyone’s mother tongue simply hadn’t occurred to me.


The turning point for me was an exchange programme with a German school. I was shy and nerdy and therefore had no friends among the English kids who went over with me; I was, therefore, forced to hang out with the German kids. It was a revelation! I learned that for them, language learning was a much easier, natural and pleasant process than it had been for me. They listened to English pop music, watched English films and wore jeans with English labels on them. I came home exhilarated and determined to learn to speak proper German, song lyrics, swear words and all.


I didn’t have much time left. The unnecessarily restrictive English school system mean that, at the age of 16, I had to stop studying all languages to concentrate on physics, my university subject. And that was that. I was branded a scientist, an asocial computer-botherer, an art and culture-free zone. It was a life sentence  Or so I thought.


At the age of….erm…well, I was married and had two kids anyway…..I found myself suddenly out of a job. I had been a computer programmer, and as it turned out, a bad one. Why? I was hard working and I loved learning and using languages.  It ought to have been the ideal job. Perhaps talking to computers in their language simply isn’t as rewarding as talking to people in theirs. I resolved to restart my language learning, focussing on communicating with real people this time. Maybe failing as a technical person gave me a second chance to try out at being an arts person.


But where to start? The local adult education courses weren’t much help. I was already overqualified for beginners’ French and German classess, and nothing else was available. I tried local universities, libraries, and schools. None of them included helping mature learners to learn a foreign language within their remit. Even wasn’t expecially forthcoming on language learning books and CDs beyond the very basics. Maybe I could find some learning materials on the internet?


After a lot of searching and frustration (and grumbling about it to penfriends in slowly-improving German ), I found a site called It claimed to offer Russian , which caught my attention straight away. Russian had been on offer at my school, but sadly not to those studying science. (Perhaps they were afraid we would defect to the Soviet Union and take the secrets of the Trident missile programme with us). Was this at last my chance to learn it? The danger of me defecting now and taking with me the secrets of really poor programming really shouldn’t keep the Intelligence Services awake at nights.


I studied the so-called “natural language learning method” carefully. It looked too easy to be effective. You sign up for an account, help yourself to free lessons (mp3 + transcript), and study them. There is software to keep track of the words you have learned, the lessons you have studied, the time you have spent on listening, etc. You can learn new words using flashcards. Ah, but what happens when you have studied all the lessons in the library?


I studied the contents of the library. There were, as it turned out, a LOT of lessons, some of them really quite tricky. It didn’t look as though I would run out of material any time soon.


I still suspected a catch. I lurked in the forum. It seemed to consist of a lot of clever, funny, people, people who were well aware of the value of a dollar and very clear that they were getting value for money. Some of them were even learning Russian, including, it appeared. the founder of the site.


I decided to Skype him to find out what the catch was. We had a very pleasant conversation. It turned out that LingQ is the brainchild and baby of a former Canadian diplomat, who loves learning languages and is learning Russian as his tenth or eleventh one. Making money does not seem to be a major goal for him: spreading the word that learning languages can be fun does.


“But you DO want my money, don’t you​?” I asked. “You won’t get much out of me. I’m unemployed!”


Steve shrugged. “I’m sure you can find a Russian who’s keen to learn English,” he said. “You can do a language exchange”.


“What happens if I run out of lessons?” I asked.


“You use your own material,” he answered. “Have you seen the size of the internet? Anything you can download in mp3 format you can put on your mp3 player and listen to; any text you can copy and paste you can import and use as a lesson.”


“What about Dracula?” I asked. “I’ve got that as an e-book.”


“Dracula’s be fine,” he answered. “You can write pieces in Russian about vampires and have conversations with Russians about vampire-staking.”


This was an intriguing idea.


“How about hobbits?” I asked.


“If you must!” he answered.


“Heavy metal song lyrics?”


“Fine!” he said.


Well, this just had to be tried. Learning what you want, when you want,, where and how you want, and asking for help only as and when you want to. That’s flexible enough even for a stressed out housewife and mother of three to cope with.


Two years on and I have to say, the “natural”, “input-based” learning methods certainly work for me. I listen to audiobooks, podcasts and radio programmes in Russian, I read articles harvested from all corners of the web and, when I feel like it, I discuss my progress with a native Russian. I keep a diary in Russian and get feedback on bits of it when I want it. In two years I have reached about A level standard. Also I have found the time to learn a bit of Japanese and brush up on my French and German.


So encouraged have I been by my progress that I have signed my children up. The eldest is 12 and is learning French, without noticeable enthusiasm, at school. The youngest is 9 and has been taught to count up to ten in French. Once shown how to download lessons and play mp3s, operate the online dictionary and work the flashcard system, I set them a competition. Whoever learns the most in 3 weeks wins ten shiny new British pounds and the respect of all. The betting stands at evens: ten more days to go!


The sad fact is that English schools still make learning languages boring. Not only that, but the number of language teachers and the number of languages available in state schools has dropped since my day. Now it is only compulsory to learn 3 years of French, and impossible to learn any other language, in my son’s comprehensive school.


I am determined to show my children how to become independent language learners; to show them that, no matter how poor the language teaching provision in their schools is, no matter how restrictive the timetables or dismissive our society may be of the value of speaking a second language, nevertheless the process of learning a second language can be fun, rewarding and useful. Even for scientists. After all, Einstein could speak English well enough to work in America as a university professor. I bet no-one ever told him that scientists couldn’t learn foreign languages!

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2 thoughts on “Submission for The Polyglot Project. My language learning journey

  1. Mark Kaufmann

    Sanne, I really enjoyed the story of your language learning. As I just told Vera, it’s very inspirational to read all these stories!

  2. Mark Kaufmann

    Haha. I’m not really sure why I thought your article with Sanne’s. I hadn’t even read yours when I made that comment. Strange… I’m blaming the computer… Anyway, I really enjoyed your article as well! And, thanks for spreading the word to your kids! Let us know the result of the contest…maybe we should institute something similar on LingQ.


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