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One year of Russian

September 11 at 22:52

Всем привет! Today marks one year since I began seriously studying Russian. I really enjoy reading about other people’s milestones in their language learning journeys, so I wanted to add my own to the pool. For the past 365 days I’ve studied an average of an hour a day, but the time can vary from 15 minutes to several hours depending on my schedule. This post will be entirely in English because I still can’t output Russian very well (Like Steve Kaufmann recommends, I’ll start speaking when I’m comfortable, and right now I’m not haha). However, I’m mostly excited about my progress in reading comprehension and listening, and I’m planning to start practicing Russian cursive since my freehand writing is pretty solid.

Quick backstory: I grew up in a completely monolingual environment, but I’d always wanted to be able to speak another language. As I grew older and got into an international school, I had many multilingual friends whom I deeply envied. I thought I wanted to learn something pretty like French or Italian, but I knew I’d never get to use it. Russian was by far my favorite language to listen to, but I was convinced it was too difficult. So I decided to learn Spanish, since it seemed to be the most practical option. After college I had moved to Los Angeles for work, and I lived in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, had a Venezuelan roommate, and made friends from Spain, Ecuador, and Argentina. I tried Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, Duolingo, italki, Lingq, listened to songs, watched movies, etc., and never got fluent. I blame this mostly on shyness and, as I found out later, lack of interest. I had no realistic plans to use Spanish; I just wanted to be able to speak another language.

Then the pandemic uprooted me from my life in LA and back to my rural hometown. It was hard at first, but eventually I decided to use it as an opportunity to start fresh and finally pursue the interests I never had time for before, like fitness, painting, and Russian culture. I read Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin, the first book I’d ever read translated from Russian. I was intrigued by the introduction from translator Lisa C. Hayden describing the book: “…Vodalzkin’s language - which blends archaic words, comic remarks, quotes from the Bible, bureaucratese, chunks of medieval texts, and much more - reflects the novel’s actions.” I had never visualized language as such a treasure trove. If the English version of the book was as good as I believed it was, I could only imagine the richness of its source.

So I started learning the Cyrillic alphabet on Duolingo. People understandably hate on Duolingo, but the points system and dumb cartoons kept me motivated, and I could easily practice Russian while I was bored at work. After I beat Duolingo, I felt comfortable enough to start using Lingq (I’d used Lingq before with Spanish and thought it was the most effective). It was extremely difficult at first because I still wasn’t a strong reader, but supplementing with YouTube channels and podcasts (shoutout to Russian with Max, Russian with Dasha and Russian Progress) strengthened my listening skills and vocabulary retention. Even if I didn’t understand what was going on, I just enjoyed listening to the language being spoken as if it were background music. I listened to rock songs and watched a bunch of movies (Остров and Служебный Роман being my absolute favorites). I worked through all of the Lingq mini stories before moving on to materials provided by Evgueny Bokhanovsky (I am currently studying with День за днём and Разговоры с Евгением and learning a LOT - that man is a godsend!). I became addicted to learning Russian in the same way someone might get addicted to chess or jiu jitsu - the mental work required brought so much satisfaction, and carried over into other areas of my life in a positive way.

The best part of it though, was the rebirth involved. My other language-learning efforts were relatively fruitless because I was simply trying to mirror my English world into another one. My ego blocked me from any significant breakthroughs. With Russian, there was no room for ego; I couldn’t even read or pronounce “hello”. The only way to start was from complete scratch, as if I was a newborn baby in a Russian-speaking world that I could curate through the Internet. Learning to write letters, sounding them out, copying somebody else’s writing, and trudging through difficult texts out of pure curiosity was the exact same process I used to learn my native language.

Now, one year later, three pieces of advice that I received early on still ring true to this day:

  1. Bald and Bankrupt: “Drill this into your head: vocabulary, vocabulary, vocabulary!” While I am a bit of a grammar nerd, not worrying about it is, ironically, helping the grammar click into place. The devil truly is in the details.
  2. Angelos Georgakis: “Guys, write everything down!” This video was by far the most encouraging for me. He shows all the notebooks he filled during his learning process. So far I’ve filled two notebooks and I’m in the middle of my third :)
  3. And Steve Kaufmann himself (I don’t remember the specific video but I’m sure he’s said this many times), “It’s going to take as long as it’s going to take.” I’ve applied this advice to my life in general and it’s made me a lot happier.

As a very impatient person with a tendency to reinvent the wheel, these three things helped me stay on course, enjoy the process, and keep my brain absorbent in a way never before with other pursuits. As of right now, I don’t have any specific goals with Russian other than to reread Laurus in its original version. I don’t personally know any Russian people and unfortunately traveling to Russia anytime soon doesn’t seem likely. But nonetheless, I feel this lack of planning allows for more spontaneity and enjoyment. This past year I have learned so much more than I could’ve ever imagined and hopefully within the next six months or so I will feel comfortable enough to hire a tutor and actually start speaking. In the meantime I will keep riding this wave and see where it takes me.

Это все! Большое спасибо и пока пока!