Secret Writings of the Ash Ock

Aequam memento rebus in arduis servare mentem

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Language Learning
So, I’m nearing 5 years into my “hobby” of studying the Russian language. I would say I’ve acquired a fairly good familiarity with the language. There’s still too much to learn, but for the primary goal of making myself understood I’m mostly successful. For someone who isn’t immersed in the language because of living there, I feel I’ve done quite well.

A couple of people asked me “how I study languages” recently, so I thought I’d try to summarize some of the tips and techniques, lessons learned, things I’m hoping to do in the future, and just where I would start and what resources I would look at. I suspect that if I was going to study a third language, I could do so a bit more economically. I mean that both literally for money but also for time spent.

I’ll start with some of the hard problems of studying a language, then go into some thoughts into what sort of progress I made in Russian, and then talk about various resources that might be helpful. Dates are very approximated.

Here’s what I think the major problems with getting started with language learning are:
1. Memorization of new vocabulary.
2. Learning the sound system - this is one of the few places where biology actively gets in our way; we will never be able to hear the sounds as well as a native speaker, so there’s only so much we can do to correct our mistakes.
3. For some languages, learning the writing system takes time.
4. Getting used to the grammar; playing with the language. (Meaning: Actually being able to use the language to say something interesting)
5. Getting the confidence to use the language when you aren’t any good at it yet.

I think any “system” you create for yourself needs to tackle these things. So…

1. Learn memorization techniques
2. Find ways to immerse yourself in the sound system
3. Learn the native writing system
4. Practice using the language in dialogue with real people.

Now, what’s interesting to me is where my breakpoints were, meaning when did I make big leaps in progress.

At 2 months: Knew some words, but nothing that was really useful to start conversation
At 3 months: Realized that Rosetta Stone wasn’t teaching me enough *useful vocabulary* right at the outset. Things you need all the time, like “I don’t understand.” Made a focused attempt to fill these critical pieces in first.
At 6 months: I could start having very simple conversations. Could get through 30-45 seconds of conversation at Friday night waltz; enough to say that I am studying Russian, who I am, where I work, and would you like to dance? Practicing scripted conversations helpful.
At 9 months: First trip to Kiev. With 6 weeks of intensive study prior to the trip, I was getting a lot more versatile with the grammar and written language. I felt like I cratered here, except with friends. HOWEVER, this first trip was probably my single biggest leap in my listening skills.\
At 1.5 years: Starting to be able to work with the language enough to make friends laugh.
At 3 years: Vocabulary reasonably fleshed out, but still big holes and places where I forget things. Started getting more systematic about how I memorize new words and concepts.
At 4 years: Second major trip to Russia and Ukraine. Starting to do a better job of recognizing dialectic differences. Found myself reading and reacting a lot more to signs and stuff. Unfamiliar signs were mostly comprehensible to me; I could infer meetings of specific words.
At 5 years: Much better ability to remember some of the relationship rules in the grammar, and infer meanings of roots and stems. More systematic about looking for a stem in the dictionary to uncover related words at the outset. Learn word clusters and not words. Can generally make myself understood, but to listen and understand requires the native speaker be reasonable to me.

Okay, with that in mind, some very quick thoughts about different things that are helpful when studying a language. Books, software, web pages. Going to try to keep these relatively generic.

Rosetta Stone
A good starting point but expensive. Their audio and visuals are good and they force you into the language right away. Grammar is a problem because you have to infer everything yourself. Learning useful vocabulary early on is a problem. Not enough dialogues until later on. Not enough spaced repetition.

A Good Introductory Book
I think you need to find a good introductory book for the language you are learning. Sometimes it helps to get a good systematic grounding in the language. Ideally, one that uses scripted conversations and written essays.

A Good Grammar Book
Similarly, having a good reference book for the language’s grammar is indispensable when you need to really figure out how something is supposed to work.

Fluent Forever
A don’t agree with everything in this book, but it is a great starting point, particularly for someone with a more “science/computer” mindset.
This page is absolutely critical for finding audio files of words you are learning. You need to hear the words in the native language.
Google image search is very useful for finding images you can use to illustrate a word.
Good web page for exchanging messages with native speakers, and getting them to correct your essays.

A very nerdy flash card program; I say nerdy because it basically doesn’t hide very much of the database or visualization from you; if you are coder, you can really see how to customize things for yourself.

Travel Planet guide for your language / region
Small, focused book on the language, with useful phrases and dialogues.

Dictionary app on mobile device

Phrasebook app on mobile device.

So that’s kind of my focused starting list. I’d be willing to replace Rosetta Stone with something more affordable. I would look for something that has a lot of conversations, rather than just boring sentences. Assimil or Glossika sell reasonably good packages. Michel Thomas method has some nice conversations and asks the reader to form a lot of sentences (good) but also exposes you to too many non-native speakers torturing the language. Teach Yourself Russian had a lot of good conversations in their audio files. I probably have a dozen books and different sets of recording for Russian. Hard to say whether one company is consistently better than another.

And now some random notes, any of which probably can be expanded into a full post.

Memorization techniques:
* All memory is association; the more associations, the less likely you lose it.
* Associate the written word, the audio of the word, a picture for the word, and as many personal memorizes as you can. Practice it in different sentences.
* Spaced repetition: Use software or some other technique to periodically test yourself with the language.
* Testing yourself can’t just be passive recognition. You need to make sure you can actively remember and use the word. This is where conversations come in handy.

Getting a basic vocabulary
* One of the hardest parts, because for the most part it involves a ton of bulk memorization. You need 2000-3000 words.
* Have to find a way to make it fun.

Listen and repeat
* Listen to recordings from a native speaker and do your best to repeat it with the same intonation and speed. Repeat multiple times. Find similar sounding words so that you learn to distinguish the sounds of the language.
* If you listen to something, can you write it down with proper spelling.
* If you hear something, can you get close enough to the correct spelling to find it in a dictionary. (If yes, then you are probably getting better at recognizing the sounds).
* Speak out loud often, even when reading.

Playing With Language
* Make up your own dialogues, especially if you’ve got specific conversations you expect to have
* Take a sentence and try to say it in a different way
* Take a sentence and use the same structure, but for a different concept (e.g. I’m walking home, I’m walking to school, I’m walking to work). Note the differences in grammar when they occur.
* Where necessary, use cards or something else to test usage and grammar.
* You have to make this practice as active as possible. You can’t memorize grammar rules and expect to use them at speed. Our brains are actually wired so that grammar slowly gets assimilated into automatic processes. So you have to put in the time, don’t assume you are smart!

Word Morphology
* Learn how your language changes words to adapt them to other parts of speech. For example, adding prefixes or suffixes. Try to learn any patterns that are consistent in the language. (e.g. farm -> farmer, bank -> banker, program -> programmer).
* Instead of learning words, look for word clusters, with a common meaning but in different parts of speech. "I know this noun, I wonder if there's an adjective for it". Ideally, put together enough example sentences that you can see when and how you use each form of the word is used. (Some languages, like english, don't morph words as often as they simply rearrange sentences).

* Find native speakers, explain to them your goal, try to practice.
* Figure out the hard parts of the language (where it differs most from what you already know) and practice those concepts.

Speaking like a native
* Get away from the text book and figure out how people speak the language.
* Listen to how they play with language. (e.g. in english we verb nouns all of the time; in Russian, they make new endings).

* Sometimes useful to get some formal instruction, especially when you find yourself at an impasse.
* Have clear goals of what you want out of the tutoring.
* I haven’t tried it myself, but I’ve heard good things about recording online tutoring sessions and reviewing them afterwards.

Movies, books
* YouTube is a good source for both language tutorial videos and small bite sized chunks in the language.
* Look for kids books but beware “childish” language.
* Look for books that take an existing story but simplify it down to a smaller and more manageable vocabulary. (Usually pitched at language learners).

* If you are serious about the language, put in a couple of weeks in a place where it is spoken natively.


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