Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

At the start of May I wrote about my Russian lessons and what I was and wasn’t doing at home to further my learning. To finish the post, I made a commitment to study Russian for ten minutes every day and gave a list of activities I would try. So what happened?

Planning and recording

About two months ago I moved to a system of having a daily to-do list for everything. At the beginning of each week, it looks like this:

To-do list

To-do list

Each day I have a series of codes: ‘Ph’ = physio, F = feedly (blog reading to try and keep up!), R = Russian, FJ = flo-joe (FCE word bank) and, new last week because of the success of the others, W = walk. By having them on the list, I’m much more likely to make time for them every day. Other things to do are then added around them, as you can see from Monday. (On a side note, I’ve discovered this daily to-do list makes me much more efficient, as long as I’m realistic about what I put on each day based on the time I have available. Everything else is in another list at the side, and when I’ve finish the things for the day I can start on the less urgent things.)

Since I started doing this, I have very rarely missed a day of Russian. I record what I’ve done on an old calendar, along with my physio/exercise. I started using a similar system when I was trying to walk more last year, and I found that the gaping holes when  nothing was written made me feel bad, and I wanted to minimise them! This is the final result for May:

May 2014 Russian

May 2014 Russian

…and the work in progress for June:

June 2014 Russian

June 2014 Russian

As you can see, in the seven weeks since I wrote that post, I’ve only missed four days, all in May. You can also see that very often I spent considerably more than ten minutes on my Russian. It seems that once you get started, it’s easy to get sucked in and do more 😉

Towards the end of May I experimented with a trial version of Lizzie Pinard’s language learning flower, where she suggested colouring in the flower depending on what you’ve done. I didn’t realise that it should be divided into squares, and was already using the calendar, so only used it once, but it did make me realise that I was doing almost no writing.

Language learning flower

Language learning flower for May 2014

Writing

I took my own advice, and started to write a journal in Russian, which I asked my teacher to correct and reply to. Thankfully, she was happy to do that!

Russian journal

Russian journal

The mistakes I’ve made have taught me a lot, and because I’m a good language learner/very sad person/have way too much time on my hands, I rewrite every piece of writing I do into another notebook…

Colour-coded rewrites

Colour-coded rewrites

…using a colour-code to show the kind of mistakes I’ve made. I put the code into the front of my notebook so I can refer to it, and add to it if another category of mistake starts appearing.

Deciphering the rewrite code

Deciphering the rewrite code

From only three journal entries I’ve already noticed an improvement in my spelling of a few common words, and I’ve learnt new phrases from my teacher’s rewording of my sometimes clumsy production, as well as having a new page in my vocabulary notebook entirely devoted to stealing phrases from what she’s written. I’ve also put some of my favourite phrases onto the sentence cards I mentioned in my last post (more on them below).

Of course, the real reason I started to do this was nothing to do with improving my Russian. When I bought my journal, I couldn’t decide which notebook to buy, and being a stationery lover, I decided to buy both. You can’t have a notebook and not use it! 😉

Two notebooks, both alike in dignity

Which to buy? Both of course!

This may be another sign of how sad/geeky/pathetic I am, but I really feel that it’s important to have notebooks and folders you want to open, and pens/pencils/etc you want to use when you’re studying. It might seem like a minor thing, but anything that makes you smile will help.

Reading

Inspired by Lizzie Pinard (again), I bought myself a Russian book. I’d been trying to find something for a while, but everything was too expensive or seemed like it might be too difficult for a beginner/elementary student. Then I found this:

Game of Thrones in Russian

Hello Mr Bean 😉

That’s right, Game of Thrones, in Russian, with Sean Bean on the cover. What was that about having something you wanted to pick up? I already had the e-book in English, and we have a paper copy of it at school, making it the perfect choice as I wouldn’t have to buy another book to be able to compare the Russian and English versions.

Without Lizzie talking about how she’d been reading Harry Potter in Italian from the beginning, I would never have been brave enough to try GoT. Now I’ve finished the first chapter. It’s taken me about two hours in total, broken down into 10-20 minute stints, but it never felt like a chore. Instead it was a puzzle, as I compared what I could see on the page, what I could guess, and what I could remember from the story. Each page took about ten minutes, and I reread the whole thing many times, firstly in Russian more than once, then reading the English, then going back and reading the Russian, then reading both side-by-side. Each time I reread it I noticed more patterns and more words I recognised, and I really want to continue with this. I’ve also started a ‘Game of Thrones’ page in my vocabulary notebook, including such words as меч and книжал (sword and dagger), and useful phrases like Здесь что-то не так (‘Something’s wrong here’). In her post about 12 things she’s learnt about language learning, Lizzie mentioned that learning a new word is like making a new friend, and that’s exactly how it feels.

In general, I’ve always tried to read everything around me (signs, posters, packets…) Now I feel very comfortable with the Cyrillic script. My writing of it has changed over time, developing to become more natural, and requiring less conscious processing. The more I read, the faster I can pick out the words, although I still find I have to stop and go back quite a lot, especially with some of the really long words.

Listening

Back in January, I wrote about the downsides of beginning again in a new place:

I can’t do some of the things I enjoy, like going to the cinema and switching off. I can still go, but I have to think, not least because a lot of the films here are in Ukrainian, which I don’t speak at all. Watching a film at home is good, but it’s not the same.

Going to the cinema has always been one of the motivations for me to study more Russian, helped by the political changes here which mean that all films are now in Russian, not Ukrainian. This month I’ve finally taken the plunge and started going. I saw X-Men: Days of Future Past on June 1st, and Maleficent on June 9th. I’m planning to see the second How to train your dragon film next week. Before seeing each film, I watched all the trailers I could find in English to give me an idea of the story and so I would know some of the lines. For Maleficent I watched one in Russian too and looked up the words ‘curse’, ‘evil’ and ‘witch’, all of which I promptly forgot, but recognised when I heard them in the film. This afternoon I’m going to see How to Train Your Dragon 2, and through the Dreamworks YouTube channel I’ve seen the first five minutes of the film, plus about 8 other clips, so I feel like I know the story! Having said that, I don’t want to read too much, as I still want to enjoy the story as it unrolls.

It’s amazing how good it felt to sit in the cinema again, to let the language wash over me and enjoy the experience. I probably understood about 30-40% of each film, helped by my preparation, but that was enough, and every time I go I’ll understand more. In both films I heard words and phrases which I’d picked up in the process of journal writing and reading GoT, as well as through the more ‘conventional’ language learning. I even got one or two of the language-dependent jokes, giving me a high each time.

I bought and watched Up on DVD, which I also really enjoyed. When you’re starting off, I think it’s a much better idea to revisit familiar stories in books and films, rather than try to decode something completely new. You get a lot of motivation from it, but because you already know the story/world/characters, you have more processing capacity to deal with the language.

I’ve also listened to the song ‘Happy End’ with lyrics (thanks to my Russian teacher’s excellent website, which she didn’t tell me about until recently!), a short YouTube video (my first example of Russian comedy) and the first ten minutes of the dubbed version of episode 1 of How I Met Your Mother. I didn’t get on with that at all because I couldn’t deal with being able to hear the English underneath. I’d love to find it with only the Russian as it’s one of my favourite series, and it would be a great excuse to watch it all again!

Grammar and speaking

Most of the grammar we’ve studied in my lessons has come from my questions, based on things I’ve written/read/heard. It’s often said that Russian grammar is really complicated, and there’s certainly a lot of it for a beginner to get their head around. It’s true that I have an advantage because of my other languages, but I think it could be good for a learner to at least see lots of different grammar, but without worrying too much about trying to use it. For me, knowing that the grammar exists means that I’m primed to notice it, and am even starting to use some of it in the right place at the right time.

The best example of noticing was when I asked my teacher how to express comparatives (e.g. bigger/smaller/faster than), then came home, looked out my window at a banner I’ve been ‘reading’ all year, and noticed that it’s a comparative structure!

Better prices than those of others

‘Better prices than those of others’

This week I’ve also finished the memrise Learn Basic Russian course, which I started studying again about two weeks ago after a six-month break. It was interesting to go back to as I can see some of the grammar patterns I’ve studied in the sentences that are included in the higher levels.

The fact that I don’t really care if what I say is grammatically correct or not, as long as I’m communicating, does cause the occasional problem. However, I can mostly get my message across through set phrases, vocabulary, and the basic grammar I do know, along with mime, gestures, and the patience and goodwill of the person I’m speaking to. I’ve managed to buy a bikini by myself, as well as a pair of trainers which are suitable for the warm weather (no easy feat as I have inserts in my shoes which make buying shoes very challenging!) Both processes took 20-30 minutes, and I was really tired afterwards, but I persevered and got what I wanted.

(I think) I feel like lower-level learners should be made aware of how bits of grammar work, but then should be encouraged to read and listen to see how it’s used in context. They should also rote learn set phrases which they can ‘edit’ by slotting in other key vocabulary items as needed. I’ve done very few grammar exercises as part of my Russian studies, and these were mostly connected to cases. They helped me to memorise the form a little, but I really needed to be exposed to them a LOT to actually be able to use them.

Vocabulary, set phrases and pronunciation

In my last post I said:

In some classes, I give my teacher English sentence after sentence I’ve tried to say in Russian during that week, but didn’t know, ask her to translate them, then fail to learn them. This week we have a week off school and I’ve finally had time to dedicate to Russian. I’ve copied out the sentences onto cards (made from A4 pieces of paper cut into 16 rectangles, yellow because it’s a happy colour!), with pictures on the other side as prompts. There’s a huge backlog, and I have no idea how long it’ll take to actually learn them.

Every time I get a seat on the bus, I go through a few of the cards. I have about ten with me at any one time, in a handy mobile phone case my friend gave me, which has a pocket on the front. The ones I don’t know are in the main pocket, and when I think I know them, I put them in the front.

Sandy's sentence card holder TM

Sandy’s sentence card holder TM

During my lesson, I check them with my teacher, who tells me whether my pronunciation is correct or not. My very first Russian lesson was a fairly comprehensive guide to Russian pronunciation, which was a lot of information to take in, but gave me an excellent grounding for everything since. We’ve returned to it many times since, and have added one or two of the more obscure pronunciation rules. Having sound-spelling relationships clear in my head has made a huge difference, but stress placement is still very difficult for me. Like English, Russian has fairly unpredictable stress patterns, and the stress should be marked on every new word.

In a week, I can generally learn about 10-15 of these sentences, and it’s getting easier to memorise them as I start to make connections between the sentences, as well as to the language I’ve been exposed to through reading and listening. It’s incredibly motivating to see the pile of sentences I know get bigger and bigger, and I’ve cleared most of the backlog. This is the situation as it stands now:

i know the ones on the left

Left = ‘known’, right = unknown

…although I should probably go through the ‘known’ cards and see whether I still remember them! By memorising sentences, I have phrases I can deploy in the situations I most commonly encounter, and I can ‘edit’ them as and when I need them. I haven’t always been able to drag them up at the appropriate time, but at least knowing that I’ve been able to memorise them once has made me more confident. As my stock of phrases builds, I’ll be more and more likely to retain them, or at least, I hope so!

This reflects something Ann Loseva wrote in her post about grammar on itdi:

  • These linguistic discoveries need to go through cycles of repetition, to be re-discovered many times before I might hope for them to sink in.
  • The more I learn, the more confirmed I become in that we desperately need vocabulary if we want to actually produce sentences. It’s the first thing to escape memory, too.

When it all went wrong

Considering the amount of times I’ve been in situations where I’ve had to speak or understand Russian, I’m lucky that I’ve only had two situations where communication has completely broken down and I haven’t been able to patch it up.

The first was at the hairdresser’s. She’d cut my hair twice previously, so i though it would be easy: I’d just go and she’d do it. At most, I’d have to say ‘Cut it like before’. Except I forgot to find out how to say that… When I sat down, she held up my hair and said something, but I only understood the word ‘short’. I took that word, added the context of the weather suddenly being a lot hotter, and thought she’d asked me ‘Do you want it shorter than before?’, so I said ‘No’. The conversation descended into complete incomprehension, as neither of us could work out what the other was saying. In the end, my Russian teacher translated for us over the phone. Later in the appointment, we continued talking, and she told me she was surprised by my response to her first question, as she couldn’t cut my hair longer! In fact, we’d she’d said was something along the lines of ‘Do you want it short here?’

The other example was on the bus. I had my headphones on, and called out the name of the next stop, where I wanted to get off. Three men were standing in the aisle, and one of them laughed and started talking to me. I took off my headphones, but couldn’t understand what he was saying, even though he rephrased it and said it many times. Just as we stepped off the bus, I realised that he’d been telling me he’d called out the name of the stop at the exact same time as me. In English, that would have prompted a quick laugh and the end of the dialogue. In Russian, we were talking for a couple of minutes and I got quite frustrated! Context, and continuing to try to make meaning from what I’d heard after the conversation was over meant I finally understood. During X-Men there was also a line which I didn’t understand when I first heard it, but there was no dialogue for a minute or so afterwards, giving me time to process it again and work out what the character said (the line about JFK) 🙂 This is why it’s important to give students processing time after they listen, and sometimes pauses while listening.

In summary

  • Make study a ten-minute habit, rather than an hour-long chore.
  • Find ways to visualise what you’ve learnt (on a calendar, a language flower, a pile of cards).
  • Give yourself processing time. You don’t have to understand things immediately, especially when you’re starting out.
  • Study and learn from your mistakes, but don’t let them stop you from trying again.
  • Do the things that interest you – ignore people if they say it’s ‘above your level’, and try new things regularly.
    (On that note, I’ve only done three, maybe four, of the ten minute activities I suggested at the end of my previous post.)
  • Build up a bank of successful experience, whether it’s reading, writing, listening, speaking, or remembering words and grammar. Focus on all of the things you’ve been able to do (not what you haven’t), and notice how much more you can do the next time round.
  • Buy pretty notebooks and comfortable pens 😉

In a happy coincidence, that list is pretty similar to an infographic showing the ‘perfect language learner’ which I saw for the first time yesterday, courtesy of St. George International school in London:

The perfect language learner (infographic)

A final word

I’ve come a long way with my Russian over the last few weeks. I feel so much more confident, and I’ve (mostly) lost the helpless feeling I have when I’m out on my own. I still can’t communicate in many situations, but I can at least try. Writing my first post was the catalyst I need to build Russian into my life properly (one of the reasons I love blogging). I’ve found a whole range of things I like using my Russian for and I feel like it’ll be much easier to continue now. Thanks to everyone who offered me ideas the first time round, and I hope that you find something you can take away from this post.

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Comments on: "How I’m learning Russian (part two)" (15)

  1. Thank you so much for this inspirational post. I am learning Russian myself and am struggling with the same points you mentioned. Will try to integrate some of your suggestions into my routine 🙂

    Like

    • Hi Reroe,
      Thanks for the comment. I think the most important thing to do is make time for a few minutes every day as part of a routine, rather than trying to block of large amounts of time, which can be difficult to find.
      Good luck!
      Sandy

      Like

  2. Again a wonderful post Sandy. Keep at your Russian language learning and some wonderful ideas to incorporate with my very own Korean language learning.

    I have started to read Korean news websites as well as watch a few films, etc. Have you considered looking at Russian websites?

    Like

    • Hi Martin,
      I look at Russian websites sometimes, but not very often because I haven’t found any which I particularly like yet. Maybe someone will recommend some to me later. I hope the ideas are useful for you!
      Sandy

      Like

  3. Сэнди, у вас очень красивый почерк! 🙂 Правда, мне бы очень хотелось, чтобы я сам писал так аккуратно и понятно 🙂 Удачи в изучении русского языка – не сомневаюсь, что вы достигнете огромных успехов!

    Like

  4. […] here’s part two of the post, showing what I did over the following few […]

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  5. […] I would muse on this following my discussions with my daughter on the subject, and been inspired by her own posts on learning Russian and see if I can create a stronger focus for myself as a […]

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  6. Sandy, as a native Russian speaker I`m very impressed with anyone who even attempts to learn this crazy language! I`m even further impressed with your methodical approach and your ability to apply everything you know about learning/teaching English to studying a new language. I`ve been trying this with Turkish, but to a smaller extent. Our Turkish teacher is a native Turk, but he’s in fact an English teacher and what he knows about teaching English doesn’t always transfer to our classes, like when he forgets to grade his language and I sit there blinking like a rabbit in headlight silently trying to communicate, “COMPREHENSIBLE input, please!”. But when it comes to Turkish, it helps that I can do daily practice in shops, taxis etc. as people here in Kayseri are very accommodating and patient with foreigners, which was not the case in Russia and my husband would get very demotivated (he is from the US and he’s Russian is at approximately intermediate level). How does that compare to your experience – do you speak Russian in your daily life? I especially like your color-coded error-corrected text! Good luck with your further studies and if you ever wanted to practice Russian by email or skype or something, I’ll be happy to help.

    Like

    • Thanks a lot for the comment and the offer! I speak a bit of Russian every day, especially when I order food. People tend to be quite supportive now that I can understand a fair amount, although that wasn’t always true at the beginning when I couldn’t do anything. Good luck with your Turkish!
      Sandy

      Like

  7. Curt Ford said:

    Sandy, congratulations on the progress you’ve made – I wish my students were always as conscientious with their writing! A while back our university funded a series of video tutorials for first-year Russian students – some of them may be more basic than you need, but others may be helpful. In any case comments or suggestions are welcome. You can find them at the russiangrammar channel on youtube (https://www.youtube.com/user/russiangrammar). Удачи!

    Like

  8. What a fantastic blog! Really impressive. You’ve given me an extra burst of motivation to keep pushing my own Russian studies. Thank you.

    Like

  9. […] You can see examples of how I used this kind of error categorisation in my own Russian learning in the ‘Writing’ section of the post How I’m learning Russian (part 2). […]

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