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My Approach to Learning a Second Language

When I learned Russian I was lucky to live in Moscow and Kiev where I could practice with native speakers. However, I’ve since learned that you don’t have to be in that environment to learn quickly. I’ve been learning German for about 14 months and although I’ve only spent six weeks in Germany, I can already speak it OK. This is my learning strategy and it can easily be applied to any language.

1. Learn the Pronouns 

The first thing I do is learn the pronouns, like I, she, he, they, their, his, hers, it, etc. This takes longer than you might think because you lack an ear for the language and words easily slip out of your memory. Once I’ve got a good grasp on these basics I start with lessons.

2. Skype Lessons 

I find my Skype tutors through a website called Preply. I love Skype lessons because they’re affordable (I pay $13 for an hour long German lesson and I used to pay only $7 for an hour long Russian lesson) and you’re the only student. That means you can dictate the tempo, ask for explanations, and generally learn quicker than you would in a group setting.

3. Take Notes and Translate 

During my Skype lesson I write down every word that I don’t know. After the lesson I’ll go to my dictionary, translate these words, then write them down in my notebook. I also write down examples of the words used in context. When picking a dictionary it’s important to use one that has pronunciations voiced by a human, not a robot. For German I use Linguee, although I don’t know if they have human pronunciations for every language.

4. Put Vocab Words into Anki

After I’ve written down all my vocab words into my notebook I’ll go through them one last time and put every word into an app called Anki. This is a flashcard program so you can go back later and review the words. However, I don’t usually do that. I find that the process of inputting the words is usually enough.

5. Do it Again

I go through a nearly identical process week in and week out. It’s not exactly exciting but I’ve found it to be very effective. Also, an important aspect of my study schedule is that I work with the language every day. Daily study is an effective way to learn and cuts down on the time to fluency.

Learning a Second Language is Awesome!

Learning Russian has been the most rewarding experience of my life. It’s about so much more than just the language though. I’ve learned that through hard work and consistent effort I can accomplish anything I set my mind too. That’s an incredibly powerful feeling, and it’s going to serve me for the rest of my life. Here are a few other things I’ve noticed about learning a second language, and some of the benefits that you may find on your own journey to fluency.

Learning a Second Language Teaches You..

How to Learn. Seriously though, people just aren’t that good at learning. Loads of people never work hard enough to get a decent result, or they expend all their energy in the wrong areas. They focus on the details instead of looking at the big picture. When you learn a language you figure out pretty quick that you can know words but not understand the meaning. To get past that you have to think creatively and study with a purpose. Once you figure out how to do this you can apply it to any new skill you want to learn.

That persistence is instrumental to success. The first couple of hundred hours of learning a language kind of suck. You can’t understand movies, music, jokes or regular conversation. This is a bitch, but the unshakable truth is that if you don’t stick it out you WILL NEVER learn to speak another language. I wonder, when people give up in the beginning, do they fully realize that they’re giving up any possibility of ever becoming fluent? Do they realize what’s at stake? In order to succeed anywhere in life you need persistence.

About a different culture. I’ve written about this before and I’ll write about it again. When you learn a second language you get to learn about a new lifestyle. Customs, beliefs, holidays, names, food, history, and so on. You can read about this in a book or watch a movie, but when you experience it through the language, it’s different story.

A picture of an old white lada on the side of the road in Kiev, UkraineAbout your own language. Without a second language to compare English against you literally cannot draw a comparison. It’s like if the only cars on the road were Ladas, you’d swear it was the best car ever made. In reality, a better illustration of a Lada’s value is this joke.

How do you double the value of a Lada?

Fill it up with gas. 

I’m not saying that any language is better than another one. Although Pirahã (the hardest language in the world) does seem to be rather unnecessary. What I’m saying is that without a comparison, you’ll never be able to fully understand the upsides and downsides of English (or whatever your native language is). 

That learning is forever. I’ve learned more in the last 14 months then I learned in the last eight years of school. Even though I’ve probably spent 1,000 hours studying Russian by this point, I’ve only just scratched the surface. I realize that I can study this language for the rest of my life and I’ll die with a book of material still waiting to be learned.

I think that most people who read my blog understand that you don’t stop learning after school gets out. If you already get this, a second language can really help you to cement this idea in your head. It’s why I’m shifting gears. Realizing now that I could easily study Russian forever, I’ve decided to invest my energy elsewhere and learn German. I think it will have more practical applications for me, and I’ll be able to talk to my Grandma in her native tongue. I’m looking forward to that day so much! But until then, I’ll remain a bilingual American. Which in it’s own right is fairly impressive. There aren’t a lot of us out there. So I’ll end this post with a video I shot the other day of me speaking in Russian. Check out my book to see how you can learn to do the same.

The second you stop learning is the second you die. Are there any other benefits of learning a second language that I missed, anything you want to add?

What it’s Like to Embrace a Second Culture

I haven’t stepped foot in an English speaking country (except for Germany) in the last 397 days. Of that, 370 of those days have been in either Russia or Ukraine. This has given me a chance to fully embrace a second culture. I’ve subtly become accustomed to the post-Soviet lifestyle. Ostentatious displays of wealth, appearing against a backdrop of harsh poverty.

You could say that the experience has lifted the hood from my eyes. If you’ve spent your whole life in one country, then you don’t realize how much that effects your thinking, attitudes and beliefs. I don’t necessarily believe this is bad, but I do think it’s something people should be aware of. If you’ve never fully immersed yourself in a foreign culture, I think you might be interested to hear what the process is like. Here’s what I’ve found out.

Becoming Acquainted

At first it’s wicked difficult to adapt to a new culture and society. Everything feels different and annoying. You may feel out of place, and you might even get scolded by citizens. It can feel like your personality is being suppressed. This can be especially difficult if you don’t have other people from your native country to speak with.

The funny thing is that after a while, say ten or twelve months, the thought of going back to your own country seems hard! By this time you’ve become used to the customs in the new culture. You’ve adapted to their way of life and you feel comfortable. If you went home you could discover yourself having minor difficulties relating to everyone around you. This was driven home to me last weekend.

I was hanging out at a bar in Kiev with another American. He’s been in Ukraine for a month or two, but he’s light years from understanding the culture. I watched him, and I could pick out most of his behaviors that labeled him as a foreigner. His style of talking, style of relating to people, even the way he stood. It was only then that I really realized how much I’ve internalized this new culture.

When I came to Russia I felt like a fish out of water. Thirteen months later and I can label the out-of-place behaviors of an off-the-plane American.

Learning the Language

Without a question, learning the language is going to help you to understand and embrace a second culture. In fact, I don’t think you can gain a full understanding of any country’s deeper culture without being able to speak the language. Why’s that? It might not be what you think.

Being able to speak the language allows you to communicate with the older generation. These are the grandfathers and grandmothers with stories to tell. They’ve experienced an entirely different life than most people our age, and what they have to say reflects that. Unfortunately, if you don’t speak their language, you’ll almost never be able to hear from these preservers of oral history.

Of course the language is helpful in all situations. Not everyone speaks English. If you’re at the bar with a group of friends, and one or two people don’t speak English, then the conversation tends to default to the native language.

Things you May Miss

As much as I enjoy being in Ukraine, I’m really starting to miss home. Rationally I think America is pretty fucked (obesity, mass shootings, fucked healthcare, ineffective political system). However, I still miss feeling like I’m home. I miss driving a car, going to the pharmacy and knowing what to buy, and the feeling of understanding what’s happening around me.

When I think about this, it helps me to put into perspective the ethnic communities that you find in large cities. People (me included) like feeling like they’re at home. These communities are safe havens where people can speak their own language, order their favorite dishes, and discuss the weird fucking culture of the country their living in.

What about you, have you ever spent time in another country? Have you thought about what it would be like to go home?

How to Learn Russian

Hello Russian enthusiasts!

Today I finished writing my second guide. As you’re probably aware, my first guide is called Try the Borsch and it’s all about how to find a good teaching job in Russia. That guide was downloaded over 100 times. I think that’s pretty cool! This time the subject is still Russia, but I’ve come at the problem of the language. Russian is bloody difficult and it doesn’t help that in university classes (at least in the United States) all you do is study grammar.

Yuck!

My guide is a cure to that. Sure I cover grammar, but I also give you lots of other fun and interesting ways to learn Russian. It’s a nice summary of all the techniques I’ve used to acquire my own level of fluency (which is close to intermediate at this point).

I encourage you to give this book a once over. Even if you’re already well on your way to fluency in Russian, I’m sure you’ll find something interesting.

Check it out here