By Tom Kozma, Managing Editor
Whether you’re trying to boost your resume, connect to your culture, or prepare for a trip abroad, learning a foreign language is rewarding. While studying Russian, I’ve learned some techniques that will help anyone progress in their target language. There’s no wrong reason to learn a language, even if it doesn’t seem practical. Learning any language can make you a better listener, critical-thinker and multitasker. It boosts your attention span and your self-esteem. It delays dementia and Alzheimer’s by an average of four and a half years, according to a study from York University in Toronto. It can also be a great conversation starter to casually mention that you’re fluent in Nahuatl.
Even though I’m not from Russia, I chose Russian out of interest in the country’s history, politics, culture, music and literature. Spanning eleven time zones across two continents, Russia has grappled for centuries with whether to westernize or chart its own path. So, it’s not just learning a language; it’s peering into a different perspective on the world. Russia’s long history of absolutism and serfdom in the 19th century, totalitarian Communism in the 20th and Putin’s reactionary imperialism in the 21st lead many Americans to write Russia off. That’s an unfortunate approach to the land of acclaimed writers like Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, Chekov, Nabokov, dissidents and human rights advocates like Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, Navalny, and those standing together against unfree elections in Moscow, scientists and cosmonauts, dancers and chess champions.
Taking classes once or twice a week is not enough to truly learn, no matter how passionate the student or knowledgeable the instructor. Nor can you Duolingo your way to fluency, as I tried to. Research from MIT suggests the best path is immersion or surrounding yourself with the language. Americans learning, say, Spanish have a lot of opportunities to immerse themselves in the language, but what about more obscure languages? It’s somewhat rare to come across one of the less than a million Russian speakers living in the United States. There’s neither a need to learn it nor much opportunity to use it. So, what do you do?
Some language learning apps, like Duolingo or Drops, make learning fun. Their free and bite-sized lessons can fit into people’s busy schedules. Unfortunately, they don’t explain the grammar so well. As an inflectional language, Russian noun endings change according to their gender, person, number and case. Verbs are conjugated according to number, person, tense and aspect. There’s really none of this in English, while Spanish has no case system. You almost need a flowchart to know which endings to use. A simple verb like “go” has at least 80 variations in Russian, although most verbs have closer to 20. While these inflections make the meaning of sentences clearer and allows for freer word order, they also require extensive practice that most apps don’t provide. Of course, different languages have more complicated grammar, some have far simpler grammar, so the amount of practice you’ll need can vary.
Starting with the basics is vital, and those apps can be useful. In Russian, the first hurdle is learning the Cyrillic alphabet; it looks much harder than it is, as the vast majority of letters correspond to English sounds and letters. Unlike English, Russian is largely phonetic, so most letters make one sound and each sound has one letter. And because of French and English loanwords, you probably already know some words like taksi, rezyume, menyu, and matematika. With practice, it becomes second-nature. The flip side is that the fake “Cyrillic” in media no longer makes sense. “ЯЦSSIДИ,” or “Russian,” sounds more like “Yatsssidi!”
Thanks to the internet, it’s easy to read books or articles, listen to music or podcasts, or anything you can think of in your target language. Be creative! If possible, change your phone’s language setting or go on social media in your target language. Russia, for example, has its own social media like вКонтакте (“in contact”), Одноклассники (“classmates”) and Пикабу (“pikabu”). It’s actually the second biggest language on the internet after English!
Despite the fear of mistakes, it’s important to connect with native speakers. As a socially awkward introvert, even talking to strangers in English gets stressful. In Russian, the stress is a thousand times worse. But like most fears, the only way to overcome it is to do it. When I first started conversing on an app called HelloTalk I was paralyzed by fear of sounding stupid. I’m still paralyzed, but have a better idea of conversational Russian. Being forced to use your own words is incredibly useful in turning your passive vocabulary active. In other words, you’ll be able to recall words and phrases almost instantly instead of having to refresh your mind by looking words up in a dictionary. Though when using a dictionary, I find that Wiktionary and ReversoContext are great because they give example sentences, audio and grammatical nuances.
Each approach has pros and cons, so it’s best to mix them up. I’ve often neglected speaking and listening in favor of reading and writing, so I can generally read a magazine article or write in a journal but barely hold a simple conversation. Depending on your reasons for learning the language, you may wish to emphasize certain methods of communication over others, but generally a balanced approach allows you to gain the full benefits.
Don’t give up if you’re not fluent in a few years! It’s rewarding to be able to pick up a book or talk to someone in your target language and realize you’re better than you were the day before.