How long does it take to learn a language? How fast can you learn Russian? How much language can you learn in two weeks?
If you've been following my posts and YouTube videos of late, you will have seen that due to recent cervical spinal surgery, my left vocal nerve has been damaged and I've pretty much lost my voice for the past month. What's becoming one of my biggest linguistic challenges yet, I'm currently on a quest to bring it back into action as fast as possible, as I don't want the 'worst case' scenario that the doctor suggests of up to a year without a voice to come true.
One other challenge that I have taken up over the past couple of weeks is to finally learn Russian. I know - it's been a long time coming. Ever since I shot that video where 6-year-old polyglot Alice who speaks fluent Russian, Thai and English was coaching me on counting in Russian, I never got around to really studying the language. Why did I finally decide to take it up? We were sitting with a friend over some drinks just after my surgery and he asked 'How good is your Russian?' - that ignited something inside of me which right now I can say is a raging 'learning' inferno.
I'm going to share with you now exactly what the 2 weeks subsequent to that fire inside of me being lit has led to. It feels fantastic to be back into the 'Stu Language learning' mode - I feel like I'm on fire, and nothing can hold me back from becoming fluent in Russian - or other Slavic languages aside from my own procrastination.
This Can Be Applied to Learning ANY Language
Just because I've been using these techniques for Russian, what I will discuss is what I would do to learn any language. There are some quirks to the Russian language that may not be present in other languages - however if you are learning a language, as you read through what I discuss, think to yourself 'How might I apply that to my own learning of X language?'
I have broken down the different things that I've been doing to learn Russian into several particular subheadings. These are just general headings for the sake of being able to categorise my activities, but really, they are all related and despite separating them here in this post, my movement between the different activities and different types of activities is quite fluid.
For those people who want the Cliff Notes of what I've done over the past 2 weeks - and what I'll be talking about in this post, here you go:
(Note - I have been doing all of these things 'part-time' in that I have still been working full time as usual. These things have just become part of every breathing moment I have outside of business - before bed, in bed, in the bathroom, over meal breaks etc. I have not taken time away from my business to do these things.)
- Learning the Russian Script (Cyrillic Alphabet)
- Mastered the basic shapes and sounds of the alphabet in print form - upper and lower case;
- Learnt the handwriting / cursive forms of the letters and built them into muscle memory;
- Learnt to recognise different font styles;
- Trained my muscle memory to learn to touch type in the standard Russian Cyrillic keyboard;
- Set up Russian input on my phone;
- Sounds / Phonology
- Phonetic Rules and Stress;
- Sounds in Real speech vs. when said separately or slowly;
- Regional variations;
- Identifying patterns in the language and linking them to things that I already know (often in other languages)
- Cases, conjugations, sound rules, spelling rules, sound shifts, gender, vocabulary and other grammatical quirks;
- Contrasting patterns in Russian against things that are done differently in other languages that I know - the difference acts as a memory peg;
- Seeking out vocabulary sources;
- Building own vocab building tools;
- Memorising vocab strategies;
- Reinforcing vocab so I don't forget it;
- Online resources;
- YouTube instructors;
- Build listening tools and work flows for learning;
- Online groups;
- Approaching foreign texts as a beginner;
- Bilingual sites;
- Using the Language
So now I'll go into a little more detail about each of these points - remember, this doesn't just apply to learning Russian. You can apply it to learning any language. Where I speak about other Slavic languages here, when you're learning Thai, you can think of similar relationships to languages that are related in one way or another - Khmer, Lao - even Chinese languages and Vietnamese. There are patterns that can map across in a similar way.
1. Learning the Script
When learning any language, learning to write that language as the native speakers of that language write it is always a priority for me. There are many different points of view when it comes to this, and you'll see many heated arguments around the Internet when it comes to the question 'Should I learn to write the script first?' in regard to learning a new language. For me, the reasons that I want to learn the script are:
- I want to realise the language as a native speaker of that language realises it;
- I want to be able to access as many resources as I can in that language - not just learner level resources;
- I've found that a lot of the culture and linguistic idiosyncrasies as well as sayings and even humour depend on having an understanding of the written language. Why cut oneself off from such an important part of the language and culture?
- Learning the script lets me access online groups, forums, content and friends in that language;
- By learning to write and type in the language, I'm developing muscle memory in that language and as a result, that language is actually physically becoming a part of me;
I understand that there is a bit of a learning curve difference when you're looking at learning a different script like Chinese, vs. a script like Thai, vs. a script like the Cyrillic Alphabet which is used for Russian. In this case, the Cyrillic alphabet is for western language speakers a much easier learn than say learning an Abugida system like Thai, or a character system like Chinese. Even so, the principles / reasons that I outlined above remain the same.
So how did I go about learning the script and how long did it take?
The Power of Google
First thing's first - Google is your friend.
I just started Googling 'Cyrillic Alphabet' and saved images of it to my phone as well as cut and paste the letters and tables of the alphabet into Google Keep which I use as my 'go to' scratch pad.
The helping hand of Google doesn't stop there - actually Google plays a huge role in many of the methods that I use.
I then looked for sites with tables of the alphabet like the Wikipedia Page for the Russian Alphabet
From there, I created a Google sheet that would become my 'scratchpad' for all my Russian learning resources that I collect that can be collated in tabular form.
Open up a Google sheet, and click on the A1 cell of an empty sheet and type this:
What that does is import the 3rd table found on the URL's page, as text into your spreadsheet.
Then, to ensure that it stays there, I just select all and repaste it in place as text (deleting the formula out), so that I can then manipulate the text.
I created a table that had all of the alphabet and forms of each letter, the corresponding sounds and words that I then used for reference.
One thing about the Russian script is that even though you have learnt to decipher the new letter shapes of the Cyrillic alphabet, the reality is that whenever a native speaker of Russian actually writes in Russian, Russian handwriting uses a cursive form of the writing where the shapes of many of the letters look quite different from the shapes of the printed letters that you'd see in a book or printing out as you type on a computer.
For that reason, I used Google Fonts to find cursive fonts in the Cyrillic alphabet and then loaded them into my Google Docs Document that I had prepared to teach myself how to touch type.
Once I downloaded and installed the cursive fonts in my laptop, I then added the Russian Cyrillic Alphabet keyboard to my computer and turned the keyboard map on and started to try and type the alphabet without looking at the keys - only looking at the KEY MAP that you can bring up on screen. If you can't find a way to bring a key map of what you're typing up on screen as you type, you can just go to Google Images and search for 'Cyrillic Keyboard' image, print it out or keep it somewhere visible as you type and by trial and error, start mapping your fingers to the keys as you type the alphabet
By typing in the cursive font, you kill two birds with one stone as you're learning to type in Russian as well as recognise the cursive letters as opposed to the printed letters.
Note that in Google Docs, you can go to 'fonts', then choose 'More Fonts' and you can type the name of the font that you found in Google Fonts and choose that for your font formatting in the doc. If you'd like everything you type to be in that font, just click on the 'Normal' style and click on the small 'Right Arrow' next to it and choose 'Update Normal Text to Match' - then the base font for the document will be in the new font.
Developing Native Handwriting
Especially when writing in Russian, given that native speakers never write in the printed style, but rather the cursive style, if you're going to be taking any notes while learning Russian, you'll want to be writing in the cursive style.
In the past, I wasted reams and reams of paper just getting a new script into my muscle memory. I found an environmentally friendly solution - I was able to pick up a little 'Digital Paper' sketch board that cost me around USD$6 from a book store here and lets me practice squiggling and doodling until my heart's content without wasting any ink or paper. Each time I fill a screen up I hit the button and 'bam' - it's gone and I have a new page to start over on. I took this everywhere with me in the first few days of learning the Cyrillic Alphabet and would practice writing every single word I read in Russian in cursive writing on that LCD board. It takes zero battery charge to keep the screen alive, so what you write will stay on the screen indefinitely until you click the 'delete' button.
One other resource that I found was a fantastic introductory guide to the Cyrillic alphabet was the FSI (US Foreign Service Institute) Russian Fast Course that they use for diplomatic families to get a crash course in the language and culture before being posted to Russia. Other than the learning the alphabet, this crash course also has a pretty good introduction to all the key grammatical points - verbs, cases, gender, sentence structure etc.
I found that the way that they presented the letter shapes and the groups and sample words were very helpful.
Russian Keyboard Input on Mobile Phone
It goes without saying - if you're going to be taking learning seriously, you're going to be Googling everything you see and hear - or are curious about and a lot of that takes Russian input. I use an Android phone, so I use a combination of Russian handwriting input and a standard Russian Cyrillic Keyboard on Android. I use both of them all throughout the day, entering things in on Google Translate and just searching in general. The great thing about the handwriting recognition is that it recognises the cursive form of the writing, so you can reinforce the cursive form of the writing into your muscle memory while you search for stuff on your phone - which also embeds the spelling of words into your muscle memory. It's a win-win-win!
2. Getting the Sounds
A language isn't just text. It's all about sounds. Being able to read and write can only take you so far. Especially with Russian, the sounds are actually quite challenging especially for native English speakers, and there are some quirks when it comes to the phonology vs. the spelling that can cause some real 'gotchas'.
Luckily, years ago Glossika's Mike Campbell gave me a copy of a little book that he wrote Glossika Beginner's Guide to Russian Grammar and Word Order.
This book is absolutely brilliant. While I admit that it's quite heavy reading if you don't have a huge passion for languages, what Mike Campbell has distilled about the Russian sound system, orthography, phonology and grammar in this little gem is phenomenal.
He explains little quirks of the language like spelling idiosyncrasies, why sometimes 'o' is pronounced 'a' and vice-versa and how to make sure you pronounce them correctly in the correct positions, as well as having a more natural rhythm to your speech in Russian.
After going through this book of Mike's I was able to tune my ears into little things that native Russian speakers I heard on YouTube were doing, and then I would practice mimicking them, applying the things that I'd learnt from Mike's book.
While Mike's book is specifically for Russian, I highly recommend seeking out these kinds of sources for the language that you're learning from motivated people who have gone through the experience of learning that language that you're learning. They will have done a great deal of the heavy lifting for you and you can learn from their sweat and tears.
Text To Speech
Over the past couple of weeks, text to speech has played a huge role in my learning.
Here are 3 ways:
Google Translate's 'Audio' function lets you hear the text that you find from translations. Moreover, you can cut and paste paragraphs or larger blocks of text from other places into Google Translate and you can hear the spoken version of it. While not perfect, it's enough to get you in the right ball park - especially when it comes to the stress of syllables. One quirky thing about Russian stress is that usually only one syllable in a word is stressed and pronounced 'clearly' and the rest is kind of 'muddy'. Mike actually goes into detail about how that 'mud' is actually produced so you too can have well articulated, native-like 'mud'.
Google Translate's Audio can be used in conjunction with Google Lens / Google OCR. If you have the Google Photos app on your phone, you can take a snapshot of a sign or even a page from a book and you have the option to capture the text. That text then can be saved to the clipboard or to Google Keep and copied into Google Translate - then BAM - you have instant bilingual texts along with audio. The cool thing about Google Audio is that it will read the first time through at normal pace, and the second time through (if you click the 'listen' button again), at about 75% speed.
Mac OSX 'Say' program - I wrote an article a while back on a technique that I use to make my own spaced repetition and audio flash cards. You can read it here. It involves getting csv lists of words and using a Mac computer's built in Text to Speech (TTS) to read the words out between English and the target language. I still use this technique to this day. You can use my code from the link.
3. Identifying and Linking Patterns
This is one of my favourite parts of learning a new language - noticing patterns in the language and linking them to things that I know either through the fact that they resemble or are related to the thins that I already know from other languages, or because they are in direct contrast to something that I already know.
An example of this would be the cases in Russian. Unlike English, Russian still has a very active and extensive use of cases which basically mean that nouns will have different functions in a sentence. Depending on the function of that word, it will appear differently.
In English we still see remnants of a robust case system:
I gave her the book
She gave me the book
'Me' and 'I' are both referring to 'me', but they have different functions in the sentence and so they change.
In Russian, the forms of every noun will change depending on gender, number and function (case), so you need to start to internalise patterns as you can't string a sentence together without the use of cases. Many will say just start using the language and the cases will come naturally. While this is true to a point, I still like to know the mechanics of what I'm doing and compare it to what I hear and do. For this, I spent a lot of time having fun with cases and matching them up with what I know from my knowledge of Sanskrit cases. It was fascinating joining the dots and really helped internalise the way Russian deals with cases.
Another 'pattern' that has really helped me is the correlation between the Russian sound system / spelling system and the Indic sound system and Abugida - which the Thai script is based on. The Brahmic abugida is a map of the human mouth. It turns out that many of the spelling 'rules' that are normally memorised by rote by Russian learners actually make perfect sense when mapped to the Indic abugida - palatised sounds, gutteral sounds etc. have certain letters that can and cannot go with them. When I visualise these letters in Russian in their corresponding positions on the Indic map of mouth, I don't have to memorise any lists anymore. I just put my tongue in the position of the letter and I know what letters may and may not follow them.
The Beauty and Intrigue of the Irregular
As a side note, for me, I find that diving deep into 'irregular' things in a language - 'irregular spelling', or 'irregular verbs' or 'irregular pronunciation' where the standard way of spelling or pronouncing something, or choice of verb depending on tense strays from the 'rule', opens up a road to really deep knowledge of the language and the history of the people who speak it. Some may say that that's just information overload, but for me, I love it. All of these little trivia points build maps inside of me that I can then string / attach new pieces of the language and tie it into things that I already know in a way that makes sense rather than just learning random rules and exceptions.
There are many amazing cheat sheets that have been developed by learners and teachers of language - and thankfully, there are some very smart cookies that have learnt Russian before and been able to condense an amazing amount of learning into some succinct cheat sheets.
I downloaded these sheets, printed them out in colour and took them with me wherever I went.
The cheat sheets covered cases, conjugation of verbs, gender and other key 'gotcha' points about the language.
I know, I know, most people will tell you not to sit and memorise declension tables for languages like Russian and Latin, but for me, it's my drug of choice. I get a buzz from analysing these things - and I try and put them into practice immediately.
One way I do put these things into practice is by then searching out these declension patterns in real text samples - whether from books, news articles or in posts from Russian friends in Facebook.
Mapping Russian against other Slavic Languages
If you have partaken in any of my language programmes over the past 20 years, or read my Cracking Thai Fundamentals book, you'd know that I love to draw links between the language that I'm learning and other dialects and languages that people in surrounding areas use. I learn languages to communicate (and be communicated to) by other people - so for me, I don't just set my sites on learning a single languages and all of its rules, rather I just learn 'language' and see how it morphs across time, geography and people.
In saying that, I've absolutely loved mapping what I've been learning in Russian with other Slavic languages - West Slavic, East Slavic, South Slavic.
What I've done is for many of my word lists in Google Sheets, is create the following columns:
Then, just as a rough reference, I use Google Translate's built in function in Google Sheets to translate the equivalents in those languages. While not perfect, I'm able to see how sounds shift, how certain words become popular in one strain and not in another as well as see the orthography in each of these different language's scripts. As a result, I've also gotten my hands on books in Polish, Czech and other languages in the list, and I've been listening to YouTube 'Slavic Comparison' videos. Yes - they exist. There are videos where language nerds who are native speakers of Slavic languages see how much of each other's languages are mutually intelligible, as well as a whole bunch of clips out there where weather reports from all the main Slavic languages are put in one video clip one after another so that you can compare them. I've found that weather reports are great as you use a lot of repetitive language - geography, numbers, temperatures and weather based words like 'rain', 'snow', 'wind' etc. Even after a couple of weeks of learning Russian, I'm finding that I can understand many other Slavic languages.
VIM, LaTeX and the Computer Terminal
I use the computer terminal a lot in almost everything I do. I'm currently writing this article in VIM as my wordprocessor of choice.
What I do is cut and paste swathes of text, tables, lists and anything else that I can get my hands on and use data manipulation tools that are available to me via the terminal through either VIM or through things like SED and AWK. See the article I linked to above about making text to speech learning tools. If you can learn to maniupulate data using these terminal tools, you can accomplish amazing things. Very often, I'll download data that I'd imported into a spreadsheet - wordlists for example, then export the sheet as a csv file and then make my own custom versions of that data using terminal tools like AWK and SED. Doing it this way, I'm not limited to using other people's resources - rather I build my own and get real life samples of what I'm learning. Once you become proficient at these tools, you can cover a lot of ground in a considerably short amount of time.
I found several cheat sheets written in LaTeX which is a certain standard for writing well formatted academic journals and books. I took the code and tweaked the sheets to add things that I wanted and made them my own (for learning purposes).
4. Building up Vocabulary
Vocabulary is often a facet of language learning that makes or breaks learners. Without enough vocab, you're limited to reading boring, child-like grey texts that teachers of that language have put together. As you build a bigger vocabulary up, you can start to access more and more real life, interesting resources.
I wrote an article a while back What Words should I Learn First in a Language?
Aside from these 'First Words in Any Language' that I speak about here, I have also build many different lists of vocabulary and sentences and structures that are sorted by word type - Nouns, verbs, adjectives etc., word function - cases of words - Nominative, Accusative, Dative, Instrumental, Genetive, Prepositional
5. Listening and 'Hearing' the Language
When it comes to learning to 'hear' the language, I find I need to know what's going on in the mouth, so all of what I have explained above forms the base of my listening. Otherwise, I find that filters from other languages that I speak kick in - especially from my mother tongue, and despite using my ears to receive the audio of a language, my brain may not be tuning into important things that are going on, and subsequently, my mouth won't be able to make a faithful facsimile of what I hear.
As I learn each new thing about articulation, sounds, the way sounds blend together in normal speech (Sandhi), the way sounds change depending on stress etc, I'll then try and actively find examples of it by listening to native speakers of the language online.
I've found some amazing resources online - and one of my favourite YouTube teachers at the moment is Fedor from Be Fluent in Russian. This young guy is super passionate about learning language - and teaching Russian and has really paid attention to how he as a native speaker uses his mother tongue, and found a way to articulate it very well to native speakers of English. I highly recommend his site and lessons for learning.
There are other resources out there - from Audio books, to language comparisons online between the Slavic languages, to reading of poetry and some clips out there just have hours and hours of repetitive sentences and new vocabularly. All of them have been useful at one stage or another over the past couple of weeks.
I'm also an avid Audio Book fan, and I have a bunch of titles that I plan to order this month on Audible.
Reading, reading, reading. I find myself reading Russian from the time I wake up to the time I go to sleep.
The main reading highlights that have really been helpful over the past couple of weeks are:
- Facebook Posts
- Whether it's posts from Russian friends, or posts on Russian language groups that I've subscribed to, the wonderful thing about Facebook now is that if someone posts in a foreign language, you have the option of seeing the original text and then the translation into English below it. I have been taking screenshots of these posts with the translations, then going back to them over lunch - sometimes doing OCR with Google Lens (as described above), and pasting them into Google Keep so that I can keep these language specimens as samples for later learning.
- Whether Russian language learning sites, news sites or blog posts, I will go and read the texts - often in parallel with Google Translate to help me analyse what's going on. At this early stage in my learning, it will often turn into a game to match all of the patterns, grammatical rules - cases, gender, verb conjugation etc, with what I'm reading. I note down new vocabulary manually in a real exercise book (very old school - but I still like to write), and I'll often practice re-writing what I read on my digital paper tablet just to get the spelling and flow of the language into my muscle memory.
3. Real Books
- My wife and I celebrated our wedding in France a couple of years back, and a dear Russian friend who used to live in Bangkok flew in from Russia and gifted me with a wonderful copy of a book entitled 'Napoleon' (Наполеон), printed in 1941. I take photos of each page with my phone, then use Google Lens to OCR it and then paste it into Google Translate - and then read the bilingual texts - trying to understand the full Russian first, then looking at the translation, then going back and reading the Russian again.
4. Text Books
- I have been devouring every Russian learning text book that I can get my hands on - beginner's books, intermediate books, books on essential grammar, phonetics and even linguistic books written in Russian.
- On top of that, I've been hunting down text books and academic papers on other Slavic languages so that when the time comes, the full jump to properly learn these cousin languages will be much easier.
5. Church Slavonic and Old Slavonic
- Because so much of the present day Russian language is based on these old languages, I have also learnt to read Old Slavonic and Church Slavonic scripts and have been having fun going through old texts and listening to some online and mapping it to what I've learnt in Russian so far. I've found that learning these older varieties actually shed's light on what would usually just be written off as 'Oh, it's just like that' irregularities.
7. Using the Language in Real Life
So - two weeks into learning Russian and as you can see, I've covered a reasonable bit of ground. I am feeling very energised in my learning at the moment and don't want to stop. Because I've been doing all of this along with my regular business / work schedule as well as raising our baby daughter, I haven't been to put in as much time as I'd like to. One thing that I'm really missing at the moment is actually putting the language into active, real-time practice with native speakers of Russian.
It's still early days, and I think that in the coming weeks I'll reach out to some Russian friends here in Thailand and see if I can start to catch up with them - preferably face-to-face and really put what I've learnt to the test.
I trust that this has given you a little bit of an insight into how I learn languages. Some people say 'Oh, you just have a talent for languages'. I don't agree - as you can see, I actually put in the hard yards when it comes to learning. I think that the only difference is that I really enjoy all of this work, and the more I do, the more I enjoy it.