6 Weeks in Russia with no Russian experience… Why Not?
When you’re a self-proclaimed language enthousiaste and aspiring polyglot, nothing is more exciting that starting a new language, but narrowing down your choices can be quite challenging. Should I take the easy route and pick Italian or Portuguese, or do I challenge myself and tackle Japanese or Korean? There’s a South African regional language that uses three different clicks when they speak- that sounds fun- should I try it? Then of course there’s that part of your mind that yells at you for being too ambitious and recommends that you review French grammar or read a book in Spanish instead. According to your AP Lang teacher, your English may need some work too. It’s always nice when the decision is made for you, and you are able to forge a decisive path onwards. When I received my acceptance letter from NSLI-Y, a government scholarship program to study critical languages abroad, my choice was clear (after I stopped screaming and hitch-kicking around my kitchen of course). My next language endeavor would be Russian.
I’ve dabbled in this language before. I tried to learn the alphabet last year, and my friend Vicky has taught me a few words over the course of a few car rides, but I’ve never fully committed to developing any sort of proficiency until now. I knew that Russian would be a challenge- it’s a category four language on the Foreign Service Institute system- but I felt prepared to immerse myself and felt completely up for the challenge.
In the past, I’ve only studied French and Spanish, two category one romance languages that share 30% or their vocabulary with English and are so closely related that I could already understand quite a bit of Spanish after only two years of France. Basically, I don’t know why it was a surprise that I was very unprepared for Russian.
Nevertheless, I have explored enough websites, books, and grammar guides throughout my time as a language learner to know what sort of resources I would need to start learning a language from scratch. With a language like Russian which uses the cyrillic alphabet, I knew step one would be to learn to read and write. I didn’t need to understand what I was reading, but I had to be able to pronounce any word I saw.
To do this, I downloaded the Foreign Service Institute’s FAST Russian Course, a program used to give Foreign Service Officer’s a basic grasp on the language before they go abroad. These resources are free and are available in nearly all of the world’s national languages. The opening chapter is all about phonetics, and after a few hours or dull, grueling, guided repetition, I could read any word I came across, if not slowly and with a touch of hesitation. I picked up on cognates and wrote down all of my new vocabulary and pronunciation tips in a notebook deemed “Pre-Russia Russian.”
Once I could read, I knew I needed to begin to acquire a vocabulary. Through a combination of Duolingo and FluentU, I had short lessons that presented me with vocabulary and phrases that slowly revealed secrets of grammar and word order. I also ordered some go-to books on Amazon to enrich my understanding of the language’s mechanics; a verb-conjugation guide, grammar book, short story collection, and a picture dictionary. This way, if I ever stumble across a concept I don’t understand, I’ll be able to find a clear explanation without mindlessly searching the internet for hours.
My next step will be what I call the “Labeling Phase”, during which every object of practical use in my house will receive a tag including the object’s name in nominative form, a photo, and a verb that would be commonly associated with that object. For example, the Russian word for bed is кровать, and with it I would couple the phrase Иди́ в крова́ть; “go to bed”. This way, every time I see that object, I associate it with the Russian word and am able to put it into an everyday context.
In a month or so, once I’ve leveled up a few more times on Duolingo and moved past the novice phase on FluentU, I’ll pick up that anthology of short stories for beginners and find a language partner with whom I can converse a few times a week. By the time I board the plane in June, three months from now, I hope to have a functional vocabulary of phrases, and fundamental understanding of basic grammar, and the ability of understand both written and spoken Russian at about an A1 level.
Starting a language from a blank slate is a daunting task, so I find that I need to set small, attainable goals so as to not feel entirely overwhelmed. Knowing that in a matter of months I will be in a foreign country where my only means of communication will be Russian serves as plenty of motivation, but it can be hard to carve out time in my schedule to practice. If it were up to me, I would quit chemistry right now and dedicate that hour to Russian, but unfortunately I can’t do that. To anyone hoping to start a new language journey, I say, don’t wait. Even if your schedule is crazy, know that there is no perfect time to begin learning. As long as you can learn a word or two a day, you’ll be making progress, and that’s all that matters!