The ABC of ELT

Why and How I learn Russian


Brad Patterson recently set a blog challenge to write how and why you learn a language. So here is my response looking at how I learn Russian. I choose Russian as it is the language that I am spending most time focusing on and can speak the most about.

First encounters
My interest in Russian culture started back at school hearing history lessons about the Russian revolution and Cold War. I really wanted to know more about these people and their different way of life.

Politics and Cyrillic script 
Later at university (whilst studying politics) I took a module in the “Democratisation of Russian politics” and started to learn Cyrillic as a means to decipher the many variations on the English spellings. When a couple of my housemates started to learn Russian as well (this time for no obvious reason) I tried to take in some phrases.

Audio CD’s and Self study
After university I dropped my interest in Russian but a year later I came across a teach yourself cd on special offer and picked up studying Russian again. This time via the “Michel Thomas” method. This consisted on being told a word or grammar structure then being asked how to say a combination of these new words. Basically translations from L1 to L2 with some eliciting, revision of vocab and raising awareness of similarities between the languages.

CELTA and Beyond
Soon after I choose to try TEFL and started to consider where to go to. Considering I was already learning Russian, the choose to look at Russian speaking countries was an obvious choice. After initially looking at Russian I found some articles on Ukraine and due to a whole host of reasons I decided that I would set out for there!

Fully Immersed
Language immersion changed my experienced a lot but it could have been less. Being surrounded by Ukrainian teachers at the school allowed me to practice speaking to them about a range of topics including: day to day life, lesson plans or catching up on their weekends. I Guess it was great to have that comfort of explanations in English and really helped getting to grips with the concept of perfective and imperfection verbs, or verbs of motion with singular or multiple directions.

Top 10,000 Words
On top of that I took to searching through a frequency dictionary and highlighting the words I knew (and how to use them correctly) I soon got up to most of the first 500 words as well as some odds and ends dotted about beyond that point.

Coffee and Women
At a coffee shop I frequented one of the assistance set a challenge that I should come in with a new word or phrase each time and she’d do the same in English. This worked well (impressing a girl can be a strong motive). My love of coffee also helped strongly as it meant I had to frequently think of a new phrase.

Summer studyin’ (having a blast)
When I returned to England in the summer I was aware that I’d have little time to practice speaking Russian and so purchased a course book to work through during the summer. 
Amazingly, having barely spoken Russian over the summer I came back to Ukraine more fluent and speaking with greater accuracy than I had before I left.
Possible due to time to process the language I had been consuming or perhaps due to understanding the grammar in a bit better detail I don’t really know why.

To infinity and beyond
Since then I have continued the same approaches but also made a purposeful decision to impose a rule of “let’s talk Russian” when I met new people or Ukrainian friends (before we switch to English as we almost inevitably do) so that I can get more practice in than I did last year. Some teachers certainly seam to have struggled with this but I think it is only because we allow ourselves to feel comfortable.

About Chris Wilson

I'm an English Language teacher based in Krakow, Poland. I enjoy writing, using technology and playing the Ukulele.

2 Replies

  1. Hi Chris,
    It’s great to hear about your experiences of learning Russian and how they have grown. Your comment about summer studying is interesting, and similar to something I have been thinking about recently. When I was learning Czech, I also found it much easier when I went back after the summer than while I was there. Is it because we are surprised that we can still remember so much, with a similar level to before the summer which we didn’t realise so high? Or is it because we have had time and breathing space so our minds have had a lot of time to organise themselves? That’s one thing I feel can be missing from intensive language courses: the space to absorb and assimilate language so that it really goes in. The opposite problem is true on once a week courses, not enough input, too much time!
    What do you think?

    1. I think there must be an element of letting the language settle down and take root in the mind. However, thinking about it a bit more, about a month after that I had 3 very disheartening and awareness raising moments that made me think my level had dropped again! Maybe it was just delayed fertilisation of the language or something similar! I honestly don’t know and It cane be quite dangerous to anecdotalise (new word of the day!) on every experience.
      As for intensive vs weekly. I have very little intensive experience but know that 1hr of Russian classes a week really isn’t enough. In fact just thee week I’ve been trying to encourage my students to do extra work outside of class using student blogs (see a theme emerging 😉 ) so I’ll let you know if I see a difference with that.

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