Russian is an exceptionally difficult language, and in most cases cannot be learned in 3 or 4 years like French or German. Despite several years of intensive study, I am only now beginning to reach a threshold where I understand mostly everything, and feel confident my message will be understood in return. Along the way I have done several study abroad programs, used lots of language learning programs and taking dozens of university level courses on the language- here I will share my experience about what proved the most helpful and least helpful in developing language skills.
Let’s start out by discussing apps and programs, of which there are now a myriad of options. The least helpful was Rosetta Stone, which uses preset templates that have no specific cultural context. Whereas many see culture as something you can begin to understand via language, in reality that road is not unidirectional. Culture plays a huge role in how language is used and understood. That being said, there is something to simply drilling cases and basic grammar points, as long as the user understands the limitations of such an approach. In this sense, I (like most language learners) use Duolingo rather frequently, but it is important to keep in mind that its comfortable format tends to invoke passivity when one has become accustomed to how the questions are phrased. As far as passive learning is concerned, I think Pimsleur audio tapes were the most helpful tool for me. Despite that it is rather old-school (simply repeating a phrase over and over), I still (6 years later) remember certain grammatical structures from a sentence I heard on there. The tried and true method is tried and true for a reason, and it is somewhat troubling that more “entertaining” mediums have all but replaced them.
But programs like these are only a small part of language learning, and it goes without saying that actually being in Russia is by far the best way to learn the language. Yet, simply being in the country will not accelerate your learning, the process doesn’t work by osmosis. It is crucial to find excuses to spend time with native speakers, as well as to put yourself in situations where your language skills are being tested on a regularly basis. This is particularly important for assimilating the type of active vocabulary that will serve as the basis for more advanced learning.
The biggest benefit of learning in country is that culture and grammar can come simultaneously, and with a regularity that only the most disciplined student would otherwise be able to achieve. Classes only serve as a basis for the language learning experience, and help to codify skills you learn from the real world. They also give you tools to apply to real world situations… but in any event, there is a dialectic between ones classes and everyday use that cannot be ignored.
All and all the language learning experience is what you make of it, it requires actively seeking out and applying language skills, as well as being acquainted with the culture and people that use the target language. Very many language learning applications have their place, but can’t be relied on as a primary tool. This is particularly the case with Russian, which involves understanding a not totally European mindset, which for the majority of students is something completely new. I could summarize by saying that both speaking and listening are crucial, in a concrete and metaphorical sense.
By: John Stachelski
Term: Summer 2018