The 7th time is the Charm: My love hate relationship with Russian!

Don’t worry, I know what you’re thinking! “Isn’t it supposed to be the third time’s the charm”? You’re 100% right, but we’re talking about Russian, so I had to make an exception. Russian and I go waaay back. Back to the 10th grade to be precise. Scientists are still trying to understand why I decided to learn Russian, but the jury is still out. Theories range from the natural to the supernatural. Some claim I was suffering from an unexplained, but spontaneous urge to experience senseless pain and mental suffering while some, on the other hand, claim that I was possessed by the ancient Slavic demon of confusing syntaxes who gave birth to the Slavic language family in the first place. As I said, the jury is still out and we may never know!

Ok, all bad jokes aside, all slavic languages are beautiful and I love all of them! I know it probably sounds like I’m lying at this point, but I promise that I’m not! I’m writing this blog post because I was really inspired by 3 experiences that I had during the past 3 weeks. I also recently read a book called “Show your work” by Austin Kleon and it reminded me of the importance of sharing your failures and success publicly so that your experiences resonate with people more. I decided to try it out! So without further ado and as you’ve probably guessed, I’m going to be writing about Russian today! Not just Russian, but my entire journey thus far with Russian and how I got to this point. I’m going to warn you, this blog post may end up being all over the place, but I figured it would be fine because my Russian learning journey was also all over the place… Trust me! I’m not kidding and you’ll see why if you keep reading! Anyway, let’s dive right in!

Attempt Number 1

So, I wasn’t lying! I honestly don’t remember why I decided to learn Russian back in the 10th grade. All I remember is that I was working on something in the homework room and randomly decided to learn Russian. There was a half Russian Rammstein song that I used to listen to and I feel like it definitely may have influenced my decision. I also remember thinking that it would be cool to be able to say that I could read a different alphabet and that’s what I ended up starting with. I remember finding a short YouTube video that explained what sound each letter made and I’d watch it every day until I had memorized the entire alphabet. It ultimately took just over a week and I dove into the actual language afterwards. I remember using (Which was very helpful) and another website that was almost 100% grammar. I was still learning the language learning ropes at the time, so I didn’t know that prioritizing grammar early on would be a bad idea and that it would actually slow down my progress. Despite all of this, I was somehow still able to make progress and felt like I was slowly getting somewhere. I kept going, but eventually ended up dropping it and focusing 100% on German like I’d originally been doing before. German was a lot easier anyway and required significantly less work.

That was the first defeat attempt. 

I probably looked at giving up as defeat back then, but I now know that it all adds up to the bigger picture in the end. My Russian wouldn’t be where it is now if I hadn’t walked through that first swamp. I’m now somewhere between attempt 6 and 8… but I’m settling on seven for the sake of this article because “The 6th, 7th or maybe 8th… or even 9th time is the charm” didn’t sound like a very good title, so I just made an educated guess and settled on 7.

Attempt number 2 and on…

The next time that I remember picking Russian back up was around 2013. I had more language learning knowledge and slightly better resources. I remember using again and also Teach Yourself’s Russian course. 

I knew not to focus solely on grammar this time around and tried to get as much input as possible. I reviewed the lessons in the Teach Yourself book RELIGIOUSLY. I put in a lot of time every day. Focusing on input more than grammar actually got me somewhere and I remember that this all crescendoed into me having a very basic conversation with a girl from Moscow at a language exchange in Toronto. The conversation was very limited, but I was still able to somehow hold my own. I eventually ended up dropping the language in favour of something else. The slow progress always ended up discouraging me to the point that I’d end up dropping it. I actually WAS making progress, but it was just a lot slower than the progress I would have been making if I had spent the same amount of time studying a Romance language. 

This is the Assimil Russian book that I used .

If we jump forward into the year 2017, we’ll find a slightly older version of myself who was probably on attempt number 4 or 5. This time I was even more prepared than the previous times. Not only did I have a shiny new Russian Assimil book to take for a spin, but I also had even more language learning experience that had been acquired through 4 additional years of trial and error. I also decided to try using LingQ this time around. I was READY. This was it! I was FINALLY going to pull it off. I dove into the Assimil book and it was actually really good. I felt like I was progressing really fast. I went on and found a really patient Russian girl to practice with. My Russian speaking and comprehension skills were terrible, but she’d still only speak to me in Russian and would repeat, reword and explain anything I didn’t understand until I either got it… or lied and said I did to maintain the flow of conversation. 

Can you relate to faking comprehension in a foreign language? If you can, comment down below!  

We talked for over a month and she was so unbelievably patient… like I honestly don’t understand how she was able to keep smiling as I brutally murdered her language EVERY single time we talked. She really helped me a lot. She specifically helped me to see that reaching my goal was possible which is extremely important when learning a new language!

Despite all this, my motivation slowly began to fade and as per usual, I was making progress, but it was slow progress. It just didn’t go as fast as Portuguese or Catalan and I ended up dropping it once again. This is more or less how each attempt went up until my most recent attempt. I’d always start out feeling extremely motivated to go hard only to burn out and give up. This was always the case and I was starting to believe that I’d never be able to get it.

It was impossible…

If you sign up for Lingq using my referral code, you’ll get 100 free Lingqs to help you on your journey

Attempt Number 7…or 6.. or 9?

January 2020 rolled around and I decided to try again. I don’t usually believe in new years resolutions, but decided that it would be cool to make this the year that I finally learned Russian. I had more modest and realistic goals this time around. My main goal was to be able to understand Russian, but if being able to speak Russian ended up being a side effect, I was also going to be more than content with that! 

I had learned from my past mistakes and decided to be extremely careful this time around. I decided to only stick to two resources to make sure that I didn’t end up burning out and giving up like the previous times. The two resources were Living Language: Russian and Assimil: Russian.

This is the living Language: Russian book that I used

This was pre quarantine, so I was still working. My job started early… like really early. The start time would vary from 6:30AM to 8AM when I first started, so I’d get up two hours before each shift, read what ever book I was reading at the time and then hop on the bus to work. I took the bus on purpose because the ride in was about an hour and twenty minutes which meant that I had an hour and twenty minutes to study Russian every morning. 

A few crucial things were different this time around

1: I was more determined and had a looooot more language learning experience than I did when I was 15

2: I also now had 10 years of off and on exposure to Russian at my disposal.

( You’d honestly be ASTONISHED at how much one remembers without even being conscious of it!)

3: I coincidentally ended up working with and extremely patient Ukrainian girl who surprisingly let me speak to her in Russian… and surprise! Her ears didn’t bleed. Trust me, even I’m surprised at the last part!

4: I knew WHY I wanted to learn Russian. ( I knew why the past few times, but the WHY was more logical and realistic this time around)

The odds were in my favour this time around and it seemed like the game was rigged for me to win.

Check out this post if you struggle with finding time to learn your target language!

Everybody has time to learn a language!

Time for a language related post! It’s been a while since I posted anything that related solely to language learning, so I’ll try to do that today! Today I’m going to talk about time and how everybody actually has enough time to learn a foreign language. I made a video on this two years ago…

Let the games begin! 

I started learning more and practiced with my coworker as much as possible. I also searched for language exchange partners on once February had arrived. The website was helpful, don’t get me wrong, but it could also be very hit or miss and a lot of the leads didn’t end up going anywhere. Despite all this, I managed to meet and maintain contact with a few really cool Russian speakers. They’ve all been really nice and extremely patient so far! 

I didn’t feel confident enough to actually schedule calls at the beginning, so I stuck to regular messages and then slowly transitioned into voice messages and eventually *** Gulps*** summoned the courage to have my first voice call with one of them. I was extremely nervous, but was able to hold my ground for about 25 minutes. I didn’t understand everything she said… far from it to be honest, but I was able to infer a lot through context. This was a HUGE milestone and I felt elated after pulling it off.

This call made me feel confident enough to try my luck calling the other Russian speakers that I was talking to. I found that the first call was always easy with each person, but that communication would normally get harder as the topics we discussed got deeper and more complicated which is only natural when you talk to somebody more than once. I’m not going to lie, I faked comprehension to keep a few conversations going a few times… ok, I faked comprehension more than a few times., but I only did it because it led me to getting more input! I didn’t want to waste time having to have every other sentence explained to me. The problem with this was that it was always awkward when I was greeted with questions like “So what do you think about that?” after confidently faking comprehension. All I could do was stare blankly into the webcam because… I clearly… didn’t understand. Long story short; I’d advise against faking comprehension.

Things continued like this for a while. I would study in the morning and then practice with the native speakers when I had time. Wash, rinse, repeat. Everything was going alright until I hit one of the biggest plateaus ever! I tried very hard to get around it, but I was starting to get stressed out. I was starting to see completely dropping the language as a viable option and needed to act quickly.

What I did may surprise you….

I had an affair! 

Yes… I had an affair… I was unfaithful and cheated… On Russian! I cheated on Russian with Italian. Yes, don’t worry, I’m as single as a Pringle and yes, I did just compare my relationship status to a food! Anyway, now that we know that there was no literal cheating going on here, let me elaborate a little more on this specific affair. I had noticed over the years that I’d somehow get better at the languages that I’d put on the back burner which initially made no sense. I took a break from Danish and ended up speaking better than when I was actively studying. The same thing happened with Korean(Although I still suck). I decided to do the same thing with Russian because it would give my brain time to forget the bad habits I’d picked up along the way and to tackle it with fresh eyes. It was a dangerous gamble because I had had affairs in the past and always ended up choosing the ‘Side language’. I knew I’d have to be careful and that my will would have to be very strong if I had any intentions of actually returning to my current true love, Russian. 

The original plan was to only take one week off… but that week quickly turned into two, then three, then before I knew it…an entire month had passed. Transitioning into Italian was hard at first and my Russian seemed to get very bad very fast. I struggled to speak more than usual and I often found myself at a loss for words. My language exchange partners were all very understanding and patient during this time which was sweet and I’m super thankful. My love for Italian was also growing stronger by the day. It wasn’t looking like the affair was going to end without heartbreak or separation…

Marriage Camp

Everything changed when a Ukrainian friend I’d made in Peru and I agreed to catch up over a video call. She told me about how she’d been teaching a friend Spanish and how she’d like to do a three way call, so that her friend could listen to us speaking in Spanish to one another. The plan was to speak Russian afterwards, so that I’d be able to practice too. As you all know, I’m normally not really a fan of practicing languages with non-native speakers unless it’s absolutely necessary, but I decided to be open minded enough to give it a try.

Her friend couldn’t make it to the first call, so my friend and I caught up and chatted without her. I was extremely nervous going into this because a month had passed since the last time that I’d actively studied Russian. To add more pressure to the situation, my friend didn’t feel very comfortable speaking English. Spanish had always been our lingua franca, so I wouldn’t be able to rely much on English this time… The time came and the camera turned on and I was instantly nervous… 

Would my Russian hold up? 

Would I crash and burn? 

Would we have to resort to only speaking Spanish the whole time?

I decided to try anyway…

We began talking and… and… I didn’t crash and burn. We also hardly used any Spanish at all and I was somehow able to understand most of what she was saying. She even understood my responses despite all of my mistakes! We ultimately talked for over half an hour and only used Spanish a few times when I didn’t understand difficult words. Overall, we had fun and agreed to talk again the following Thursday because that’s when her friend would be free next.

The call ended and I leaned back in SHOCK. I had ACTUALLY held my ground… in RUSSIAN! The experiment had worked exactly as I’d hoped! My Russian had gotten better through NOT actively studying and it seemed like I’d gotten past the plateau. I was ELATED….when suddenly, a wave of imposter syndrome snapped me out of my blissful state of elation and negative, self defeating thoughts started pouring in. My mind started making up all these excuses for why I was able to survive the conversation. 

Maybe it was luck! 

Maybe I just slept very well last night! 

Maybe she only used extremely simple words with me!

I’ve been learning languages for years now, but these thoughts still haunt me from time to time. I find that the trick is to just ignore them and try to keep going. It can still be very hard sometimes though, trust me!  

Despite all this, I felt something in my chest… It was the love for Russian growing again. The love had always been there and I honestly DID want to pick Russian back up after the break, but the affair had caused the love to fade a little. Now it was back and stronger than ever. I mentally prepared myself for the 3 way call. It would soon be time to put my Russian to the real test! 

Marriage Camp Session Number 2

Thursday came fast and it was finally time to shine. I joined the zoom call and anxiously waited to be accepted into it. The call started and we did the Spanish part first. It actually went alright and was honestly kind of fun. “Alright, time for Russian!” My friend said in Russian…

My heart sank… It was time!

We began speaking only in Russian and I held my ground. I even understood what the two of them were saying to each other. I actually couldn’t believe it! Was this actually happening? I went from being on the brink of quitting due to a plateau, to having a conversation with TWO native speakers AT THE SAME TIME. The call went on a bit longer, but they eventually had to go because it was getting late in the Ukraine. The call ended and I felt elated, I felt high! I felt so many different emotions all at once! Once again, I couldn’t believe it! 

The imposter syndrome hit me even harder this time around. 

“Why can’t my mind be this creative when I’m trying to think of blog ideas? 

Why does my mind only seem to be creative when it’s trying to convince me that I’m bad at Russian” I wondered. 

My phone buzzed indicating that I had a notification! It was my Russian friend in Bulgaria! I’d almost forgotten that we had agreed to talk the same day. Good thing that the original call ended when it did or I may have missed the notification! I was still feeling a lot of imposter syndrome, but decided to proceed. I hit the call icon. After some suspense filled ringing… She appeared in front of me and we began speaking Russian and something weird happened… I was STILL able to hold my ground. She even commented on the fact that she was apparently speaking at normal speed and that I was understanding everything. (TBH a lot of words were flying over my head and the context saved me a few times. Despite all this, my listening comprehension had improved)

This is when it finally hit me and the imposter syndrome seemed to fade away. I was ACTUALLY speaking Russian and I’d pulled it off twice in a row… On the SAME day! A new wave of emotions rushed over me. Part of me wanted to cry. I felt my eyes getting heavy. After about 10 years of trial and error, I’d finally reached a consistently conversational level in Russian. All the years had paid off! The love was back and stronger than ever! Now I just needed to fight back the tears for the remainder of the conversation.

But it doesn’t end there!

Phew! You made it to the end! Congrats! Thank you for reading this far, but if you didn’t… well that’s cool too and you’re probably not reading this then, are you? Learning Russian has had many highs and lows and I still have a looooooong way to go! This blog post ends here, but the story doesn’t! Learning a language is a journey with no definite end. Sure you may reach your goals, but then you set new goals and keep striving for more. That’s the beauty of it all. That’s what allowed me to get to this point with Russian. Who knows, I may drop Russian again in the future, or I may stick to it. My main goal was to be able to understand and speak basic Russian which I can now do on a relatively consistent basis and I achieved it. The love for Russian is back and stronger than ever, so I don’t think I’ll be dropping it anytime soon! 

This picture was taken in Ghent, Belgium… It’s not quite a Russian speak city, but it will have to do for now!

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