Travelling across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railroad has been on my bucket list for the better part of a decade. When, in late May 2012, my brother moved to China to teach English, this gave me the perfect excuse to start planning an actual trip. Taking the train from Moscow to Beijing would put me put me only a few hours from visiting my brother and check off a major item from my bucket list to boot, so my plan formed quickly. But I hate to be ‘the tourist’ - I wanted to speak the language and interact meaningfully with the people. I’d attempted to learn Russian once previously with little success. With the looming possibility of being unable to communicate effectively for several weeks, I vowed that this time would be different. This is the first in a series of posts on my attempts to learn Russian that will hopefully be useful to others doing the same.
My focus is on speaking; I want to be able to verbally navigate my way around every-day situations and have reasonable conversations beyond the usual tourist stuff. At least a basic level of reading, for signs, menus etc is also desirable - ideally at a semi decent speed. Cursive writing isn’t important to me. Simply put; I’ll be spending two weeks travelling across Russia and I don’t want to feel like that tourist. The trip is planned for early April 2014, which gives me ~10 months from late May 2013. This post will cover my previous attempt to learn Russian and the first 4 months of my renewed efforts to learn Russian properly.
I had previously attempted the Russian Pimsleur course, but for various reasons, I had given up on it about 14 lessons (~7 hours of content) in. I really got a lot out of the course and felt confident using the vocab I had learned through it, but the way I used it caused some issues. The main problem was that Pimsleur relies on you doing a 30 minute lesson every day, which isn’t too much of an ask, but when I started leaving a day or several between lessons, the system broke down and I found myself repeating previous lessons (each requiring a contiguous 30 minute block of free time) to refresh my memory, leaving it a few days again and repeating the whole process. This brought my progress to a frustrating crawl and led me to give up on it. In addition to Pimsleur, I picked up Cyrillic to a reasonable level and generally read around a few Russian learning sites. As much of my Russian had faded, I felt I had a slight, but not significant advantage this time round.
I started off as I had before, with the same Pimsleur Russian course. This time around, I felt confident starting a few lessons in and was able to progress pretty quickly to around lesson 12. As mentioned, the main reason I stopped using Pimsleur last time was that I would often let too much time pass between lessons. Inevitably, this would happen again, so I had to figure out some way to counter the problem such that it wouldn’t cause the same problems as last time. The solution I settled on was Memrise, an online flashcard based learning system with spaced repetition and community developed courses. I quickly found a Pimsleur Russian course (update: it’s gone now) and formed a plan: after completing a Pimsleur unit I would complete the associated level in the Memrise course. Completing the Memrise level would reinforce the vocab/structures from the Pimsleur unit and Memrise made it much easier to continue practising them every day (requiring only a few minutes at a time rather than the 30 contiguous minutes demanded by Pimsleur). Using this combination, I hoped that breaks between Pimsleur units would become less of an issue, which was particularly important as I would shortly be going on a three-week road trip - meaning an effective three-week hiatus on new Pimsleur units. In addition to all that, I revised the Cyrillic alphabet (including using another Memrise course) and started following a few other Memrise courses, including a Hacking Russian course - more on that later. I also started listening to the RusPod Shorts series, which introduced a decent amount of vocabulary in an easy to consume way.
I spent most of this month road tripping down the US West Coast, using mostly Memrise on my tablet when we had a connection. Using Memrise to practice the Pimsleur content worked like a charm and quickly alleviated any concerns I had about going almost a month without a new Pimsleur unit. The Hacking Russian course I mentioned earlier though didn’t work out quite so well. On paper, a language ‘hacking’ course looked perfect; it was formulated to introduce words based on word frequency data and language studies in order to get you conversational quickly. At first it covered words I already knew and was confident with from elsewhere but additionally forced me to write them out in Cyrillic (making me practice with the Russian keyboard layout as a bonus) giving me a greater appreciation for the language. A few levels in though, I started being introduced to words I had not encountered before and had never heard used in context. Attempting to memorize these words was futile as even once I had committed them to memory (a more arduous process than with the previously encountered words), all I really had was a simple mapping between a Russian word and an English word, with none of the understanding or confidence to use it in a sentence that I got when I learned a word from Pimsleur. I soon realized that attempting to memorize a word without understanding how to use it is essentially pointless - obvious in hindsight, but a point that would shape my future learning. After returning to the UK, I started gathering additional sources of Russian tutelage. The notable ones were the RusPod site, which did a good job of introducing vocabulary and grammar in a relaxed way and the New Penguin Russian Course book, which as time went on would be the main source of my understanding of Russian grammar.
In late June/early July, I discovered Anki, which changed the way I learned. I hope to write more about Anki and its strengths compared Memrise separately, but suffice to say it is a multi-platform, incredibly customisable, spaced-repetition flashcard system. The important point for the upcoming discussion is that it distinguishes between ‘notes‘ (a unit of information, also known as a fact) and ‘cards‘ (a question/answer pair derived from a given note – similar to a view in database terminology). A note consists of fields, in this case, I had the Russian word in Cyrillic, the English translation, Russian audio and a few others, but from this I configured Anki to generate up to three ‘cards‘ for each note:
- Show the Russian text, test recall of the English translation.
- Show the English text, test recall of the Russian word.
- Play the (Russian) audio, test recall of the English translation.
This would give me practice translating to and from Russian text and audio as well as triply reinforcing each word. My first order of business was to start populating my Anki card deck. I began adding words, phrases and sentence fragments I had learned from Pimsleur, the RusPod series and assorted other sources and soon I had a deck populated with ~100 notes from which were generated ~250 cards.
The structure of my learning stayed more or less the same, continuing on with Pimsleur, RusPod, Penguin etc. but with the important addition that once I was confident I understood how to use a word, I added it into my Anki deck. This effectively decoupled the initial learning of a word from actually committing it to long term memory, meaning I never had to return to an old lesson or vocab list one I had added a word to Anki; in essence, Anki acted as a proxy for my long term memory.
Quite a lot of this month was spent with the Penguin Russian book getting to grips grammar. This was first time I had really tried to grok Russian cases and the finer points of gendered nouns and by the end of the month, I was still feeling pretty daunted by cases, but fairly confident with conjugated verbs and genders.
I also spent a lot of this month refining and tweaking my Anki note and card templates – by the end of the month I was pretty pleased with my setup and had 313 notes/915 cards. Anki can generate some nice progress summaries, so I’ll start including them at the end of each month from here on out - here’s the summary from the end of July.
At this point, my usage of Anki/learning in general has solidified into the following structure:
- Review Anki cards on my tablet after waking up - these typically take up to around 20 minutes and consist of 20 new cards and 60+ review cards each day.
- During the day, I try and study a little Russian whenever I get the chance. I work full time, but if I can spare a few minutes to pick up some new vocab or grammar over lunch or during a build, I’ll do that.
- On days when I don’t have anything going on in the evening, I try and add the words I picked up during the previous day(s) to my Anki deck. This is the most time consuming aspect of the process as I’ve constructed some extensive note/card templates with audio prompts, requiring me to find audio of the word/phrase (I generally use some combination of forvo.com and snippets from the audio files I’m learning from) and do some trivial editing for every note I add to the deck. This puts a significant overhead to adding cards, but I find the audio useful.
I generally try and add around 10 new notes (corresponding to ~30 cards) to my Anki deck each day and have ~200 ‘unseen’ cards in my deck to give me a buffer of new content to learn if I go a few days without adding new notes (which happens fairly frequently).
Since July I’ve got into a routine with Pimsleur: every other day I go for a run after work, lasting 30-45 mins, during which I listen to a new Pimsleur unit and on the intervening day I try and add content from that unit to my Anki deck. The Pimsleur files are among the most time consuming to scrub through and extract audio snippets from, meaning I generally have a backlog of content to add, but this routine serves me fairly well.
At this point I’ve grown confident enough to look-up/learn words independently from frequency lists/dictionaries and add them to my Anki deck. Ideally, for every word I add, I also like to add at least one example of it being used in a short sentence or fragment – this is particularly important with the many verb conjugations. Courses like Pimsleur and Michel Thomas (see below) are very useful for this as they provide lots of usage examples for the words they introduce.
The content I’m using this month:
- RusPod: The content is pretty high quality and presented well. I’m mostly using it for picking up grammar/vocab in context as well as bits of cultural info.
- Penguin Russian book: A good source of vocab and reading practice as well as my main source of formal grammar education, solidifying concepts I’ve been picking up through Pimsleur. Some sections can be a bit slow going but it is generally provides comprehensive and clear explanations of the myriad grammar rules.
- Pimsleur: I finished level 1 in early August and spent some time working through a backlog of words/phrases I wanted to extract and add to my Anki deck. I didn’t immediately start on level 2 as I felt I was getting diminishing returns from the course and a knee injury stopped my running/listening to Pimsleur routine.
- Michel Thomas Russian Foundation: The Michel Thomas method is similar to Pimsleur in that it is completely audio based with an instructor introducing words and working them into known and new sentence structures for practice (which provides great material to add to my Anki deck). Unlike Pimsleur, its pace and tone are much more relaxed and (despite encouraging the listener to pause and say things out loud) suitable for consuming in short bursts and I’ve started listening to it when I have a few minutes to spare walking to work or around town. With its much less rigorous focus on spaced repetition, it’s essentially a ‘light’ Pimsleur course and arguably more efficient now that I have Anki taking care of getting things into to my long term memory. I hope to write up some more detailed thoughts on it and its relation to Pimsleur later.
Memrise is taking a back seat to Anki at this point, but I still dip into it periodically. At the end of the month, my Anki deck consisted of 530 notes and 1557 cards and I’m pleased to see that time I’m spending on reviews appears to have levelled out between 10 and 20 mins a day. Anki stats from August.
Listening: I can follow simple conversations and a few isolated phrases and words when listening to Russian radio or music, generally enough to get the gist of the conversation but rarely enough to follow the whole thing. I haven’t been listening to as much Russian speech outside of my audio courses as I’d like, so I intend to step this up as I go forward.
Speaking: I’m feeling confident about my ability to describe many day-to-day situations, views and intentions. Cases are still pretty mysterious to me; I typically learn the nominative case and can generally identify when a different case is required, but not which case. This is something I’m hoping to improve on next month as it’ll be important when I start using more complicated sentence constructions. I’m happy with my progress, but am aware that I have a huge gaps in my vocabulary that I intend to address over the coming months.
Reading: On the reading front, I’m making good progress and reading noticeably faster. There is a bit of selection bias here as all of my Anki cards have Cyrillic translations, so I inevitably end up pretty practised at reading the words in my deck and I do read slower when faced with completely new text. I’m starting to pick out common syllables rather than sounding out every letter in my head, which, while I can’t do it all the time, is speeding up my reading. Words with 8+ syllables still pose problems unless I’m familiar with all the syllables in question. I can now pick up a random piece of Russian text and hope to divine at least some of its meaning from piecing together the words I recognise, which is a lot better than I could do a few months ago. I’m also finding it easier to predict stress when reading and distinguish а’s and unstressed о’s when trying to type a word I’ve only heard (which used to cause me some confusion).
Writing: My Russian writing/typing skills have also improved quite a bit by this point. Transcribing sentences/words from audio to add to my Anki deck has resulted in me typing a fair amount of Russian and I can find my way round the Russian keyboard much quicker than I could a few months ago. Needless to say, I’m much slower than with an English keyboard but I’m happy with the progress I’ve made as an unintended side effect of transcribing things for Anki.