Life Skills Upgrade: Learning a Language

I’m not sure how it came about, but I’ve decided to learn Russian. This process has evolved how I thinking about language learning, and it’s been eye-opening for me. I thought I’d share some of the tools I’m using to learn. Maybe it will give one of you, my dear readers, the courage to explore something new!

First, I should address my reasons for wanting to learn Russian. They are fourfold:

  1. I’m fascinated by Russian culture. Dostoyevsky is one of my favorite authors from among The Classics, and his descriptions of life in Russia and the Russian worldview fascinate me.
  2. It seems that, with rising tensions and talk of a second cold war, the United State’s relationship to the world’s largest country has never been more important.
  3. I wanted the intellectual challenge of learning a completely new language. Yes, I have Spanish, but improving that wouldn’t be the same kind of challenge.
  4. Plus, Russian sounds cool.

Here are some of the resources I’ve used so far, and my experiences with them:

Pimsleur Language Course

If you follow the blog (or know me at all), you know I’m a big fan of Audible.com. They were having a buy one/get one sale on language courses, so I downloaded the first 10 lessons of their Russian language course. Right now, I’m on the sixth course. I recommend this course and method for anyone learning a language. It’s intuitive, exclusively verbal, and seems to approach the material in a learner-friendly way. The lessons are about a half hour long each, and I’ve found that they work best when you have time to listen to the entire lesson in one shot, practicing and speaking while you listen. I have found that I need to listen to each lesson about two times before I feel comfortable moving on to the next one.

Fluent in 3 Months

While on vacation in Petaluma with Lisa, I picked up a book called Fluent in 3 Months: How Anyone at Any Age Can Learn to Speak Any Language from Anywhere in the World. This book is not about Russian in particular, but about learning languages in general. Though it’s not scholarly writing, it has challenged a lot of my thinking (and my excuses) about learning languages. It’s given me the impression that this goal IS attainable. Most of all, it’s validated that I’m not crazy for trying this adventure. The book also has a web site and online community, which I haven’t had the chance to explore yet.

italki.com

The most interesting resource I’ve used so far is iTalki. iTalki is a web site (which has become more of a social network) dedicated to language learning. Each person creates a profile listing the languages they speak (and at which levels), along with the languages they want to learn. From there, you can choose language partners who speak your target language and want to learn your language. So far, I have nine friends on the site. One of them wants to teach me Vietnamese and one would like to speak with me in Arabic. Two have asked to talk to me in Spanish, and the rest are interested in learning English from me, while I learn Russian from them. So far, I’ve had two conversations on Skype with a girl in Russia named Elena. She is a patient teacher, even though talking via Skype can be frustrating sometimes. Elena is also ambitious: during our second conversation, she taught me the entire Cyrillic alphabet. Interestingly, not all of my potential teachers live in Russia. One guy I’m planning to speak with runs his Russian business from Thailand.

Google Translate

This service is much improved from its early days. It features automatic language recognition and fairly well-spoken versions of any word for which you need translation. I’m a little wary of relying on it, but it hasn’t steered me wrong yet.

Text to Speech at Oddcast

This fun little tool allows you to watch (a fake little person) speak any words you have in mind. You can also change the speed at which s/he speaks. This can be useful for slowing complicated words down.

Russian for Everyone

This page is specific to the Russian language, but it’s been a really good resource for helping me as I learn each of the letters in the Cyrillic alphabet. Each letter has an audible pronunciation guide, a sample showing how to write it in handwriting, an example of the letter in context, and other helpful goodies.

Culture and Context

Once I started learning the Russian language and meeting a few Russian people, I became curious about Russian history and culture. Once again, I turned to Audible, where I found a fascinating series of 36 lectures about Russian history. I’m only starting these, but I quickly realized how little I know about Russian history.

I think those are most of the tools I’m using so far. Which ones seem the most useful to you? Do you have any to add? If you could learn any language, what would it be?

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