How do you learn languages?

Easter Sunday in Yaroslavl

The kitchen table on Easter Sunday in Yaroslavl

I often tell people that I learnt to speak Russian at the kitchen table. This is, of course, a shameless lie. I attended eight hours of language classes a week with 10-15 hours of homework on average and vocabulary lists of sometimes up to 1000 words, did this for an entire year before revising for, sitting, and having to pass first year university exams, was then hurled onto a plane to Russia and subjected to eight months of total immersion with 20 hours a week of language classes at the local university, and all this while clutching grammar books, vocabulary books and learners’ dictionaries in one hand and rummaging through the internet trying to find any sort of Russian film, music or audiobook with the other. In the midst of all this, every now and then I would sit at the kitchen table with my landlady Svetlana, and chat about how our days had been.

But just because that is a lie, that doesn’t mean that I tell it intentionally. When I think back to learning Russian, I can only really remember my time in Yaroslavl, the people I met, the conversations I had, the small victories I enjoyed like buying a train ticket by myself, being able to use the genitive to say I wanted my tea without sugar, and so on. I can hardly remember studying it in my first year at university. There must be some subconscious part of my brain that remembers all too well the torture of it, and is denying my conscious faculties access to it .

There is another element to this as well. I worked harder than I’ve ever worked in my life on Russian in my first year, and while I was able to pass the exams, I finished that year still unable to say even a word of the language. By contrast, in Yaroslavl I spent my year blissfully tricking the internet into letting me watch 4OD, eagerly memorising the menu at MacDonalds, travelling the world, and in the end got an attendance mark of the ‘compulsory language course’ of around 35%. Yet, I still returned from Russia fluent. On first impressions, my experiences seem to correspond with what people in Group 1 of my fluency chart say: classroom-based language learning is a waste of time, and the only way to learn languages is to go and live in the country, breathe in the air, drink the water, and just sit back and watch your language skills grow and flourish, like some sort of vulgarly optimistic flower. But I can tell you now that this does not correspond to reality. There are no miracles in language learning, there is no massive shortcut, and there is no way to learn languages without studying (for those who were left wondering after my most recent post). The people who are most successful in language learning are those who make use of every approach, every method and every motivation, and that means that they put in just as much hard work as anyone else. But their success means that they – as I – tend to forget to mention this when describing the pleasure that it was to learn their new language.

From my graduation ceremony at Yaroslavl State University

From my graduation ceremony at Yaroslavl State University

The key here is using two different methods in conjunction to maximise your success. If I hadn’t had that first year of intensive Russian study, there is no chance that I would have survived the Russian streets. Equally if I hadn’t had my year in Russia, I would have forgotten everything and never had anything to show for all the hard work that I’d put in. What people mean when they talk about going to another country and “picking up” the language is not that they didn’t have to learn vocabulary, get their heads around grammar or struggle with pronunciation, but just that all these things are far easier to do when you are in an immersed environment. Perhaps even to the extent that it doesn’t feel like you’re doing them at all.

Both classroom-based and immersed (i.e. theoretical and practical) approaches to language learning have distinct advantages and disadvantages. It is great to get together with other motivated learners and share your experience together, with a teacher there to offer guidance, explanations, and to stop you from learning things wrong before you do too much damage. The classroom provides a forum in which you can closely study grammar and practise using it, all with the safety and reassurance of being surrounded by fellow learners making similar mistakes with very little danger of being humiliated (although it’s important not to forget, as my Russian teacher used to take great pleasure in reminding us: “You want to learn Russian language, not ugly conglomeration of sounds that maybe can be mistaken for Russian language“). With a teacher’s guidance, you follow a course that could take you to a level more advanced than you might ever have thought necessary to reach, and could give you a chance to learn high-register and technical vocabulary as well. You are never in any doubt that you are a student of the language, and this constant reminder that there is always more to learn will motivate you to pursue your studies, regardless of how much you actually already know.

But the disadvantages are firstly that you might not be sure whether what you’re learning is real. As you may never come across the language outside of the classroom, you have no proof that you’re not learning phrases that are either antiquated or just useless. For example, you may after several weeks be able to tell anyone that yesterday you read in the library for five hours and then went home and did the dishes, but what will you do when you drop your wallet in the gutter and are suddenly back to the trademark British intercultural communication technique of ‘shout and point’? Equally, apart from the occasional test you will have very few ways to discern how much progress you are making, as there are few opportunities to see how you will now fare in conversation. While, as I’ve suggested, it can be a motivating factor to feel like a student rather than a speaker, having no reference points by which to judge yourself at all can be demoralising, and leads even people who for years have studied a language to a very high level to declare that they don’t “speak” it.

Buying train tickets in Russia is one of the most challenging things you will ever have to do in your whole life.

Buying train tickets in Russia is the most challenging thing you will ever have to do in your whole life.

This is not so much the case when people are immersed in their target language. With the classroom long behind you, your language stops being something you dabble in once a week on a Thursday evening, and suddenly becomes a matter of life or death. If you don’t at least attempt to speak, how will you buy food from the supermarket and understand the difference between a sign telling you the name of a bridge and one telling you it is about to collapse? As you find yourself stranded, you will have to start to use the language that is around you, and you copy things that you see on signs, hear in shops, or ask your native speaker friends. There can be no doubt that what you’re learning is useful, and most importantly real. Then when your friends and family come to visit you, you get a chance to showcase your language skills, lapping up compliments as you guide them through train stations, order in restaurants, and generally give off the impression that you don’t stay up until 3am every time you get a letter from the council typing it into Google translate. Whatever difficulties you have at first you will overcome, and you will be able to see how your conversations with locals gradually get longer and more meaningful, and you will eventually start to describe yourself as a speaker of the language, rather than a student. After all, what better evidence can there be that you are fluent than that you live, function and thrive in a foreign country with linguistic ease?

But as you give yourself this status, the problems start to arise. There is a huge difference between being able to speak a language and purely being able to make yourself understood in it. Most mistakes are forgivable in the case of the latter, and few people will have your teacher’s discourtesy to correct you in the street. You will be able to get around, but you might sound ridiculous. This is especially likely if you are just picking up words and phrases used on the street by people around you, without any understanding of the subtleties of register and style that you are so familiar with in your native language. There is, for example, a tendency amongst some non-native speakers of English, who no doubt are heavily influenced by Hollywood and popular music, to swear excessively and relentlessly when speaking their adopted language. When and where it is appropriate to use the F-word is something that English speakers spend their whole lives working out, and so it is unthinkable that a student would be able to grasp this so quickly. It is certainly never appropriate to just uniformly substitute it for the word ‘very’, as seems to be common practice. Yet this is exactly the kind of uncomfortable territory that you begin to stray into if you just say what you hear, and when it goes wrong this will be an example of another factor to consider when deciding to study abroad: that you will at times feel like a foreigner. You will feel detached sometimes, excluded and alien to whatever society you decide to live in, and this will happen regardless of whether or not it is your fault. However the comfort zone of the classroom back in your home town will not save you when this happens, and you should be prepared for it to lead to great disenchantment and demoralisation.

So what we need to do is combine the two. We need to acquire a theoretical basis on which to approach the practical world. Immersing yourself should be something you do to consolidate, validate, and build upon what you’ve studied so far. I maintain that without at least some element of both these approaches, your efforts will not be as fruitful. So, revise your grammar before you hit the streets, and complement your evening classes with films, music, and as many real examples of language as you can lay hands on. This will help to solve the problems of your speech sounding forced and unnatural, and equally reduce the number of occasions on which you use words inappropriately. You should come to terms with the fact that however confident you feel and however much progress you make, the learning process never stops. It just becomes easier to go further with it.

This is the journey that my Russian has made. I arrived in the country with a purely theoretical knowledge of it, and left having replaced this entirely with just the ability to speak it. So far this year has been about consolidating that: applying my conversational fluency to improve my translation skills and understanding of literature, while at the same time taking care not to lose my ability to communicate. The biggest test will come in 9 days time, when I will be sitting on a plane to Moscow comfortable with my wider and more specialised vocabulary, but trying to regain the spontaneity and authenticity that I once enjoyed.


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