What Language Learning is Really Like

“Just go live in the country for a few months; you’ll come back fluent for sure.”

“You just have to immerse yourself in the language. Once you hear it spoken, you’ll pick it up and be speaking in no time.”

Comments like these to the aspiring language learner are well-meant, but, as I’ve learned, are not completely accurate. Before my first semester studying abroad in Russia, I heard countless variations of these words from friends and family. I had already learned the basics: the Russian case system, basic verbs of motion, and commonly-used vocabulary. Filled with enthusiasm and hopeful naivete, I believed them. I closed my eyes and pictured myself rattling off perfect Russian, spiced with apt jokes and subtle puns. And I pictured myself doing this after only three months.

Let’s just say that the reality of language learning did not live up to my expectations. When I arrived in St. Petersburg, I realized I could not understand the majority of what people were saying. When I tried to order my food in Russian at a Pizza Hut, the waitress ignored me until I spoke in English. When I arrived in Nizhniy Novgorod a few weeks later to begin my studies, I made it my goal to take every opportunity I could to speak with Russians, hoping the magical “immersion pill” would start to kick in.

Throughout my three and a half months abroad, I immersed myself as best as I could, going on long walks with Russians, chatting with my host family over late night chai, and pouring myself into my three hours a day of Russian class. Without a doubt, I enjoyed all these experiences immensely, but almost every day, I would beat myself up about my “slow” progress. Instead of celebrating learning a new word, I would chastise myself for not yet achieving this glimmering “fluency” that I so idolized. By the end of the trip, I am sure that I did improve both in comprehension and in speaking. But because I had held so tightly to comments like “just live there for a few months and you’ll be fluent,” I felt that I had failed. After all, from what people said, I should be fluent by now. I should be able to effortlessly translate the sentence that Russian spy said in Get Smart. I certainly shouldn’t be making these stupid mistakes anymore and stuttering through simple sentences!

You would think I would have learned that I was creating overly high expectations for myself, but I entered the Critical Language Scholarship Program last summer with much of the same attitude. Again, although I improved quite a bit, my unreachable expectations made me think that I had failed.

After returning, every time someone asked me, “So, are you fluent now?” made me want to scream and throw everything in the vicinity like a madwoman. I would disguise my frustration with a saccharine smile, answer with a gentle, “well, conversationally fluent, but I still make a lot of grammatical mistakes and there are many topics I don’t know the vocabulary for.” When I left the conversation, I would beat myself up again, thinking “you are supposed to be fluent by now!” One of the biggest mistakes I have made time and time again in my language-learning journey is to expect too much improvement in too little time. Immersion is important, but time is just as important!

Now I see that my reaction should not have been dismay, but rather an excited “Wow, I can communicate with Russians on a number of topics, isn’t that cool! I still have a lot to improve on, but I’ve come pretty far!”

As I embark on my next trip to Russia, I want to throw out unreachable, pie-in-the sky expectations of speaking Russian like a native speaker effortlessly and without a mistake. It’s not because I’ve lowered my standards. No, I still hope to attain a much higher level of proficiency…in time. But for now, perhaps the best expectations I can make for myself are small and measurable, like “learn x number of new words a week,” and “discuss x with three Russians.” Slowly but surely, I will improve. But I want to enjoy the journey and not get overly caught up in the seemingly asymptotic destination.

 

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10 thoughts on “What Language Learning is Really Like

  1. A good American friend of mine in Saint Petersburg was one of those FEW who was able to become fluent in a matter of a few months time. When we asked him how he managed to do it, he said he had a good foundation (like yourself), but the key for him was joining a Russian ska band whose members didn’t speak any English. He also dated a Russian for many months, which helps.
    I’ve been trying to motivate myself to study more at home, but with no one to talk to, it’s very boring. I’m sure you will do the best you can while abroad and you should feel great by the accomplishments you’ve made 🙂
    Recommend any study techniques? I know you are a linguistics person – what would you recommend for an independent study in the Russian language?

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    1. For independent Russian study, I use an excellent website called LingQ. It is $10 a month and more than worth it. Basically, the website has podcasts for every level and on every topic (I have listened to everything from debates on whether or not women should drive (серьёзно!?) to Chekhov’s short stories to the history of the letter ё). The reason that I love this site is that along with the podcast it includes the text, and every word you highlight, a definition pops up, and you can “LingQ” it, meaning add it to your list of vocab you want to learn. The site makes flashcards and tests out of all your LingQs, so you can keep track of your progress.
      On LingQ there is also an “exhange” section, where I have met Russians who want help with English and are more than willing to set up a Skype exchange.
      Another thing I do is watch the news on первый канал because they talk so darn fast, so it is good for increasing the rate of comprehension, and the visuals help if I don’t completely understand.
      I hope this helps!

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  2. This is a VERY thought-provoking post, thank you for your honesty in writing it! I’m in the same boat as you and it’s frustrating to row, row, row along and barely see a change. I think part of the problem is that we have trouble seeing our own progress because we have nothing to mark progress against. No matter how much we improve, we’ll always see an even taller mountain to climb in front of us, and we forget that we actually *did* just learn some new words last week or understood a cultural reference the week before that.

    I’ve been studying Russian for 10 years, dating a native speaker for 8 years, and living in Urkaine for 2 years. It seems like that combination should equal awesomely awesome fluency… but it doesn’t :p Before coming to Ukraine, people said the same thing to me that they said to you: “Just go live in the country for a few months; you’ll come back fluent for sure.” Hahaha. Sure, I’ve been getting better, but it’s still not enough that I don’t cringe and think I should be further along. At the same time, all my foreigner friends here are like “Wow, I wish I could speak Russian like you do” but my Ukrainian friends say “Katherine, you need to read a book or something. You’re still making the same mistakes.”

    Anyways, I’m really looking forward to following your adventures in the Russian langauge and in Russia : ) Even if it seems imperceptible, you ARE progressing, hang in there! What if you make a video recording of yourself now, and then do the same thing again after a couple of months to see what advancements you’ve made?

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    1. It is so encouraging to know there are others out there who have had the same experience!The language learning process is so much more complicated and multifaceted than many people realize, and although learning Russian is one of my favorite things to do, it’s also one of the hardest. It’s hard to explain to those who aren’t learning a foreign language, so I love to connect with people who have been through it and know the joys and frustrations of working towards “fluency” in a second language. I totally agree with you on it being hard to mark our own progress because we have nothing to measure it against, and I think your idea of videotaping myself before and after I go is a great idea! Thank you for your encouragement and I wish you the best as you continue in your language learning journey in Ukraine! Do you have a blog? If you do, I would love to follow.

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