Nothing beats having your boyfriend start passionately singing Disney songs in a tune you know very well, with completely different words. And instead of, “Mysterious as the dark side of the moon!” He thinks the chorus says, “No one is going to be able to deflect your punch!”
I am naturally good at a few things, like reading and multitasking and insta-movement mimicking (which is useful in dance class and learning magic tricks or rhythms, but not much else so far). I am also naturally bad at a whole bunch of things, most of them athletic, like throwing, catching, or riding on anything that involves wheels but no handles. Then there are other things that I started off bad at and worked determinedly to improve, like walking in heels, or making my hair look less like a ginger mop, or not blurting out everything that pops into my head.
Then there is one thing that I am so bad at, determined, diligent, disciplined practice doesn’t seem to make a dent in the giant pile of incompetence that is my ability. And that is learning foreign languages.
English flowed in with no real effort that I remember. My mom read to me every night when I was a kid, a Goosebumps chapter a night, and I would wait eagerly to find out what happened the next night. I remember reading Hank the Cowdog out loud, over and over again, a little later. Then I read Dragonflight, and it was all over. I used to look forward to the hour or so I spent before bed, alone in my room and reading until I couldn’t keep my eyes open, all day. My parents would find me ignoring my school work and hiding in pretty imaginative places, obsessively reading The Lord of the Rings for the sixth or seventh time. The worst thing that ever happened to me was getting my books taken away, and when I was in really big trouble, that’s what happened. I even read the entire Harry Potter series out loud, to my mom, on the way to and from school, because I really wanted her to read it and she didn’t have time – I was like a personal audiobook.
All that reading had another name, a secret sneaky name that made my time in high school and college much easier, and that name was practice. I’ve practiced English, reading, speaking, and writing, literally every single day for hours for as long as I can remember. But I never knew I was practicing, and my want never really exceeded my ability. I never learned the functions of speech, or the way language is built. I was awful at that in school, actually. English understanding grew in me naturally, and I could tell if something was right or wrong by the way it ‘sounded’, whatever that meant. It’s still that way.
Learning a new language is way, way harder.
I suck at remembering things like phone numbers and names and whether or not I turned off the straightening iron, and I’m pretty sure that section of the brain is directly linked to learning new vocabulary. I learn it just enough to know that I should know it, and thus maximize my frustration. Pronunciation I got down, but nothing else. Literally. Nothing. Else.
I’ve been trying to learn German for three solid years now, have actually lived IN GERMANY for more than one of those years, and I still can say maybe 10% of what I’d like to be able to say.
I am now dating a Ukrainian, as you may have heard, and his mom speaks as much English as I do Russian – meaning, next to none. And they’re visiting for Christmas, and I really want to be able to communicate. So I have to learn Russian (or at least infant Russian, lets not get crazy) by mid-December or die of shame and inadequacy.
Not-learning German for three years has given me some experience on the whole teaching-yourself-a-language thing. I’m full of 20/20 hindsight vision, and I have a plan. I’m going to monitor if it works, and check back in three months, hopefully past my basics and feeling good about my progress, instead of feeling like a big giant smelly poo.
I have been listening to Russian, both on Russian radio news programs and in person (I’ve learned a bunch of swear words, naturally, the most important part of any language). I’ve also learned the alphabet, which is not nearly as hard as it looks (my attempt at learning Elvish in middle school may have helped prepare me for the Cyrillic alphabet). I also tried a few months ago to start learning Russian in a passive way, so I’m not starting entirely from scratch. My boyfriend is also super supportive and patient and helpful and knows way more about language parts and whatnot than I do, so I’ve got that advantage too.
THE THREE MONTH PLAN
Step One: Do some lessons in a book!
The book: The New Penguin Russian Course.
Intimidating – and yet, with the genius placement of a Coca Cola ad, inviting.
This is by far the best at-home course book I’ve found (after starting and then giving up on three others). There aren’t nearly as many resources for Russian as there are for German, but this book sort of makes that okay. It is clearly written for adults, with concise examples that don’t make me feel talked-down-to.
It also has the Russian words written in the Cyrillic alphabet with syllable-by-syllable pronunciation beside it, and then the English translation.
This is great because I am so bad at pronouncing Russian words it’s almost a skill. I even tried pronouncing it in what I thought was the wrong way, I was wrong so often. That didn’t work either. Apparently there are lots of ways for me to be wrong.
The plan is to do three lessons before I start adding other things, because I’m sure I’ll get impatient otherwise.
Step Two: Anki all over the place, all the time!
Anki is this super awesome, simple flash-card style virtual vocabulary learning tool. It has a fancy algorithm thing for spaced repetition backed by a whole bunch of neuroscience and whatnot, which basically means it really, really helps me memorize things. There’s also a large community of Anki-users who share deck they’ve created, meaning you can get cards that are color-coded by gender and have audible pronunciation. It’s an invaluable tool. I’ve got the mobile app, which marks the first time I’ve ever paid for an app, so I can practice a couple times a day instead of looking at Facebook.
Step Three: Combine the book and Anki with listening to Pimsleur!
Pimsleur is pretty awesome for speaking and getting comfortable with important phrases. It’s also really good at teaching vocabulary, just through audio. The plan is to do that during chores or something, because I have to respond for it to really work, and if I’m speaking random Russian phrases in a full German train everyone will think I’m insane.
Step Four: Start reading!
The vocabulary in language learning programs is pretty limited and random in my experience. I finished my first couple German language courses being able to say, “What are you doing here?” and “I have three fat green cats!” but not, “I think that’s really interesting.” In an attempt to prioritize my vocabulary to words and phrases I’ll actually use, I want to start reading short newspaper articles.
Newspaper articles have to be easily understood, they’ll teach me basic useful story-telling phrases by repeating who what when where, and they’re usually pretty repetitive, meaning I’m more likely to remember a word I learned new at the beginning of the article.
Step Five: Combine all the above with bugging the crap out of the boyfriend!
Case and point.
That’s basically all the details needed for this step. Once I’ve reached maybe lesson ten or fifteen of the Penguin book, am well on my way with the Pimsleur audio, and owning the vocabulary, I’ll just start babbling at Boyfriend in Russian as often as possible. Hopefully I’ll reach this point around the beginning of December so I’m relatively comfortable trying to speak in Russian by the time Christmas rolls around and I see his parents again.
Step Six: Keep it up!
Hopefully if I’ve done all I plan and I’ve developed a habit for language learning, I just keep going, rotating with German till I can finally drag myself out of the seemingly endless land of intermediate and up to advanced! And get all my Russian basics down really well and try to avoid all the mistakes I’ve made with German.
I can’t wait until I can understand German and Russian well enough to read novels in them. I think if I make it to that point, it’ll be smooth sailing to fluency.
I’m posting my plan here to provide some kind of accountability. If you’re interested in my progress, and whether or not this whole thing will actually work, I’ll post updates once or twice a month until Christmas.
Learning a new language is a huge pain in the ass, but it is also the most rewarding, mind-blowing, amazingly transformative experience I’ve ever had. I can actually feel my brain doing crazy new things some times. It’s like slowly growing a super power.