12 things learning Russian has taught me about learning English

“You must get bored! What do you think about when you’re swimming lengths?” people sometimes ask. Well no I don’t get bored, and this post is an example, as it’s the fruit of musings during this morning’s swim.

Obviously, you don’t have to be a language learner to be a good English teacher. Although I studied French and Spanish at university myself, English teachers might come from a variety of specialisms, like English, psychology, drama and education. However, having been learning Russian from scratch since I moved to Riga, it’s been very interesting to see the world from a language learner’s point of view again, and this has provided me with some insights for my own students. Here are 12 points I’ve noticed when learning Russian, and I hope they help you with learning English:

1) Start where you are.

Be honest with where you are at the moment, and start there. This might mean going back to being a 5 year old, but so be it. This was my case: I started from 0, so I began with the Russian Cyrillic alphabet.russian-cyrillic-alphabet

2) Show you want to learn.

People are more likely to help you if it’s clear that you want to learn. Ask questions, take notes, study. My Russian-speaking colleagues at IH Riga are fantastic with offering help, explaining things and asking “как дела?” (“how are you?”), but maybe they wouldn´t bother if I hadn´t shown the willing first. I owe them a lot for their help and patience!

3) Develop a growth mindset.

My favourite topic: Professor Dweck´s mindset theory (It’s All in the Head, Mindset: Making the Most of Observations). If you want to get anywhere with a language, you need to employ a growth mindset, which means believing that you can improve and responding positively to ´failures´, as they are only stepping stones to success. For example, forgetting the word for ´plastic bag´ in a shop made me study it again, and the frustration I felt meant that the next time I was in a shop, I could remember it. Generally, the more you wrestle with something, the easier it is to remember in the long-term.

4) Set clear objectives.

I wrote about this more in detail in my post about New Year´s Resolutions. True for anything: without realistic, specific, timed objectives, you´ll soon be in danger of floating and losing motivation. “Learning Russian” is a useless objective; my medium-term goal is to have a 15-minute Skype conversation in Russian with my friend Marina in Moscow by the end of March.

5) Choose the hard road.

When you reach a fork in the road, the bumpy one usually gets you somewhere quicker than the smooth. Example: yesterday I told the new pilates instructor at the gym that I only speak Spanish and a bit of Russian, so she gave the instructions just in Russian, so I picked up more vocab, as meaning is clear when she modelled the movements.

6) Chunk!

Idioms are usually reserved for higher level learners, but I´m a beginner, and I find them excellent ways to remember several words in one memory. For instance, learning “лучше поздно, чем никогда” (better late than never), I learnt a comparative (luchee chem = better than), an adjective (posne = late) and an adverb of time (neekagda = never) all in one go!

7) Train pronunciation.

As Kelly points out, ´we all use the same speech organs to produce the sounds we become accustomed to´ (How to Teach Pronunciation, 2004, p.4). Do you have working lips, tongue and jaw? Then you can make ANY SOUND after enough focused practice, which in my case has meant training my mouth to make the ´vs´ and ´ks´ sounds which aren´t so common in English. I´ll get into detail on this mouth training idea in my next blog.

8) Mix it up.

Avoid boredom, maintain motivation, study from a variety of sourcbookes (there are millions for English!). Personally, for Russian I use a self-teach book I bought (right), Learn Russian podcast, a video series my colleague Edvard put onto my USB (Dmitri Petrov teaches English to a class of Russian celebrities from the world of theatre and cinema – below), and chatting (poorly!) with colleagues whenever I can. No, I´m never bored.

9) Predict conversation

My colleague Vik, who´s Indian and was educated in Scotland, gave me this tip which has helped him to speak Russian quite fluently. He says you should be able to predict the flow of conversation after saying something, and pick up meaning from context and body language. For example, if you´re in the supermarket and you ask “Where is the fish?”, how many possible responses are likely? Frozen or fresh? Directions? Aisle number? I need to work on this, as I´m too often guilty of learning a set phrase then having no idea when someone responds.

10) Leave reminders everywhere!

The more, the better. I write vocab on my palm and look at it all day (pic below – лошадь – loshad = horse), and have little post-its up all over the house and at work (Пойдем is on my mini notice board on my desk = let´s go). Many of my students do the same with English vocabulary.


11) Noone has time. You must make time.

“Most of you don´t want success as much as you wanna sleep”. The motivational speaker Eric Thomas has a lot to say on this topic. You can say you really want to learn a language, but in the end, it´s always a question of priorities. Option 1: learn a language. Option 2: watch TV. Option 1: learn a language. Option 2: stay asleep. Option 1: learn a language. Option 2: browse Facebook.

I understand the problems: I have a lovely girlfriend who wouldn´t be happy to be ignored for 2 hours while I drill myself on the difference between бабушка (babushka = grandma) and бабочка (babochka = bow tie) after work. So get creative! Use the tips in 10), get up 20 minutes earlier, listen to a podcast as you work out or walk down the street.

12) It’s never too late to learn.

Mindset again. Attitude is everything. “I´m too old to learn” and “I´m not good at languages” are both not true. Sure, starting at age 2 would be great, but if you´re 45 that´s no longer an option. So start where you are, change your strategies and add the word ´yet´ to your self-talk, as Professor Dweck recommends: I´m not good at Russian YET…but keep working at it and I will be. The same can be true for your English.


3 thoughts on “12 things learning Russian has taught me about learning English

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