How I Went About Learning Russian and Czech
About nine years ago I started learning Russian and if it has proven anything, it is that learning a language is a long, long road. It’s also an enjoyable road because you never get to the end of it. If it ended I’d be unhappy, so I’ve been at it a long time. Let’s trace why I even started with Russian.
When I started studying Russian I spoke eight or so languages. I had had a brief fling with Korean, but I discontinued because the content that I could find wasn’t very interesting. (But I will go back to Korean one day.) So I bought Teach Yourself, Living Language, and whatever I could find down at the bookstore and just went through them. As I’ve said before, listening, reading, and acquiring vocabulary is the best and most effective way to learn a new language.
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That was about the time we made Russian available at LingQ. We have a series of stories like ‘Who Is She?’, which is 26 episodes long, in all the different languages we offer. At that time, I had two Russian employees, so I had two Russian versions of ‘Who Is She?’ made. The original recording sound quality wasn’t all that good, so I had it done again. I listened to that so many times and I painstakingly went through the texts at LingQ. My aim was to get to a Tolstoy within about two or three months.
There were two reasons why I decided to learn Russian. One was because everyone said you can’t learn Russian with your approach, my approach being one of not ignoring the grammar, but treating the grammar lightly: grammar light, words heavy. You can’t do that with Russian I was told, so that was a challenge. The other thing was I have always enjoyed reading Tolstoy, particularly in English, so I wanted to read a Tolstoy in Russian. I thought that would be an amazing thing to be able to do. The first novel I went at was The Kreutzer Sonata. It’s shorter, not like War and Peace which is two huge volumes.
The other reason I began studying Russian was that we had business in Riga, Latvia. So when I went to Riga, I went to find a Russian bookstore and bought a lot of of audiobooks, including an audio book of The Kreutzer Sonata.
I can remember in those days LingQ didn’t work as well as now. It would take three or four seconds to save each word, everything was clunky and more difficult. But I still did it. I found more and more audio books and, typically classics. I can remember reading The Stationmaster’s Daughter by Pushkin. I must have listened to that 10 times. At that time, I was training for a ski race in Sweden called the Vasaloppet where I would have to run 90 kilometers. I trained I don’t know how many hours, but I put in about 400 kilometers of training of cross-country skiing. A lot of that was done listening to Russian.
I read many other audiobooks: Yama by Kuprin, which is just a phenomenal story, Doctor Zhivago by Pasternak. One of my absolute favorites was a radio presentation of Fathers and Sons by Turgenev as well as The Master and Margarita, The Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina and War and Peace. I read this book by Edward Radzinsky on Stalin, which is amazing.
There’s a store here in Vancouver called Russkiy Mir where you can buy Russian DVDs, so I bought a bunch of those. There are lots of online resources you can access to watch Russian TV shows these days. I watched Ирония Судьбы (The Irony of Fate) and Жестокий Романс, which is a lovely movie. Those are some of my favorites, I still have them. To me, videos, I’ll only watch them once, maybe twice, so it doesn’t have the value of the book that I might read and go back and read again or audio books, for that matter.
So that was the first year or two. I made a couple of YouTube videos, you can still find them, of me speaking Russian after six months, after a couple of years and so forth. Then I remember around August 8, 2008, I discovered Ekho Moskvy and it just happened to coincide with the Russian-Georgian War. So at Ekho Moskvy, as I’ve mentioned many times, every day you can find 10 or more new interviews. Both audio and text are downloadable, so I take the audio and the text and import them into LingQ. I still make mistakes when I speak Russian, but I understand most things.
Once I hit Ekho Moskvy, basically, I was listening and reading articles every day. Throughout that period, LingQ became a little smoother and so I was able to cover more ground more quickly. But, I’ve been at it for nine years and I still make mistakes. There are still some things I don’t understand. But, by and large, I understand most of what they’re saying in any interview on Ekho Moskvy. There might be five percent words there that I don’t know. So that’s kind of where my Russian is.
Then I decided to go after Czech for several reasons. One is the low-hanging fruit theory of language learning. I know Spanish, therefore, I can learn Portuguese. I put a lot of effort into learning Chinese characters, so I’m going to learn Japanese and, eventually, Korean, so I figured I’d go after Czech. Surprising to me, the grammar and the structure of the language are very similar to Russian, but the vocabulary is not as similar as I thought. Apparently, only 40% of words in Czech are either the same as or recognizable as similar to Russian. So, obviously, between even Spanish and Italian, there is a much greater similarity.
So I also managed to find a Teach Yourself Czech that I had bought some years ago, and I went through that. А number of our members at LingQ had created a bunch of beginner content and I went through all of that. At first, it was all a blur, then gradually the language became clearer and clearer. Then I found Czech Radio, which is a tremendous, tremendous resource; it is my Ekho Moskvy. It’s different in nature, but they have their daily news items with audio and text for download.
Czech Radio have a whole history collection called Toulky Ceskou Minulosty, which I’m now going through. It’s phenomenal. There you can find the audio and the text of the most recent ones and they’re extremely well done. The quality of the sound when you’re listening to a foreign language is very important. I discovered, too, that they had a free downloadable audiobook of The good Soldier Svejk. There’s a Czech bookstore, so I ordered this online. The audio doesn’t match word for word, but I’m going to try and read through the book and then listen.
It’s going much faster in Czech than in Russian. I think firstly this is because I know Russian grammar is less of a struggle; it seems less strange to me. The second thing is that it’s written in the the Latin alphabet, so that’s more comfortable. I do still listen to Russian. I’ve downloaded five interviews today. I especially like to listen to Victor Shenderovich. There are certain people I like to listen to at Ekho Moskvy too, so I have to find the time to listen to them, as well as listening Czech.
I guess the big message is, obviously, I enjoy doing it. Not everybody enjoys learning languages. I like to do it in a way that I find enjoyable and try to move from the beginner text onto authentic text as quickly as possible. I’ll go back to easier text just to give myself a little bit of confidence. At times, it seems you’ll never make sense of this language. In Czech they say things differently from Russian. I won’t go through the details, but it’s different so you’ve got to get used to it.
At times, it seems like you’re not going to get used to it, but I know from experience that you will. Having done it many, many times, I know that you will get used to it and I enjoy the process, that’s another big advantage. A lot of people don’t enjoy the process. I enjoy it and, of course, I enjoy it much more now that I can understand a lot, certainly in Russian and increasingly so in Czech.
When I go after Turkish, which I intend to do, or even going back to the Korean, it will be more work, less pleasure, in a way. Although, that pleasure of taking on a task which is difficult but which you know you’re going to be able to get through creates a great sense of satisfaction. There was this Hungarian-American who spoke of flow, in other words, there’s a great sense of satisfaction in taking on something that is difficult, but you know that you can, in fact, cope with it. Perhaps, just to finish off on that, I think that’s where a lot of language learners get frustrated. Yes, you get better at it the more languages you learn, but I think we can all learn.