Language Immersion In Russia – First Impressions After 1 Month

Tatarstan Kremlin

Behind me and my new friend there is the Qolşärif mosque at the Kremlin in Kazan. It’s a nice place to visit even when it’s freezing cold. :)


G’day all!

I’ve already been living in Russia for about a month, learning and using Russian every day.

I’m loving it here. :)

I have to say that of all the places I’ve been to and lived around the world, the people I’ve met here so far have been some of the most hospitable and helpful people I’ve ever met.

Russia is already proving to be one of the most rewarding language immersions I’ve ever done.

For all the negative press that Russia often gets (nearly all of which I think is bullshit and undeserved), the reality is that it’s a great place to be with some of the warmest, friendliest people you could possibly meet. Of course, since Russia is a such big place it’s hard to say for sure if what I’ve experienced is true for the whole country or just the region I’m in but I’m sure I’ll find out later when I head north.

It’s been really fascinating getting to know more about the local Turkic people, culture and cuisine here too. You can really see how closely related it is to Turkey with the traditional food and costumes, and I’m noticing the connection in a lot of local words and names to the Turkish language (e.g. the Tatar word for a convenience store is ашамлыклар – лар (-lar) being a plural suffix in Turkish).

I’ve been completely focused on Russian though and as much I’d like to explore the Tatar language, I really want to stay focused on Russian for the time being.


Sink or swim

Some parts of the world really are sink or swim when it comes to learning the local language.

In Korea where I just spent the last year learning the language, you can live very easily without learning much or any Korean at all. Local people will for the most part adjust for and accommodate you as an outsider (I think it’s shameful that English-speaking expats expect this though but it’s true).

I always found that to be a big challenge in Korea because so many people would insist on speaking English even when it was clear that I was trying to learn Korean.

Here you really have no choice but to try your best to communicate in Russian from day one. I’m forced out of my comfort zone every day. The few times I’ve asked people “Вы говорите по-английски?” (“Do you speak English?”) and received that same facial expression of “No and why should I?” have been a welcome challenge to say the least.

As a result, I’ve spoken a heck of a lot more Russian in my first month here than I did in my first month in Korea.


Survival and necessity push us beyond our limits

If you only want to learn a language then you might succeed.

If you need to learn a language then you will succeed.

Over the last 4 weeks I have genuinely needed to use Russian every day.

I work with people who don’t speak English. The friends I hang out with on weekends here don’t speak a word of English (including the one in the picture above). I’ve had to join a gym, get a haircut, buy my first pair of ‘Russian’ Winter boots (it’s a miracle I still have toes), as well as see a doctor (not related to my toes) – all without the luxury of any English.

It’s forced me to learn vocabulary and expressions that I otherwise wouldn’t have learned (at least not for some time).

As an added bonus, working for one of the wealthiest families in Russia means that I’m also constantly surrounded by and interacting with Russian staff – maids, nannies, bodyguards, security, drivers and so on. I’ve had to learn a lot of work-related vocab quickly because none of them speak English and it’s important that we can communicate.

Many times it’s about voluntarily putting yourself in situations that stretch you too.

For example even though there’s a nice, flashy gym down the road that I was initially going to join, I instead decided to join a small, ‘basement-type’ gym where the equipment looks more like something Fred Flintstone would use. I did this primarily because I thought it’d be a better place to meet people.

The Flintstones’ gym has much older equipment (still does what I need it for!) but so far it’s been a great place to meet people because it has a small and cosy atmosphere. :)

Likewise, I could continue doing my job without communicating with my co-workers but it would make my job tougher than it already is not to mention boring so I’ve made it a necessity to be able to speak with them as quickly as possible.


Create need where this is none

I know that many of you who are reading this aren’t doing language immersion abroad so of course you won’t have survival needs but the point of need over want is always applicable even if you’re at home.

Necessity for something is a much stronger motivator to push through than simply having an interest or desire to do it (though this is important too of course).

You can create need by setting yourself short and long term deadlines that require you to reach a certain level in your target language by a certain time (e.g. travel dates, exams, regular meet-ups, etc.).

I find that having weekly private lessons is a great need creator because each week your teacher will expect you to have completed homework and will challenge you on previously learned material (if he or she is a good teacher that is).

You could also create a blog like this one and let your readers keep you accountable which in turn creates a need to keep constantly improving.

Even finding a course that costs quite a bit of money can be a good need creator because nobody likes to fork out lots of money for something and not get their money’s worth – I need to do well at this because it cost me fortune.


No progress update video on my Russian this week

I had a beautiful woman in my bed yesterday.

She was actually a doctor giving me a shot (needle in the backside!) for a really nasty stomach virus I picked up this week.

I was going to put a video together for this post but I’m still bedridden and certainly not camera material at the moment so that will have to wait at least a few more days.

Over the coming weeks I’ll share some great resources with you that I’ve recently sampled for Russian too so keep checking back for that (still open to your suggestions as well).


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Comments: If you’ve got something you’d like to add to this or some constructive criticism you can do that at the bottom of this page. Just please be respectful. Any abusive or nonsensical comments will be deleted.

Guest Post: The Only Real Language Learning Hack

Language Learning HacksToday’s guest post is from Olly Richards, an accomplished polyglot from the UK who is currently living in Qatar (jealous!).

Olly runs a blog called I Will Teach You A Language where he shares some really sound and helpful advice, as well as progress updates on his own language learning (Cantonese at the moment). 

I’m delighted to have him share here what I consider to be a really vital point and one I couldn’t agree with more!

Make sure to connect with Olly on TwitterFacebook and Google+, and to follow his progress in Cantonese be sure to check out his YouTube channel as well.


You’d think that after learning nine languages I’d have quite a few tricks up my sleeve. I do have a few, in fact. But most of the time I don’t use them.

These days I focus on one thing only, and on getting that right.

In this post I want to explore the idea of “hacks”, “shortcuts” and “methods”. I’m going to give you my perspective on what really matters in the language learning process after many years of struggle and experiments in very different contexts and I’ll end with some practical suggestions for what you should do if you’re struggling.


Language Learning Hacks

The internet has brought with it great things. Now that information flows freely and instantly across continents, it’s only natural that we go hunting for the things that we need: Where to buy the cheapest travel insurance, How to get a book for half price online, Top-rated hostels in Buenos Aires

…but how to learn a language quickly?


Language learners have jumped on the bandwagon and are looking for shortcuts. “What’s the best method?” “How can I learn Spanish in a week?” “Which app will teach me Japanese the quickest?”

In the digital age everyone is looking for shortcuts.

I’m going to put forward the case that shortcut is the one thing you should be avoiding at all costs.


Why Do People Fail?

Learning a language is not easy, but it is simple.

I didn’t used to think that, but I’ve changed my mind.

When I look back on the languages I’ve learnt, it’s quite difficult for me sometimes to figure out exactly what it was that worked for me. When I first started out learning languages, in Paris at the age of 19, I tried a load of different things. Language exchanges, textbooks, even a correspondence course. When I then learnt Italian, I tried other things. Spanish was a completely different process again. And so it went.

It’s only been since I started my blog that I’ve started to really understand why the things I did were working. One thing that’s helped me to figure this out are all the emails I get from people telling me what their problems are.

It’s become clear to me that the reason most people fail to get anywhere in a foreign language is down to one thing. They are distracted into spending their time on all the sexy but peripheral things that come with a TV screen and an internet connection.

Movies, YouTube videos, iPhone apps, language blogs. Everything except actually doing the work.

With so many options for learning on the table, which do you choose? The longer the menu gets the harder it is to choose.


The Paradox of Choice

Barry Schwartz calls this the Paradox of Choice. Having too much to choose from leads to inner paralysis and poorer decisions.

Imagine a restaurant where there’s only one main course on the menu. You go in, sit down and eat that one dish. If you like it, you’ll go back. If you don’t, you won’t. But either way, by the time you leave the restaurant you’ll know whether it’s for you or not.

This is the approach to language learning that I’m advocating. With fewer options to choose from, you just get on with it, using whatever materials you’ve got available. You do it for a while, observe the results, and then either carry on or change course. By choosing one thing and getting on with it, whether it works out or not, you learn a valuable lesson about what works for you.

Barack Obama only wears blue and grey suits. The reason? In order to cut down on non-vital decisions. He may not win “best-dressed president”, but what he does wear looks good, he’s cool with it, and he just gets on with business.

When I was at high school, my French teacher used to give us a list of 10 words to take home and memorise at the end of every lesson. Rote memorisation is all but dismissed by almost everyone in the language learning field, but you know what? I learnt a load of words. By doing just one thing every week for months on end, I defy you not to learn something!

How many language learning decisions have you made recently, and how important do you think they really were?


Going All In

I’m going all in on this approach right now as I’m learning Cantonese. I’m juggling more things in my life right now than I ever have before – a busy job, writing a dissertation, writing for my blog, writing this! In the past I might have used this as an excuse not to be learning a language as well.

But I’m trying to take a leaf out of Obama’s book. Whatever the colour of the suit, it’s more important that I just put it on and get to work.

If you decide to try out this approach to learning, what would I have you do?

Earlier I talked about how people jump fleetingly from one thing to the next without going into depth on anything? Your biggest priority then, way before you even think about finding that prefect method, should be to avoid this scatter-gun approach to language learning. So what I would have to do instead is to choose one thing that takes your fancy. One thing that you think you might enjoy and do this, and only this, for 2 to 3 weeks.

I don’t think the length of time for doing this one thing is particularly important, but it needs to be long enough that you can go into depth with it, and for me personally, 2 to 3 weeks is the time at which I start to get restless and want to try something else.

Whatever you choose to focus on, doing that only one thing for a period of time gives you a very clear idea of whether it works for you or not. You can choose to do it again or forget about it for good.

But here’s the thing, you would never be able to reach that important conclusion about your own learning if you don’t focus on that thing intensively in the first place.


Some Lessons Learnt

Here are a couple of examples of what I learnt about my own learning recently, through this “One Thing Only” approach.

During a period of burn-out late last year, I took a break from my daily Cantonese routine and did nothing but watch Hong Kong TV dramas every night. I did that for a few weeks and I learnt a couple of important lessons.

Firstly, as a beginner, you’re not going to learn a lot from watching movies in your target language (despite what people often say). Secondly, resting my brain for that period helped massively in consolidating all the language I’d learnt before taking the break.

As a result of this experiment, I no longer try to learn languages through movies and make sure to take time off studying.

There isn’t much to choose from when it comes to Cantonese study materials. I signed up for a paid online resource, which I didn’t think was particularly good, and was even a little critical of on my blog. However, I persisted because it was the only thing available at the time. 5 months later and I’m still using it everyday – listening to the audio lessons in the car every morning. I’ve learnt a lot from it, and I adapted my own approach to make the best use of it. As a result of this extended experiment, I’m no longer fussy about the study material – how I use it is much more important.

Read a book you like, listen to the audio tracks in your text book, write a new conversation opener every day and memorise it, watch one single episode of your favourite drama 2 or 3 times everyday on repeat, even read through the grammar dictionary you bought last year and haven’t opened yet. I really don’t care what it is, providing it’s something you feel like doing.

But do it every day. That’s the hack.


The Only Real Language Learning Hack

The one true language hack, then, is the ability to focus your available study time on something, consistently, and over time.

The ability not to get distracted and start browsing YouTube. The ability to have enough confidence in yourself to just keep going, apply yourself to that one task, to watch what happens and to learn how you learn.

I’ve written before that variety in language learning is an important and necessary thing, and I still believe that. But I’ve come to believe even more strongly that nothing really matters if we can’t shake off this 21st Century addiction to instant gratification and learn how to focus.

As with lots of things in life, one thing done well is worth infinitely more than five things done half-heartedly.

So here’s what I want you to do:

  • Choose one language learning activity (using the examples given above for inspiration)
  • Commit to doing only this for the next 2 weeks
  • Actually do it. 5 days in the week is a good target
  • At the end of the 2 weeks look back at what you’ve achieved, being sure to note both the positives and the negatives, and decide whether you will carry on or change course.
  • Leave a comment below to let me know what you’re going to try out, or alternatively, why you won’t be doing it! :)


This was written by Olly Richards.

Did you find this interesting, useful or encouraging? A quick share on Facebook or Twitter will make my day! Thanks. :)

Comments: If you’ve got something you’d like to add to this or some constructive criticism you can do that at the bottom of this page. Just please be respectful. Any abusive or nonsensical comments will be deleted.

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