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Thursday, October 30th, 2014 01:17 am

I have been learning Russian for the last twelve days. Here's a video of me trying to speak it - feedback very welcome!

I'm doing this mainly because I'm planning a mountaineering trip to Kyrgyzstan next summer. I've travelled in countries where I don't speak the language before, and it's horrible and difficult and isolating. In particular not being able to read the local script (as was the case for me in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia) makes so many practical things harder. Why Russian and not Kyrgyz? Well, friends who've been to Kyrgyzstan tell me that while almost nobody in Kyrgyzstan speaks English, many people there speak at least a little Russian, and I rate my chances of learning Russian to a useful level as much higher than my chances of learning Kyrgyz - Russian is an Indo-European language, it's related to Czech, which I've studied a little, and finding language-learning resources from where I am is going to be much easier. Benny the Irish Polyglot can learn Hungarian in Colombia, but I think I'll make life a bit easier on myself, at least this time :-)

Two resources have been both helpful and inspiring to me: the Coursera course Learning How to Learn, and the aforementioned Benny's website, Fluent In Three Months. I discovered Benny through an interview the LHTL instructors did with him. The other thing that's been helping with motivation is having a Big Hairy Audacious Goal: next to "do a first ascent in the Greater Ranges", "learn enough Russian to get by" seems like (and is!) a mere stepping-stone. The BHAG is helping with the physical training too, but there my thoughts are more like "Does it hurt now? Good. It's going to hurt a lot more at 5000m, so you'd better get on with it".

Historically, I have sucked at learning languages: given how many years I spent studying French at school, it's embarrassing how much I was having to struggle with basic everyday interactions in French on my recent trips to France, and the less said about my Czech or Japanese the better. In Kyrgyzstan I won't have the option of falling back to English, so it's time to HTFU and overcome my inadequacies. My meta-strategy can be summed up as "do all the stuff that you were too lazy, proud, or suspicious to try in previous language-learning efforts": a lot of the techniques covered in LHTL were things I'd heard about but never tried for language-learning.

In more detail, these are the techniques I plan to use:

  • Actually talking to native speakers. Benny's big on this one, arguing that if you want to speak a language then that's what you have to practice. I plan to use italki.com, a website that lets you find native speakers for Skype chats, but if any Russian-speaking readers of this blog would be willing to put up with my attempts, I'd love to speak to you!
  • Recall: the act of recalling information strengthens the neural connections that encode it. LTHL recommends immediately turning your head away from the book and trying to recall it when you first encounter a new fact; in general, you should try and test yourself constantly on any information you're trying to remember. I didn't do this much at school, reasoning that if you don't know something, what do you gain by trying to remember it - surely it's better to expose yourself to the information over and over. A plausible hypothesis, but apparently Science contradicts it.
  • Spaced repetition. The brain needs time to lay down long-term memories, so it's better to spread X hours of practice over a few weeks than to cram it all into X/24 days. This combines nicely with recall - create flashcards, and test yourself on them over days, increasing the period on things you know better. I've been using the smartphone app Anki to learn the 1000 most common Russian words, though unfortunately the deck I found is Russian-to-English, and point 1 suggests I should be concentrating on English-to-Russian, or (better), unnamed-concepts-to-Russian so I don't have to go via English to find the Russian word. I've also made physical flashcards with some basic Russian phrases - hello, goodbye, I am from Scotland, has that mountain been climbed before, that kind of thing. I've never made flashcards before, and I'm not entirely sure why not - laziness?
  • Eating my frogs first, or in other words, doing hard things first thing. My morning routine is now wake up, open the curtains (which I can do without getting out of bed), sit up (this helps the grogginess to drain from my head), pick up my phone and start doing Anki cards. I then usually follow this up with another short Anki session at lunchtime and more when I have a few minutes spare.
  • Mnemonics: instead of simply repeating vocabulary words over and over, I'm trying to invent mnemonics, and preferably vivid images that stick in the mind better. For instance, the Russian for "start" is "начало", pronounced "nachalo"; "на" means "on", so I imagine a line of sprinters poised at the start line, with a cellist on a platform about to sound the note that will start the race. My favourite mnemonic so far is one that [profile] wormwood_pearl invented: the Russian word "понимать", pronounced "ponimat'", means "understand", so I imagine a picky customer going into the automated pony-wash and asking for a particularly complex horse-laundering procedure, which the assistant understands perfectly. I've generally been having trouble coming up with good mnemonics, though. Partly this is lack of practice, and partly it's because many of the words I've tried to learn so far have been function words like and, because, what, then, which, and so on: it's hard to construct vivid images about such things. My mnemonic for "because" is particularly stretched: the word I'm trying to remember is "потому", "patamu", which has a Tam and a Moo in it, and Moo is the sound cows make, and there's a line from a Half-Man Half-Biscuit song "did you ever wonder how they get triangles from a cow? You need buttermilk and cheese and an equilateral chainsaw", and the mathematical symbol for "because" is three dots arranged in a triangle, so I imagine a bonnetted Scotsman called Tam carving a "because" sign out of a cow with a triangular chainsaw. Which is completely stupid, but actually appears to be working. In writing this, it occurs to me that I could help myself to invent mnemonics by taking advantage of the focused and diffuse modes of thinking. When I'm doing flashcards, I'm focused, but creativity requires the diffuse mode to make connections between apparently disparate concepts (preferably after a period of focus). Next time I encounter a word for which I can't think of a mnemonic, I'll write it down so my brain can continue to work on it subconsiously.
  • Chunks and chunk transfer. An essential part of the learning process is the construction of mental chunks - ideas which "hang together", and which can then be recalled as a single unit (like, say, "compiler", or "grammatical gender", or "integration by parts"). Once you have acquired a chunk in one context, you can more easily transfer this knowledge to acquire chunks in new contexts. Here's a description of how I learned to contact juggle by applying a chunk from skiing - I was later able to apply that chunk to rock climbing, where it's called "deadpointing". I had a great Twitter conversation about how deadpointing applies to all sorts of other physical disciplines - fascinating stuff. Anyway, chunk transfer Is My Friend when it comes to language-learning too. I've been able to apply some chunks from Czech (my favourite so far was when I realised that the черно in чернослив (damson, from Google Translate) meant "black" and was cognate with Czech černá, so the слив must mean something like "plum" and was therefore cognate with "slivovice", the name of a potent moonshine distilled throughout Central Europe. I've also, to my delight, been able to transfer a lot of chunks from Nadsat, the teenage slang used in the novel A Clockwork Orange.
  • Not caring about making mistakes. My difficulties with languages are symptomatic of a deeper problem - I've always found enough subjects easy that I could do well in school simply by relying on the things that I could do without difficulty. This, I think, created a fixed mindset - my identity became bound up with "being clever", so I subconsiously avoided situations that would make me look or feel stupid. Tackling hard problems was allowed, but only within the range of subjects that I was good at. My difficulties with the programming language Haskell probably come under this heading too (thing I ought to be good at, but which made me feel stupid), and juggling got a lot less fun (and I started improving a lot less) once I started thinking "I've been juggling X years, I should be better at this by now" rather than "I'm no good at physical hand/eye coordination, I'm allowed to be bad at this". But languages don't come easy to me, so I have to cultivate a growth mindset - more straightforwardly, I need to internalise the idea that sucking at something is an essential step on the way to being good at that thing.
  • Sleep. Sleep physically shrinks neurons, allowing waste products to be removed. It also plays a key role in the consolidation of long-term memories. So getting a full night's sleep as often as possible is very important to successful learning. [Checks time. Oops.]
  • Exercise: as well as being great for general mental health, exercise is apparently nigh-essential for effective learning. Fortunately, I need to get a lot fitter anyway :-)

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