Learner's story: On diminishing returns in learning—how you can never be fluent

Learner's story: On diminishing returns in learning—how you can never be fluent

Harry’s Russian allowed him to step out into the steppes of Kazakhstan; now he advises you to step out of the language bubble.

What do you say when people ask what you do?

I am a resident director and a student. In America, The ‘resident director’ part is easy to explain here since I have friends who’ve held the same position but in Kazakhstan, when I explained that I was a student administrator, people always thought I taught English.

I’m here to navigate the bureaucratic processes in Kazakhstan, to help students with visas and registrations, to schedule activities and excursions, and to assist with their academic processes, making sure they attend the Russian classes, for example. Now, when people in Kazakhstan ask what I do, I simply say “I help foreign students”, to which they usually reply semi-jokingly ”Oh they probably they need a lot of help”.

Why does your job require such a high level of Russian?

It’s true that your Russian needs to be pretty advanced for this job. According to the American Council system (with levels from 0 to L3+) the requirement is 2+. One must be able to communicate and find their way in the International Relations department here, where everything is in official, governmental Russian. You have to be comfortable speaking with teachers on a professional level, answering theoretical questions and attending official dinners—so everyday Russian will not do. I hate the word’ fluency’, so I don’t want to define the language requirement as such, but my Russian has to be at a high level to work in this position.

Read Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It

Why do you hate the word ‘fluency’?

Because it doesn’t have one good, concrete definition. It is a concept that is especially problematic with people who know very little about studying languages. For me, fluency means being at the level of a native speaker, but that is simply unattainable. I do realise though that for others fluency means navigating in the language on an everyday basis, buying groceries, being able to rent an apartment, making friends or working using the language.

Fluency is interpreted differently by everyone and hence using the term without pre-defining it may cause misunderstandings.

When did you start to learn Russian? What prompted you?

It was in the 10th grade in high school—I was 14 at the time. As a course choice, Russian was a rarity in the area and I knew my brother had taken it but quickly dropped it. I wish I had something interesting to say regarding the inspiration… that I’d read War and Peace and was fascinated by the culture or even that I’d learned about the USSR and become a communist, but no, it was nothing like that. I think I was partially attracted to it because of my brother’s brief interest. The other language offered was Spanish but I thought it was a boring choice, even if it was useful, because many people in America speak it. I thought: the more ‘useless’, the better. Little did I know how useful Russian would actually be.

Your brother dropped out. What kept you going?

It’s hard to tell. I remember at the end of high school exams we were listing our predicted majors and I listed French, which I was also taking. Having a natural attraction to languages, I was never bored with it. My ultimate goal was fluency. But if you’d told me in high school I’d end up studying Russian abroad, I’d have been surprised.

In college I was majoring in French, but I wanted to study another language so over the summer I enrolled in Middlebury College. They taught nine languages and had a very strong Russian department. Through them I went on to study Russian with the American Council for two months over the summer of 2009. Those college classes in Russian following the programme abroad were not incredibly strong and although I don’t want to trash my school here, I made much more progress in Russia. The only time I didn’t actively study Russian throughout my degree was when I spent a semester abroad in Israel. I ended up majoring in both French and Russian in 2010.

In the meantime I was trying to apply for a Critical Language scholarship, but was rejected twice. I was disheartened, but a friend asked me “why not try again?” And, to my disbelief, at the third attempt I got it—a full scholarship to study the language in the country where it is spoken! I went to Kazan in Russia for two months with all expenses paid—flights, apartment, visa, food, classes—and I was very lucky and grateful. I came back to the US for only a short time and then qualified for a Russian Overseas Flagship Programme to go to St. Petersburg for nine months, until May 2012. At that point I had already officially graduated from college, but because I was still studying, I thought of it as part of college,

When did you start developing a Russian-related career plan?

For some time I was hoping to make a career as a translator or an interpreter. Potentially, I could still have been successful in translation, but I think I’d have had to be a bilingual and speak Russian like a native to do professional interpreting.

It was only after the program in St. Petersburg that I realised the position of resident director could be for me—before that I’d never considered it interesting, and had never investigated what it involved. Two years ago I worked in Vladimir— where I’d studied Russian abroad for the first time. I had a great group of students, and was working with professional and well-experienced teachers who were excited about the language.

Now I have inspiring colleagues and students, everything is paid for and I’m getting paid to live in a Russian-speaking country. Everything I wanted just came together.

How did your relationship with Russian evolve over time?

In the beginning Russian seemed a very, very foreign language. Now, after living in Russia and Kazakhstan for more than two years, it seems almost mundane—not in a negative way, but just very familiar. The honeymoon period is over, but that’s not to say that it’s stopped being exciting; it can still catch me off guard at times!

I have a fairly good command of the language, but I learn something new everyday and overall, I’d give myself a B+.

That seems a very modest assessment considering your profession and level. Many people would give you an A, so why only B+?

It’s not modesty but fairness—an attitude you develop especially if you speak to natives everyday. I interact with people who still look at me as an idiot when I say something unclearly. This happens with Russians and even more so with Kazakhstan people, who have much less experience with non-native Russian speakers.

In English speaking countries we are more used to people with different accents and pronunciations, but here people have much less understanding. When you misplace the stress—they won’t understand you.

On top of that I am surrounded by Russian pedagogues whose job it is to teach Russian, both as a foreign language and to native speakers.

It’s a cliché, but there is some truth in the saying that the more you learn, the more you realise how little you know.

In the beginning it’s easy to learn the basics and quickly progress through the first 1–2 levels to end up communicating fairly well. However, if you plan to continue, the more advanced you want to get, the more time you’ll need to invest. After a certain level, you experience diminishing returns on the same time investment, so it takes an unbelievable number of hours to go a step higher. This is not to say that studying is pointless because, of course, you are still polishing the language but it’s simply easier to notice progress at a lower level.

Which areas do you need to keep working on?

Pronunciation. The stress is still something that bothers me. I think there is a pattern that is emerging more clearly after 14 years of study. In Russian, the stress tends to jump and change the sounds of the words—you have to be aware of it, otherwise you won’t be understood.

It’s also important for me to get the perfect and imperfect verb forms right. Even though I know they are something of a refinement in a language, and their usage also depends on which part of a sentence the speaker wants to emphasise, you can always find a way to justify your usage!

I’d love to say a word about cases. They are not frustrating at all. I’d say that if, after 10 years of studying, you still find them frustrating, you should just abandon Russian. I have a student who is terrible with cases, to the point where I think there is no hope for him. In comparison to orthography [writing conventions—MK], the cases aren’t really hard—they are very formulaic and an integral part of Russian. Make sure you study your cases, people!

Russian cases aren’t frustrating at all!

Recently I’ve been working on Russian sayings and idiomatic expressions. Being on the outside of the culture looking in, it does seem that natives use a lot of these, together with jokes. I have a hard time understanding the jokes, and I see that reflected on the Russian faces. In order to improve on this you need to be surrounded by native speakers, and keep reading and watching films. Even when you can recognise these idioms and jokes, you may still have quite a way to go before you can respond!

I wish my knowledge was active instead of passive—I’d be a language beast! But making it active is a whole new feat.

Especially with sayings, which you can’t just say randomly, but have to wait for the right circumstances, the opportunities for practice are limited.

You said you learn new things everyday. Just by interacting with people and living in the country you pick up a lot of new phrases, words and… maybe jokes too :-) Is there anything else you do with learning in mind?

It’s hard to come home after a day’s work and jump back into Russian. One thing I have been using religiously though is pikabu.ru, which is a Russian version of Reddit. I’ve been looking for something like this since 2011 because I love Reddit. I use pikabu.ru every day, and love its random, funny, interesting news. Everything is in colloquial Russian so not only do I get the language practice, but also the Russian viewpoint on what happens in the world.

You work a lot with students, so you often interact with people at earlier stages of their learning journey. What are the common mistakes they make?

Something I notice a lot, and one of the issues I described above, is a problem with stress in words. My advice is that whenever you learn a word you should immediately investigate the stress. The site wikislovar —is a Russian language dictionary that lists words in different cases, giving both the singular and plural to allow you to see the differences in stress. If you ignore the stress, or learn it wrongly you’ill end up pronouncing words incorrectly.

The stress varies so much that, if placed incorrectly, people may not even consider what you say to be Russian! It’s much harder to undo what you have learned wrongly than to put some effort into learning it properly from the outset.

Another area on which I can speak from experience is phonetics. Schools and language programs in the US don’t pay enough attention to phonetics, and this results in students having very heavy accents. I have to stress here that it isn’t about speaking like a native or aiming to seem like a Russian—we will always remain obvious foreigners—it’s just a matter of learning how to be understood. Phonetics explains the required position of the mouth, teeth and tongue for pronouncing the sounds properly. It seems that language-specific online phonetics materials aren’t easy to come by though.

Because of the lack of such training, some students still have a habit of saying things incorrectly even after two semesters abroad.

I think pronunciation is something everyone can learn—our tongues are not locked in one place.

We simply need to look at diagrams, understand how native speakers shape their mouths and replicate it. As one of my teachers once said: it’s all just tongue gymnastics. Learning correct pronunciation is important for all languages of course, but even more so for Russian.

Pronunciation is just tongue gymnastics.

Are there any faults in your students’ approach?

One of my best students is incredibly outgoing, friendly and not afraid of making mistakes. He shows a constant excitement about the language, asks questions to all staff members and has no inhibitions in talking. Some students can be afraid to speak for fear of making a mistake but that just isn’t on his radar for! In the beginning he had a hard time putting words together, but that didn’t stop him from going out and taking advantage of all the opportunities. Now he speaks in coherent sentences with more information content.

The most important thing in terms of approach is that you have to be continuously excited about learning—to the point where you don’t care about making mistakes.

You must realise that mistakes are a way of exploring new territory. If you only feel comfortable in the bubble of words you already know, you’ll never venture beyond that. You have to move forward relentlessly!

Making mistakes in a language is a way of exploring new territory.

The program is not responsible for my students’ progress. It is of course important that we offer small classes with experienced teachers and great instruction. I’d like to think that my students understand how instruction, even if it’s for 16–20 hours of a week, is only a stepping stone to a higher level, and that language is only truly used in real-life situations outside the class, where it exists in its raw, spoken form.

You can easily tell who is only doing well in class and who is making genuine progress. Obviously, everyone has high expectations from studying abroad and some subscribe to the prevailing notion that learning will happen almost unaided in class or by virtue of their simply being in a foreign country. But being here is just the first step of course.

A student who doesn’t fully engage with the language and doesn’t go out to use it will only make limited gains.

Do you have any funny stories about students’ or your own mistakes when learning Russian?

A common confusion in Russian is between the name of the writer Tolstoy (Толстой) and the word for fat, tolsty (толстый). One of the students was telling me about working out, saying “I don’t want to become Толстой”. I don’t think the avoidance of becoming the next genius of Russian literature was really what he was worried about!

As for me, when one of the coordinators taught me a diminutive version of a Kazakh word, I mispronounced a vowel. Instead of saying the word for ‘mister’, I ended up saying ‘tree’. That one was only a small mistake, but whenever that happens, you just have to go with the flow and laugh. It’s very important to realise that at every level you will always make mistakes.

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