The Language of Pickled Cucumber and Honey

I’ve shared you earlier my story with English, Swedish and French. As Russian is my main learning language right now, I thought I could reflect a bit about why I started to learn it and how has it been for me so far.

Why Russian?

For some reason, as long as I’ve known I want to learn a lot of languages, Russian has been on my list. I’m not entirely sure how it found it’s way there. I recognize, in general, at least 5 different reasons to want to learn a language: exposure, need, practicality, social or cultural interest (I could write another blog post about my thoughts on this!).

To some extent, it’s probably the exposure: the more I listen to a language, the more intrigued I get. In Finland, there are 70 000 people whose first language is Russian, and in 2015 we had 53 000 Russian tourists visiting overnight. So it is likely to hear a bit of Russian in Finland.

In elementary school, I had some friends on my class whose mother tongue was Russian, and sometimes I’d secretly listen to them speaking on the phone with their parents and be intrigued about how the same person sounds so different when speaking another language. I can’t really remember what Russian sounded to me like back then.

In high school a classmate of mine, a girl originally from Russia, taught me some Russian. I learned the letters, and some numbers and colours and simple phrases. I guess after that I had the feeling I always get after learning a bit of a language: I wanted to learn more.

Partly, I guess, it’s also practical: I found it possibly useful for future career opportunities. Many Finnish companies do business with Russia, and Russian isn’t a language everybody learns, so it can help you stand out as a job applicant.

I definitely have a cultural interest for Russian. There are many similarities – generous hospitality, a certain kind of stubborn pride, and, I guess, liking vodka. But the differences often feel more distinct. Russian people are said to be more temperamental, living in the moment and open in their expression of feelings. Russian has an imperial history. When I think of Russian cuisine, I think of pickled cucumber and honey (I’m not sure if Russian people actually eat this or if it’s a Finnish misconception), which somehow sums up how I feel about the whole culture: surprising, perhaps even somewhat strange at first glance, but in fact extremely likeable and brilliantly original.

But there is, I think, a sixth reason to feel drawn to a language. It’s the mysterious appeal you sometimes feel about a language, alluring interest. I think it may be born from a combination of all the other reasons I mentioned, but you may feel it without really being able to recognize any logical reasons behind it.

There are two foreign languages that have this special appeal for me: Swedish and Russian. I could call it infatuation, because it feel a bit the same as thinking about that someone special you like! Haha. I’m just mysteriously drawn to these two languages, they are beautiful and intriguing to me. They are the two neighboring languages to Finnish, yet not related to it at all and not really closely to each other either. Two very different cultures surrounding us, having their own influence on the Finnish culture, and still feel like different worlds.

I can’t explain it any better. Have you ever had that kind of feeling about another language?

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In St. Petersburgh in 2016

A patchy history of Russian courses

I finally got the chance to actually study Russian in university. There were a lot of languages to choose from, but for some reason I jumped straight on a Russian course without a second thought.

However, university studies were much more demanding than upper secondary school, where I had thrived learning four languages at the same time. I really didn’t usually do my Russian homework and because of that, the classes weren’t too useful, either. Every semester I couldn’t even fit the courses in my schedule. I also had a year off from university at one point.

So my Russian studies were really scattered: Course 1A in spring 2011, 1B in fall 2012, 2A and 2B in fall 2014(!) and 3A and 3B in fall 2015. Everytime I just stubbornly moved on to the next level even though I felt like I’d forgotten half of the previous courses (and maybe never learned the other half because I hadn’t really been concentrating on the courses).

So Russian was, after French, the language I most felt like I should have already learned more than I had. That’s why I’ve picked it up now again as my second project after having decided to really start learning languages again last year.

What’s difficult and what’s easy

I’d say Russian has been the most difficult for me to learn of all the languages I’ve studied.

Usually I learn really well by listening and back in school I could, for example, memorise entire course book chapters of French or Swedish just by listening to the recordings. Of course, I only recently started to feel like I can understand French speech at normal speed – the course book chapter recordings were simple and slow. But with Russian, even the simplest chapters just sounded like “lksdjladghksdlsdfhgsuadslkj” in the beginning, even after I had read and translated the text and learned the vocabulary. It took me ages to get the hang of how to listen to the language. There’s something entirely different about the rhythm, structure and sounds of it.

Reading Russian is also kind of difficult for me. No, I actually had no trouble learning the alphabet, when it comes to recognizing the individual letters, but somehow I still read very slowly. Normally I’d say you read by just looking at a word or even the entire sentence, but I still read Russian kind of letter by letter. It’s all about lack of practice, of course.

Another problem with reading is, I can’t tell where the stress on longer words is. If there’s a new word I read and haven’t heard, it’s very difficult to imagine what the word is supposed to sound like, because the placement of the stress makes a huge difference. I’m not entirely sure if there are any rules for this or if you learn to place the stress only word by word.

The cases are so confusing. Yes, Finnish is notorious for them. I don’t know if being naturally familiar with the concept makes it easier or not. I suppose I learn the declension rules easily enough, they are logical enough. The biggest problem is when to use which case! That’s where having cases in my own language is mostly just a stumbling block. The genitive in Russian is used to state ownership, just like in Finnish, but it’s also used with amounts such as a lot or a little, which, in Finnish, is expressed with partitive, also the case used for partial objects, which are, then again expressed in accusative in Russian. Confused yet? I am. Argh!

What’s easy: Verb tenses!
But wait –

That reminds me of yet another difficult thing: verb aspects. They only came in on my last two courses of Russian and I certainly haven’t gotten my head around them yet.
And all the little movement verbs with their prefixes:

входить / войтиto go in, to enter
выходить / выйтиto go out, to leave, to exit
всходить / взoйтиto go up, to ascend
доходить / дойтиto get to, to get as far as, to reach
заходить / зайтиto drop in, to stop by
обходить / обойтиto walk around, to bypass
отходить / отойтиto walk away
переходить / перейтиto go across, to turn
подходить / подойтиto approach
приходить / прийтиto arrive, to come
проходить / пройтиto go by, to go past
сходить / сойтиto go down, decend
уходить / уйтиto go from, to leave, depart

Gahh… Send help.

So, not so many things I’d find easy in Russian, but I guess I enjoy the challenge! And all the more rewarding it will be when I make progress.

I’m still kind of searching my favourite methods to learn Russian. Any ideas are welcomed!

And I’d be happy to hear  about your experiences. Have you learned Russian? Why did you choose to learn it? What do you find difficult or easy? Or did you relate to any of these thoughts with another language you’re learning?

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Kremlin of Nizhny Novgorod

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Language learning goals for January 2017

New year is one of my favourite holidays, because I’m such a crazy planner and list-maker and reviewer. I love to look back and say “Wow, what a year” and think about everything I learned and experienced, and I enjoy looking forward and planning and setting goals, too.

I revived my language learning hobby during last year, and it means this year I had one more exciting thing to make plans and set goals for. This post includes not only a review for December and my goals for January, but also a few words about my plans for 2017 as a whole.

This post is inspired by the Clear the list challenge Hosted by Lindsay does languages, Shannon of Eurolinguiste, Kris Broholm and Angel Pretot.

Clear The List

Review: December 2016

Seems than even if beforehand you think that you don’t really have to worry about anything at all and you’ll have plenty of time to do all the holiday preparations, December always just ends up being crazy anyway. It feels like I had more stuff to do than in the last four months altogether.

So I didn’t have time to blog, even though I had some plans for a post or two. I’ll have to save those for this month. But what’s really important, I did manage to squeeze in some language learning!

The bigger picture: Multiple languages but switching focus

Looking at the big picture of my language learning, I had two major challenges:
trying to learn multiple languages at the same time – I hadn’t really done that in a few years – and switching focus from French to Russian. The two goals are related, they both meant I had to optimize the amount of time and effort spent on each language.

In the beginning I did notice that I was kind of drawn to my usual French activities resisted picking up the new methods for Russian, but in the end, I’d say I succeeded in this larger scale goal. I’m definitely more focused on Russian now, while I managed to keep up  a decent pace with the other two languages, too.

Russian

My most important goal was to keep up the tandem learning project: meeting twice a week and doing the pre-tasks assigned to me by my tandem partner. We had to skip two or three meetings due to one nasty cold and some end-of-term panic, but in general, I think we both worked quite hard and it’s been very useful so far!

I also planned to translate two dialogues from my textbook per week, but I’d say I did one per week on average. In addition to that, my intention was to complete one 25-lesson course on Babbel plus 20 grammar lessons. Did 20/25 lessons, and only 9 grammar lessons.

Oh, well. December happened.

French

I did pretty much everything I planned: three sets of Goldlist each week, listening to the audiobook two or three times per week and some Babbel review, although the latter just once a week instead of the two I’d planned.

Swedish

I wanted to read more regularly but I didn’t. I finished Sommarboken the first week, then found myself a new book, Vägen till Jerusalem, but only managed to start reading it in the holidays.

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I only had time to read in the holidays…

Clara Henry vlogs I did watch every week. I didn’t do the test myself and watch a movie without subtitles. Don’t really know if I’m that much into Swedish movies.

But I visited Stockholm and bought tickets to Fotografiska and ordered a coffee and a Kokosboll. 😀 Not exactly a huge achievement for my upposed-to-be advanced Swedish, but at least I didn’t even consider speaking English in those situations.

All in all… I might feel like I did bad because I slipped from so many of my goals, but the great thing about having found the language learning community of the Internet is that I know everyone else struggled to keep up with their routine in December, too. It’s just normal I guess. I still did a lot!

My motto for the new year: Don’t be discouraged! Even if you end up falling off your routine, the most important thing is that you will pick it up again.

Language learning goals for January 2017

So many new things will be starting in January and I’ll be really busy, so I know I’ll have to be realistic with my language learning goals. So I’ll do slightly less in total, but my main goal is to just keep finding time for at least a little bit of languages every day.

I made myself a new tracker (you can see it in the cover picture of this post) to ease my weekly planning and to keep better track on my goals. Each Sunday I’ll plan ahead my language activities for the next week.

Russian

Russian will still be my main project. I’m continuing the tandem learning project, one meeting per week plus the exercises my tandem partner plans for me.

To support the tandem learning I’ll do some textbook practice, Babbel lessons and watch a series and some news.

Textbooks

I didn’t really warm for the translation method I tried last month, but I’ll give it another go. I was translating chapters I’d actually already studied a couple of years ago on my Russian course in uni, because I felt like I’ve forgotten everything, but in the end I think I actually remembered more than expected and it was a bit boring to translate the stuff I already new. So now I’ll move on to the chapters I never studied before. I’ll translate one dialogue per week.

I also really decided to do something about the cases, which I really haven’t gotten my head around. In the holidays I did a kind of a summary poster of all the cases. I thought that would help me remember how they work, because my university Russian did cover all of them – but the thing is, I just haven’t learnt them properly, and making the summary proved me that.

So to begin with, I’ll do all the case excercises from my textbook, two cases per week. There are approximately three exercises per case so not too many, but that’s a start.

Babbel

To be honest, the Babbel lessons have been too easy so far. I’ll see for another month, if it’s any use. I’ll do six lessons per week.

Series and news

I’ve been watching a telenovela series called Бедная Настя (Bednaya Nastya) or Poor Nastya for about 25 episodes so far, and it’s the perfect stress-free language resource for me. It’s a slightly silly melodramatic story set in imperial Russia in the 19th century.

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19th century imperial dresses and uniforms, a huge relationship mess AND you learn Russian. Perfect.

It’s with subtitles and I don’t even try to write down any new words or do anything active while watching it, so not much effort is involved, but I do recognize a lot of words and sentences all the time, so I think it’s useful anyway. I’ll try to watch one 40 minute episode per week.

In addition, I’ll start watching news in Russian at least once a week. The Finnish National Television airs news in Russian every day so it’s very easily available for me.

Swedish

I’ll keep watching the weekly vlog from Clara Henry and try to read the novel Vägen till Jerusalem, let’s say 30 pages per week . (I’m a slow reader in any language)

French

I’ve dropped the French Babbel now, and will simply keep doing my Goldlist three sets per week and listen to an audiobook for half an hour or so.

It’s very little time for Swedish and French, but I hope it’ll be enough to keep me from forgetting too much…

OH. By the way!

I didn’t include a review of last year as a whole, but this tells something about what happened in my 2016 of languages.

I’ve just recently found a French artist, Indila, whose music I’ve really fallen in love with, and I had the most thrilling experience, when listening to the song Boite en argent (well, looping it, to be honest, that’s what I do when I fall for a song).

I’d really listened to it maybe two times before and I started to realize I actually understand what they’re singing. I mean, not just a few words or the chorus, but majority of the whole song. That never happens to me with French songs! I always had to listen again and again and again and then still check the lyrics somewhere and still make an effort to translate it.

So I started paying attention to it, and I actually understand a lot of French lyrics now. So I’ve definitely made a friggin’ lot of progress last year!

Can’t even describe how happy I was!

Plans for the year 2017

New year is always a great moment to make some bigger plans, so I gave a thought or two to the big picture of my languages. Here’s a rough plan for an awesome year in languages:

January–April: Where can my get my Russian in four months?

I think I’ll keep my focus on Russian until the end of April. Perhaps even May, we’ll see. I should be able to make quite some progress in that time. I’m excited to see how much!

May–June: Swedish, how I’ve missed you, don’t go away again

I think I’ll dedicate a month or two for Swedish in May-June. It seems like it’s about time then; it’ll be a year since I left Sweden after my exchange. And for no reason, I just love Swedish. Lovelovelove. I’ll let the midsummer warmth melt the ice. And from then on, I’ll work harder to keep it away!

January–June: French – from understanding to speaking

Last year, I’ve taken a huge leap with my understanding of French, but I still don’t know how well I actually speak… I’ll come up with a way to practice speaking starting in February and gradually add the amount of practice towards the summer.

July–September: New (old) language!

If I’m happy enough with my progress, perhaps I can give myself the permission to dig out another language I used to study ages ago. Japanese, or German? We’ll see!

October–December: Fight the freeze

It get’s harder to think what I actually want to do, the further in the future we go, but right now I think I could try out some sort of a review cycle, changing which language I have my main focus on, brushing up my existing language skills (of course learning some new stuff too). How often should I give more practice to a language to prevent it from freezing? Or how much time is little enough continuously, to keep up a language or even make some slow progress? I’ll see if I can start finding the answers. Any of your experiences would be interesting to hear!

That’s my plan. I’d love to hear about yours.

I hope you all have an amazing, thrilling and wonderful year in language learning!