I’m back!

Well so much for updating over the summer!  I think I imagined having a bit more free time to fill, but instead worked ~14 hours a day all the way through.  So! Russian thoughts and results:

Initial conditions: I took 5 years of Russian in high school, and expected that I’d remember quite a bit when I started back up again last December.  That didn’t turn out to be the case, unfortunately.  I remembered the alphabet and phonetics fairly well, some vague impressions of a few of the cases, a few fragments of poetry that we memorized in class, and around 20 words.  It’s hard to say how much time it spared me, had I never taken Russian in school.  I’d like to point out that I had good teachers - they cared, they had good Russian accents, and they did a good job of stimulating interest.  I don’t remember my classes very vividly, so I’m going to need to really look into typical high-school curricula to figure out what tends to go wrong at this stage.  I suspect that the major issue is that most language classes are descriptive.  You look at the language and talk about what it’s doing.  You memorize poems and talk about what they mean, but it’s from the outside looking in.  There’s grammar and vocab study, but again, it’s looking at the problem from the outside: the best translation of this word is X, if you use this grammatical construction, it’s closest to the English Y, etc.  You are thinking in English the whole time, coming up with English ways to describe the language, and end up learning more about the language than how to use it to communicate.

I hope to talk more about some of the issues in standard language classes and what might be some curricula and pedagogy changes that would help produce more effective classes.  This isn’t a case of teachers being lazy or anything - teaching language may be an even more complicated problem than learning it, and coming up with solutions for that takes a lot of careful thought and research.

Anyways.  That’s where I started in late December.  (One of the benefits of an Anki deck is you have data regarding what you did when and how much time you took)

Here’s my progress:
December: Very intense 10 days to start off (yay winter vacation, where I can work more than when I’m not on vacation!)  ~6-8 hours a day, working with Brown’s New Penguin Guide to Russian, watching a ton of Russian cartoons with text transcriptions, nabbing as many words from a Russian frequency list that I could, and writing as much as I could on Lang-8 to get some sense of how these words work together.  I added 1300 cards to my Anki deck in that period.  Insanity.

January: Learned the cards I wrote in December.  25 cards a day and continued that rate up until May or so.  This ended up being 30–45 minutes a day.  My reviews took longer than I expected (French took my consistently 25 minutes/day if I was doing 25 reviews a day) because I was trying to save time by only using 1 card per word.  You can get away with this in French somewhat; not so in Russian.  The words are simply too foreign and as soon as you try to remember a word that’s more than a week or two old, you can’t.  I fixed this in February or March and my reviews sped up considerably.

February: I did my next big card-making binge in mid February, around 880 cards over a week vacation with a lot of long train trips.  I used more of the New Penguin course to get more grammar and continued adding easy picture cards from my frequency list.  Any grammar or usage questions I put up at lang-8.  This was when I learned most of the cases in Russian.

March: Still doing 25/day new cards on the subway.  Wrote ~300 new cards on the weekends.  Still choosing easy picture candidates from my frequency lists.

April: In April, I came up with mnemonic imagery for easier memorization of verb conjugations.  This is going to be a big theme in the book, because at this point I’m using it *all the time*.  Very very helpful; in short, you pick arbitrary concrete images and tie them to abstract concepts like verb conjugations, gender of nouns, word stress, pronunciation patters, prefixes, etc., and you link them to the words you’re learning.  Also started reading Assimil book and sticking interesting constructions into my Anki deck.  Wrote ~400 new cards that month, many of them relating to mnemonics.

May: At this point I was beginning to be able to write very simple example sentences and stories about my day.  This let me begin learning more abstract words from my frequency list.  Covered things like adjective endings in various cases, some basic prepositions and their associated cases, etc.  Wrote ~500 new cards, and started turning up my new cards/day count to 35, then 45.

June: I get a lot of free time in rehearsals in June, and use most of it to write new cards, around 900 new ones before I get to Middlebury on June 22nd.  In June I start picking up the ability to think in Russian without working at it.  I have huge holes in my vocabulary, but the words start to flow together such that I can form some complete thoughts in my head in many circumstances.  I start writing examples for abstract words in my frequency list without much difficulty and submitting them to lang-8.  I use each example sentence in my Anki deck as a definition for the word I’m trying to word, and I use each correction for those sentences as a grammar lesson.  I also started using Google images inside of Google translate in order to give me good contexts for each word.  I basically switch to lang-8 corrections as my main source of grammar at this point.

On June 20th, I have an Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) according to ACTFL standards.  This is the first time I spoke Russian with a real person for more than 2 minutes on the subway (that was May).  We spoke for 20-25 minutes on the telephone.  It was somewhat terrifying, and I couldn’t think fast enough to switch words into their proper cases, but I was able to talk for that whole time about myself, my city, my friends, my profession, as well as a surprise role-play in a restaurant.  I was rated 1.5, ACTFL level Intermediate-Mid, and placed into level 5/7 at Middlebury.  The written test I did when I arrived also confirmed level 1.5.

Middlebury: June 22 – Aug 17.  Middlebury was madness, especially this time.  While I was placed into level 5, I switched up to level 6/7 after a couple of days.  I was in over my head for a week or two, and caught up by week 3 or so.  Middlebury provided 4 hours of class every weekday, including a 1 hour film class daily, and expects that you’ll spend 2-4 hours on homework per day.  There are numerous clubs and activities to fill your days if you have time (I was too busy playing catch up to participate in many of them).  Each Friday, every class has a test.  The 6th level has a 1.5 hour written/audio test and a 15 minute oral monologue on two of 4-5 subjects you find out about on Wednesday.

I learned a lot.  I took every homework and test correction and put it into my Anki deck, along with all the vocab we were expected to know for a given weekly test.  I cranked my daily Anki use up to 55 new cards per day, which meant about 60-80 minutes a day of reviews by the second week.  In those 8 weeks, I wrote ~2500 new cards.  I have about a hundred left to learn at this point.  On August 7th I took another Oral Proficiency Interview (ACTFL OPI) with the same tester as my first one, this time officially.  I scored a 2.0, Advanced-Low on the ACTFL scale.  We discussed my language learning history, the referendum system of California, language learning methodology, ways to improve high schools in the US, and the job market in Vienna.  Our role play tripped me up a bit (was a scenario where I got into an accident while borrowing a friend’s card), but for the most part, I felt comfortable, used high level vocabulary, and didn’t have to think much about grammar.  My written test scored 2.9 (Advanced-High) according to ACTFL standards, although that wasn’t an official ACTFL test.  At this point I can comfortably talk about pretty–much whatever I want, though there are some situations where I have to make some strange maneuvers around vocabulary I don’t have.  I can understand most texts without a dictionary, including newspapers, and probably excluding some forms of poetry (and maybe some types of literature, at least in terms of understanding *everything* – my class focused on current events and politics, though I started in on Harry Potter without trouble, so I imagine most literature would be fine)

Current plans:  To cope with the aftermath of Middlebury’s insane Anki schedule, I’ve turned off learning new cards until my reviews return to sane levels (during Middlebury, I was doing about 230 reviews a day).  I’m at 180 reviews a day now (about 30 minutes if I really focus) and will start learning new cards again as soon as I hit around 100 reviews a day.  I didn’t have any time or brain space in Middlebury to play with my frequency list, and so I’m going to work through it over the next 3 months.  I picked up an addiction to the American TV series “Lost” in Russian over the summer, and watched 2 seasons (no subtitles, used Wikipedia in Russian if I had some difficulty).  I’ll finish the next 4 seasons over the next 3 months.  I didn’t do as much reading as I expected at Middlebury, so I will likely finish Harry Potter 2 in Russian just to get a good chunk of literature into my head.  I plan to meet up via Skype with some friends at Middlebury on a weekly or every-other-week basis to chat in Russian for 30-60 minutes a week and help integrate new words into my spoken vocabulary.

Final expected results by the end of the year:  I’m speaking pretty well and my sense of grammar is pretty solid at this point.  Both of those would improve naturally after Middlebury for another few months as the dust settles, but will improve even more as I continue to review my Anki deck.  My vocabulary is already pretty flexible, and by the time I add another few hundred more words from my frequency list, it should be about what I want it to be.  My listening comprehension of native Russian speakers is not yet where I want it to be (one of the disadvantages of Middlebury is that most of your listening input is from students, rather than native speakers).  Watching TV in Russian has been extremely helpful for this, and I imagine 4 more seasons of Lost without subtitles will solidify that pretty well.  By the end of the year, I suspect I’ll have what I wanted to have – solid fluency around the C1 level.

I learned a lot about language learning in general through this process.  Russian is about twice as hard as French, and helped me develop a pretty effective toolkit to deal with it.  I’m really excited to write all this down over the next couple of months (the manuscript is due Nov 1).  I went down to the Random House building yesterday and met my editor, my agent and my publisher in person for the first time.  They’re all simply great people, and I’m so fortunate to have them on board.  This book is going to be really, really good; way better than I could ever have done on my own.

In terms of site updates and videos and things, the vast majority of my time is going to be spent writing, which means that I won’t have time to finish the French videos/Anki decks, or start the German, Italian or Russian video/Anki deck series until the book is done.  If I can get it done and edited early, then I have a shot at getting it published in 2013 instead of 2014, and so I’m going to do whatever I can to do just that.  If some of you were waiting until the end of the summer for those resources, please accept my apologies; for French, I’ve heard really good things about the free pronunciation course (with recordings).  Take that course and stick whatever you feel like you’ll need help remembering into your Anki deck and you should be ready to start building vocab and grammar.  Your goals are to learn to hear differences between new sounds (rue vs roux, for example), and ideally to learn the spelling rules so that when you see a new word, you know what it probably sounds like.  That way you won’t have to spend time memorizing pronunciation for each word individually and can just focus on the few exceptions to those rules.

PS: To those who sent emails and questions, I’m going to be working through my backlog of emails over the next week or two, so I’ll get to you as soon as I can!

This entry was posted in Blog, Book Updates, General Language Learning, Learn Russian. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to I’m back!

  1. Zach says:

    Awesome blog post. I mean, I’ve probably read this entire 4-5 times because it is simply the greatest, and reading this post is straight inspirational. I mean, the amount of russian you expect to learn in a year is insane, and doing a chunk of it on trains and spare time on vacations is just crazy cool dedication. It’s great. Also, from someone who really really really wants to buy at least one copy (maybe more because I’m all about supporting the writer) I think you should focus on that before posting french videos. Well, after reading this post and realizing I have a few weeks of spare time it looks like I will be making 1300 french anki cards :) . Keep up the great work!


  2. brian maracle says:

    Much thanks for a great report. Loved all the details.

    Oh yeah, congratulations on mastering another language.

  3. Dylan says:

    Welcome home!

    Something really caught my eye here. You said that it takes you about a half hour to complete 180 reviews on anki. How exactly are you reviewing? 180 is my average and it takes me about 10 minutes. I see a card, and I select the appropriate answer to the card (whether I know it or not). How is it taking you that long? Do you do something else besides just see if you know it?

    Really great article. I get annoyed when I have to add 20 anki cards, I can’t imagine adding thousands like that (although, my Italian deck just hit a thousand).

    Take care

    • gwyner says:

      It’s a good question, and I don’t have a clear answer, though I do have some ideas.

      First thing’s first: Your 180 cards/10 minute rate is extremely fast; it means you’re getting most of them right the first time around and still averaging significantly less than 5 seconds per card. (This is a good thing)

      Ideas as to what’s going on here: Russian has proven to be substantially more difficult than French for me to remember. Where I had a pretty consistent 95% recall rate with mature cards in French, I’ve had 90% the whole time with Russian (and my recall rate for young cards is 80%, new cards is 60%). I’ve also had to have at least two cards per word or else I can’t remember a given word past the 1-month mark. So I’m very likely spending a great deal more time than you are repeating cards I’ve gotten wrong, because I’m forgetting about twice as many (I’m guessing you’re at 95% or higher).

      At this point, all of my simpler 1:1 picture cards (1 word, 1 picture) have huge intervals, so I see a couple every few days or so, and that’s it. The cards that fill my reviews now tend to be context-based grammar decisions and abstract words. For many of them, I need to read most of the text (1-2 sentences) on each card and make a decision about the most appropriate word to fill in the blank. Many of these are sourced from essay corrections, which means that my first instinct in most of these situations was wrong, and I’m working on retraining bad habits/instincts. So I’ll often take a moment to doublecheck that I’m not about to fall into the same trap I did the first time I wrote that sentence. My general rule is that if I’m consistently taking more than 10 seconds on a given card, I probably need to rewrite it so that it’s easier.

  4. Elana says:

    I have a question about use of Anki. I see that you manage to use it daily, and very successfully. However, what do you recommend doing when one can’t use it daily? For example, I’m going camping in a week or so, and won’t be bringing my laptop. I can’t get the Anki app, so I have no way to access anki on my mobile, but I will want to be reviewing! Of course, that is only for like two days so I guess it won’t matter to miss one day, but what about longer periods of time?
    For example, I wasn’t actively working on my Spanish over the summer, when I went to camp for three weeks, but there was no way to get online daily at camp. First, there was no time to get online, but I’m sure that can be fixed with enough effort (small pieces at a time.) The second, bigger issue, was that I couldn’t. Laptops aren’t advisable at camp because of the thieving potential, so I only had my ipod touch to get online and there was no wifi or anything. If I go back, it will be for a six week period. If I can, I intend to download the app, but if I can’t, how would I make sure I was keeping up my reviews?
    What did you do about your French reviews at Middlebury? Since you could only speak Russian, did you just let them pile up, or did you have another way to do it?
    Thank you!

    • gwyner says:

      Hi Elana,

      It’s a tricky topic. If you can’t use it daily (which is a lot harder to do if you don’t have the mobile app), then you don’t have a choice really; you just stop. Do keep in mind that if you can figure out a way to get the AnkiMobile app onto your iPod touch, you’ll be able to do your reviews even offline. (Also there’s a free version called AnkiMini for jailbroken iPod/iPhones that also works offline with pictures and all)

      When you come back after a break, you’ll have a bunch of reviews to do. This is OK. Turn your new cards/day count *way* down (I wouldn’t turn it all the way down to zero; for me, I get bored when I’m not learning at least something new every day, and it makes it a lot harder to keep reviewing), and do a fixed amount of time every day until you’re through with your reviews. It may take you up to a few weeks to get back on track. Just push through, do whatever you can each day, and eventually you’ll be back to where you were.

      I separate my languages, meaning I study one for a fixed amount of time (say, a year), and then stop entirely and move to the next one. I try to do whatever I can to keep them from mixing in my head, since they tend to do it anyways. As such, I haven’t reviewed my French deck for ~2 years. I’ve lost a bit, though it seems like if you hammer a language hard enough, it will stay with you for quite a long while. I was playing with French today, just to make sure it was there, and I still remember most of it.

      If I decide to start up again with French, I could spend 1-2 months getting through my 4000-something reviews that have piled up, or I may start from scratch, building a new, advanced deck out of words which are new to me. I’m not sure which would work faster, though I do imagine either would be very helpful to bring my French back up to the level it was at its peak and start improving again.

  5. Mark says:

    Hey I have question about this post

    > because I was trying to save time by only using 1 card per word. You can get away with this in French somewhat; not so in Russian.

    Could you expand on what you mean by not only using one word per card? I’m experiencing this difficulty myself - have it down for a week, then the next it’s completely off in the clouds. Thanks!

    • gwyner says:

      Hi Mark!

      I have one card in the direction Image (front) - Word (back) and another card in the order Word (front) - Image (Back). That should give you enough input to keep it in memory.

  6. Karl Snyder says:

    Hey Gabe!
    This blog post is cool because I was there with you. Just wanted you to know I read it just now.
    С уважением,

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