Relearning Russian as an Adult

In college, I spoke Russian all the time. I took a winter immersion course at Wellesley my sophomore year and found the language delightful. It was the first time I’d ever dug into the linguistic quirks of another language with such depth, and I discovered all these subtle and seemingly profound differences from English. I was fascinated by the way all verbs in Russian have two forms—one more focused on the process of doing something, the other more focused on the completed action, and that the latter could not be in the present tense, only the future or past. I also felt that adding a gender to every noun fundamentally impacted its character in ways lost to the English language, and my mind would fiddle over the exact meanings of colloquial Russian phrases.

Now, remembering how I learned Russian, I also think it was my first experience of meditation. Today, I consider thoughts to be something that can be cultivated over time through awareness and conscious choice. But in college my thoughts flew around like so many bats in a dark cave. It never occurred to me that there could be benefit from trying to bring order to them. The obsessiveness with which I picked up the language—and I could spend hours a day in rote memorization drills—was a way to force my brain to one single, carefully chosen idea at a time. Here, the word to go shopping. Here, the word for button. Here, the word for tail. All my dizzying, depressed thoughts would get locked away for however long it was necessary for me to complete my daily Russian practice.

I continued the casual study of Russian for another 5 years after college while I lived in San Diego, my proficiency gradually eroding, first working with a tutor in the library and then with an underground Russian class I learned of through word of mouth.

When I moved to San Francisco in 2010, I stopped. I was working late into the night, reeling from the high cost of living in San Francisco, and I didn’t have any time left to continue Russian (or make friends or keep up running, though I did eventually find space for those).

This year, with a job change that means my schedule is far more predictable and a salary that means I don’t need to earn extra money on the side, I’ve been able to pick up Russian again.

But finding the right way to re-learn the language has been hard. My vocabulary is still larger than the average beginner, but sometimes Russian words will come to me and I can’t think of what they mean in English. My spelling is shot to hell. I have an intuitive sense of the grammar, but the specific rules have deserted me. I’ve wondered if this is how children who grow up in Russian-speaking homes feel when they first sit down in a Russian class.

I tried to find a tutor, but after one session where we chatted in Russian for an hour, it was clear she didn’t know what to do with me.

Similarly, I tried downloading Duolingo, but it was an awkward fit. The app starts you at a beginner level and advances through simplistic repetition of elementary words, and never explains any of the grammar behind the drills.

After some trial and error, here’s what I’ve found that’s entertaining enough to keep me engaged, hard enough to feel challenging, yet simple enough to help me brush up on the basics:

  • First thing in the morning, I listen to Russian language podcasts while drinking coffee. These are mostly talk shows where people call in asking for advice on their love life. I listen to them at full speed, and I don’t try that hard to translate every word. I’m still waking up. For something easier, I really love Russian with Max, a Russian-language podcast with an easier, somewhat repetitive vocabulary that’s designed for intermediate students (his recent episode on Victor Frankl was easy to understand and quite interesting.)
  • Afterwards, I read an English text and then listen to the Russian audiobook version, following along with a Russian copy of the book if I have it. The Russian audiobook available from the SF library that was also in my home library was Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love, which in addition to being a sweet and readable book is helpfully divided into short chapters. I read a chapter or two in English, then listen in Russian, checking the text only when I can’t sort out what’s going on. I expect to be well-prepared to discuss divorce and spirituality in Russian by the end of the book.
  • Sometimes, if I have time, I’ll then do a quick Duolingo class, because why not?
  • Then I spend a few minutes doing my own version of flash cards, which involves a game matching English to Russian flashcards.
  • Finally, I work through a bit of Terrence Wade’s Russian Grammar Workbook (which is the companion to his fantastic Comprehensive Russian Grammar). This is a fairly advanced grammar workbook that can be a bit demoralizing. I might write up a few more flashcards based on phrases that come up in the grammar workbook.
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A handful of the books I’ve found useful.

All of which is great for brushing up on my reading skill, but doesn’t help me actually talk to anybody in Russian. This is where I’ve struggled the most to keep my skills.

As luck would have it, I recently found a fairly advanced Russian conversation group that meets weekly in SoMa. The first class I went to had three native Russian speakers, two people who lived in a Russian-speaking country for years, and then two students who were learning. We played Alias and Cards Against Humanity in Russian.

It’s been interesting watching the language reemerge slowly from my brain. I find myself in the kitchen and my brain starts ticking off items in front of me in Russian, or I’ll be lying in bed searching for sleep and snatches of Russian phrases will surface. Often they are words I haven’t thought of in years. I imagine there’s a thick fog gradually clearing away from whatever parts of my brain stored all these Russian words and phrases, the way the fogs rolls away from Twin Peaks and flows down into the valleys of San Francisco on a hot day, gently revealing more and more of the houses along the slope.

It’s been particularly interesting noticing the difference between words I used to know and words I’m learning for the first time. For example, I’m practicing all the family words related to in-laws. These are surprisingly complex because in Russian, a wife calls her father-in-law and mother-in-law something completely different from the words her husband uses to refer to his wife’s parents. This was a level of complexity I never bothered to learn when I was living in Russia because I was single. And now that I’m trying to pick these words up for the first time, I’m finding they come much more slowly than all the words I had memorized previously.

I suspect I won’t ever have the level of language proficiency I had when I lived in Russia, but that’s not the goal. I’m not looking to give lectures in Russian, and I don’t expect I’ll spend much time in Russia in the future. Today, I’m more interested in experiencing the language unfurling and coming into focus, remembering all the odd quirks of phrases that I found so charming. And if I can ever get back to a place where I can read Dostoevsky, I will be thrilled.

Helpful links if you’re trying to pick up Russian as an adult: