What To Do When You're Overwhelmed In Language Lessons

In this week’s episode, I have a **fascinating** Q&A question. Blog reader Andy is learning Russian, and finding the amount of word changes overwhelming.

On digging in, we discovered that there’s more at play than just grammar. Listen in and check out my tips to get a better experience when your lessons leave you feeling overwhelmed and exhausted.

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Improvised Russian: Tricks From a Language Fool in Kazakhstan

I've got a guest post that took me down memory lane today, back to my old job which had me travelling to Kazakhstan on a regular basis. The country became one of my favourite travel destinations. Kazakhstan is exciting, lively, full of nomadic promise, and delightfully different from my own country.

Guest writer Marta is Polish, and recently spent a few nomadic weeks in the country. I was so excited when she agreed to tell us her story!

Off to Kazakstan!

Crossing a busy four-lane road in an unmarked place with bags of groceries for a mere £10, my mind woke up — I’m in Kazakhstan. One of these “weird” countries that I could always find on the map (being the 9th largest country in the world it’s pretty hard to miss…), but whose mention did not conjure any images in my head. Well, at least not up until one famous comedy film. Borat certainly raised awareness about the existence of this vast land, but at the same time permanently stained the popular opinion about it.

A pack of 20 cigarettes costs the same as a taxi ride here: 60p. Yes, less than a pound. (*Ed.: 60p is roughly $1 US)

Last time I was in a bar I paid around £3.50 for five beers. If those are the prices of typical “luxury” goods, imagine how cheap food here is.

Here's how I got on on the language front:

Annoying Russian

Russian is one of the languages that annoys me. As a native Polish speaker I always expected myself to just “pick up” Russian with a mild amount of effort, but, to tell you the truth, I never had motivation to put even this mild amount of effort into learning Russian.

Due to the history of the last 70 years the language is still demonised among my family members who lived during the USSR, and even among my peers. I saw no reason to study Russian. I also managed to convince myself that I was incapable of memorising the Cyrillic alphabet. Buying into my own fairytale has made it much harder for me to learn it: like a self-fulfilling prophecy, or a bad teacher who stifles students’ interest in a subject due to a lack of talent.

Surprised Kazakhs

Why am I talking about Russian though if I’m in Kazakhstan, is there not a language called Kazakh? Well… Kazakh has a status of a “state” language here and even though it’s spoken by the majority of the population (over 60%), the de-facto official language of wider communication here is Russian. This means that most Kazakhs are bilingual, especially in cities, and the 30% large Russian minority has no reason to learn Kazakh.

All road signs are bilingual and most shops or cafes have notices and menus in both Russian and Kazakh (sometimes also in English). Government employees are required to speak Kazakh and you do hear it a lot on the streets.

However, Russian remains a lingua franca and hearing a shelyeldyk (foreigner) speaking Kazakh provokes a very surprised and enthusiastic reaction, probably similar to the feeling I experience when a foreigner knows even two words of Polish.

If I had to choose whether to learn Russian or Kazakh, I would have definitely tried to learn some Kazakh during my stay. However, because my mother tongue belongs to the same language family as Russian, for survival purposes that was my chosen language of communication. Although you’ll decide for yourself to what extent you can call my speaking attempts communication.

Embracing the "Imbecile"

Your travelling fools. There is a lot of pollution and dust in Almaty

Your travelling fools. There is a lot of pollution and dust in Almaty

Originally the Kazakhs are descendants of nomadic Mongol tribes. This fitted quite nicely with the purpose of my visit to Kazakhstan which was to practice a modern nomadic lifestyle — not so much sleeping in yurts, but combining remote work with travelling.

I was planning to do what I mostly do at home, with occasional sightseeing ventures and excursions. I say all this only to provide myself with an excuse for not having learned more Kazakh or Russian while there, otherwise who would be writing for the LinguaLift blog and helping the students? I realise it’s a bit of a lousy excuse.

The point here is that even without learning anything formally I still had to communicate with people and, get things done.

In the process you will abandon timidity and that sense of shame a lot of us have when we speak a foreign language imperfectly and come across as simpletons, imbeciles or simply ignorant foreigners.

The Magic Word in Russian

A word that became my favourite and one that my Russian speaking friend teased me about was the word можно, mozhna. It means “one can”, “it is possible” which is exactly the same as Polish word można pronounced almost identically. It became my keyword and a magic spell to accomplish the impossible, like buying salads on the market or anything requiring communication really.

How To Use можно

  • Say Можно and point at things.

Very handy if you purchased a membership to a gym in Almaty (like I did) and want to ask whether you can use a piece of equipment which someone turned into a shelf for their phone.

  • Say Можно with gestures.

A door is closed and you want to get into a building? Give the guard a questioning look and make a forward motion towards the doors. You’ll be sure to find out when the answer is no.

  • Use Можно + noun.

If you were clever enough to look up a required noun before jumping straight into talking attempts (not like me then!). In comparison with option 1, this gives you endless opportunities, such as buying 300 grams of салат из моркови с чесноком for 60p.

Here is my favourite “salad lady” from the Green Bazaar.

Here is my favourite “salad lady” from the Green Bazaar.

If you realise you know nothing in the local language try to find an equivalent key word. Combined with gestures and pointing it will work wonders.

The Polish connection

Because of the degree of similarity between Polish and Russian, sometimes I forgot I didn’t actually speak the language. I don’t think I have to remind you that passive understanding and creative verbal production are two different things.

When we travelled to Kyrgyzstan for two nights (for the necessary re-entry to Kazakhstan to prolong the tourist visa) we booked a room in a guesthouse. We arrived late and the only people on the site were two elderly builders who clearly had no idea that anyone was meant to appear so late in the evening.

I opened my mouth and... no words came out.

I realised I didn’t know the word for room, book, reserved, email, message or anything that would explain the connection between the guesthouse and us two standing in their unfinished front yard!

Thankfully it wasn’t too hard for the men to figure that two foreigners with backpacks at a late hour out of the tourist season could only be looking for a room. And sure enough when they said the word комната I exclaimed да! with relief.

Polish and Russian are quite similar, but really not to the point of mutual intelligibility. Yet, I have a feeling that identifying yourself as a fellow Slav can produce a warmer attitude and potentially lower prices.

Knowing I was Polish, the instructor in my gym tried to convince me to be more chatty, a very optimistic reaction to me saying that I understood him only немного (“a little bit”).

The taxi driver in Cholpon-Ata in Kyrgyzstan having heard I was from Польша (Poland) simply started to refer to me as Польша.

*Польша, все нормально? (Everything ok, Poland?) were his last words to me when we were leaving the cab.

Mixing Languages: A Fluency Trick

Preserving endangered languages, buying locally grown vegetables — I am all for supporting anything and everything local. However, there were moments in Kazakhstan where linguistic globalisation provided me with some much-needed vocabulary.

On the way back from Kyrgyzstan we had to catch a marshrutka (mini bus) in Bishkek. We didn’t have enough som (Kyrgyz currency) left, but we figured since the bus goes to Kazakhstan the driver would also accept Kazakh tenge.

The key was to ask.

Fearlessly I approached the driver with two sets of notes in my hands and while vawing them in front of him I asked “mozhna mix?”. After a 3 second thoughtful calculation of the amounts he said slowly: mozhna. Success!

The lesson here is to figure out the words that can be present in the other person's reality. Regardless of where in the world you are, you will find some piece of shared reality with the locals.

все нормально - That's all good

Travelling opens our eyes to our own ignorance.

I confirmed that Russian and Polish are similar, I’m less shy than I thought, and that it’s possible to communicate even with a very limited amount of vocabulary if you keep your ears and mind open. It has also evoked a desire to actually master Russian (since I work at LinguaLift, I'll be trying our own course.

Maybe next time I will be less of a walking circus of pointing and gesturing. все возможно!

Do you have any stories from a Russian speaking country?

How far did you get with немного, "spaseeba" and можно yourself?

Marta Krzemińska is a language coach and blogger at LinguaLift - she's an aspiring nomad and a speaker of Toki Pona.

Has Language Guilt ever Ruined your Day?

Us humans, we’re an unreliable lot. Making big promises, telling our lovers and our languages that we will be forever faithful to them. And then, we find an exciting new script and go skipping away, never reaching the blissful heights of B2 level! Have you ever abandoned a language? In today’s post, I want to give you a quick life and language update and share my abandonment of Russian along with some ideas of how we can deal with Language Guilt.

Quitting without guilt

I’m finding this one very difficult indeed. I started learning Russian over a year ago and have not made a lot of progress. I don’t really mind this all that much - obviously I’ve been a productive person in many other ways. But I genuinely feel quite guilty and embarrassed at the thought of “giving up on Russian”. I feel like I’m sharing this in a space where people are keen to acquire lots of languages. I’m a teacher of languages. My whole thing is designed to keep you going! What a poor showing when your own language coach announces that she’s going to stop learning Russian for a while.

I had the time and I used it

But there may be a different way of looking at this. First of all, let’s examine the classic excuse of “I’ve just got no time in my life for this.” I have thought this a few times, just like everyone has. But realistically, I know that I have spent time language learning. I spent a lot of time and brain energy on bringing my French back up to scratch since last year. Russian seemed like the one I was scared to go back to because it was a real challenge, and right now I just wasn’t ready. But really, I had time. I could have made time. I wasn’t idle, I was just not that into Russian.

Some other things I did?

So I think I can get away with considering myself a person who has not been lazy.

I needed to unblock my Productivity

Do you relate to the following situation? My own productivity is never higher than when I manage to let go of a “should-y” feeling. There is no need to be my own worst critic and spend all my days avoiding something I don’t like, and at the same time feeling guilty about it. So instead, I want to take this opportunity to openly declare that I feel embarrassed that I didn’t learn more Russian.

There. So what? So nothing! I have learnt a lot in the time I did spend with this wonderful language: new words, verb endings, Cyrillic script and what grechka is. Maybe if I feel like I "should be at level A2 by now", the guilt actually becomes a hindrance to learning more Russian?

If we lose our sense of fun and play in language learning, what is left but graft and guilt and bad feelings?

Now it is the time to follow my own enthusiasm and start discovering the basics of a few more languages with a clear and open mind. Isn’t that better? I am taking a moment to appreciate the things that I did learn and I am ready to move on and let the enthusiasm boost me along.

I am Declaring my Intentions

Here I am with my clear and open mind. I have learnt some basics of Russian. I will be back one day and LOVING IT. And in the meantime?

Here’s what’s on my plate for the coming few months:

As you are reading this at the beginning of June, I have just celebrated my wedding and hidden out in Wales for a few days. Now I hope to be able to carve out a little more time to delve into a language that has fascinated me forever: Welsh. I live near the Welsh border and a week in the country is one of the most affordable travel options I probably have. The Welsh language also attracts me because of its historic connections and the wonderful way that it evokes its landscape in its pronunciation. I have not yet got a plan of how I will go about learning this one, and am most likely to treat it as my “passion project”, dipping in and out of learning more.

The second language is one that I’m truly looking forward to, and again one I’m expecting to pursue at a beginner level. I’ll give you a few hints here to see if you can guess which one it is:

  • It’s related to English and German in a way that makes it easy to read
  • I’ve just started a new Pinterest board for it
  • This guy:
swedish chef

Any ideas?

Has Language Guilt ever ruined your day?

I would love to hear from you guys on this topic. Let's drag that language guilt out of the closet, kicking and screaming, and look at it in daylight. Is it okay to move on from a language when you feel ready to do so? Or should we all stop being so precious and commit to working harder?

I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments - please let me know where you're at.

New Podcast: Chris Broholm on Challenges, Information Overload and Book Club (and the Owl!)

In Episode 12 of the Creative Language Learning Podcast, I interviewed a fellow podcaster! Chris Broholm is a language learner with a big mission: 10 Languages in 10 Years!

Listen to our interview to find out more about

  • Who everybody's favourite owl is!

  • How Chris built up his own support community of inspiring language learners through the Actual Fluency Podcast

  • Whether there is a best way to approach language learning methods

  • What to think about when you set yourself an ambitious goal like Chris Broholm's 10 Languages in 10 Years

  • The importance of bewaring information overload

  • The language learning method that you absolutely must try out

  • And why trying it out is all that we can tell you to do!

As long as you’re doing something, you’re doing it right.
— Chris on Language Learning Methods
www.languagebookclub.com

And most importantly...

We talk about Language Book Club and how much we're looking forward to it!

Article of the Week

Duolingo is Getting More Serious by Kay Alexander on Fair Languages

Tips of the Week

Chris chose Tip 1 as his favourite, because goal setting is still WAY undervalued in learning a new language.

  • Tip 1: set your chosen Fluency level (travel fluent, job fluent?)

  • Tip 2: Be a historical linguist

    • Word origins and vocab divergence can help with remembering words

    • Look up "etymology"

  • Tip 3: Sprint with the Language Challenge

Tips and Links from this Podcast

Support the Creative Language Learning Podcast through Patreon - from just $1!

Actual Fluency Indiegogo Campaign

The italki New Year Challenge: Study 20 Lessons and Win

Actual Fluency Episode 32 with me talking about how to be an independent online teacher

Handbook of Russian Affixes

Russian in 10 Minutes a Day by Kristine Kershul

Thanks for reading this article on Fluent, the Language Learning Blog. If you are feeling stuck right now, why not subscribe to Fluent and check out our language book shop.

Vlog: My Progress in Russian and My Book In Print

Hello everybody, Kerstin here -

there's been so much going on in my life and online that I actually have some stuff to show you! See what I've been up to in this short video blog, featuring:

  • A bit of Russian that I know, complete with the transcripts in Cyrillic
  • How I like to learn languages
  • The first EVER copy of Fluency Made Achievable in print

Can I just point out that

a) Russian in 10 Minutes a Day is not a grammar book - it's mostly useful for getting a foundation, and great for practising Cyrillic writing. For that it's been great though and after attending the first Russian class I noticed how much it'd actually done for me. My teacher's impressed!

b) The Russian I spoke in the video is not all the Russian I know, but my vocabulary is a lot better than my grammar at the moment. As a result, making sentences doesn't quite come as easily yet, but rest assured I can say all the usual pleasantries.

Personal posts and international TV recommendations

Hello world, this is a new type of post. The kind that is just inspired by spotting something nice and wanting to share it with friends and friendly folks, as I hope you blog readers would be if we had the chance to meet. This post is coming to you from my mobile phone, as I'm trying to caramelise onions for the first time in my life. Well, if you hate it let me know - it makes for a more interesting, but less polished type of blog.

I want to share a few current TV and box set recommendations tonight, and from a little further afield than my usual languages.

Russia on Four Wheels

Transient

I've been interested in Russia and Central Asia for many years now, since I was lucky to have it on my circuit of business trips in an old job. Russia in particular is so interesting - the giant country that influenced and influences all around it, yet is still a bit unknown.

So whether you are interested in this country's complex, beautiful language or not, I think finding out more about Russia means finding out more about the world. The BBC is preparing for the Winter Olympics in Sochi this year with a documentary entitled "Russia on Four Wheels". It's a road trip like no other. Two reporters chart the past and present of this country on very different routes, and meet interesting people along the way. I just wish there had been time for a longer show, to help people understand the sheer size of Russia.

And in case you haven't noticed, the show features the BBC's "other countries" reporter Justin Rowlatt, who reported on life as a German last year.

Ambassadors

My second recommendation is for a smart comedy from the BBC, which was recommended to me by my Simon Ager, the man behind Omniglot. We chatted over coffee earlier this year and found that we are both trying to learn Russian at this time. I mentioned my many past visits to the cities of Astana and Almaty in Kazakhstan, and Simon was quick to remember this show.

Ambassadors features British comedy duo Mitchell & Webb as diplomats in a fictional Central Asian Republic called Tazbekistan. They speak a good amount of Russian in the show (impressive effort learning the dialogue from both actors, who sadly didn't really study Russian) and show off the way politics deals with international awareness...in a place no one wants to hear about! Good fun, and another great Russian practice exercise.

Note on BBC programmes: These are available on iPlayer in the UK and on global iPlayer internationally. Visit the BBC International Youtube Channel for more information.

Lilyhammer

Transient

Am I a little late in finding this television show? Never too late, I hope. Lilyhammer is a Norwegian TV production featuring the prolific and very American actor Steve van Zandt. He plays a mafioso who moves to Lillehammer in Norway as part of the witness protection programme. With beautiful shots of Norway, good stretches of subtitled Norwegian dialogue and a bad language learning tape featuring all throughout episode 1, this is my current box set to watch (available on Netflix).

My love of other Scandinavian TV offerings like The Bridge, The Killing and Borgen is enough to fill its own blog post in the future. They do crime and female protagonists a lot of justice, and a lot better than in the USA.

Teacher TV

Now, I know that I'm not really going to learn Russian from watching Ambassadors and I'm not a student of Danish, but I watch the shows anyway. I just enjoy the way they keep me aware of other places and cultures. Plus, I can totally swear in Danish now.

What is your favourite foreign TV show? What do you watch in your target languages...or even in other languages?

Lancaster based Russian Taster Course

Are you ready for Russian?

Хорошо! I'm really pleased to help promote a new four week Russian Taster Course in Lancaster City Centre. Hope you can make it!

The course will be delivered by language teacher Masha Golubeva. Masha is not only a talented artist and lovely lady, but also an experienced Russian teacher. So you are in extremely good hands!

The four week taster will include

  • Introduction to the Cyrillic alphabet
  • Fun facts about Russia and the Russian people
  • Introducing yourself in Russian
  • Useful words for getting by in Russia
  • Tea and Biscuits!

The course will also be followed by a full beginners class in January to join the great suite of French, German and English classes on offer at Fluent Language Tuition.

You can register by email to marygolub@gmail.com or by calling Masha on 07432 628475.

£20 for the course includes tea and biscuits from Russia!

RussianTasterCourse.jpg

4 great free courses from international broadcasters

Watching the television or listening to the radio is always considered one of the most effective ways of consuming your target language. It's easy and passive enough to be done along with other activities, and with tools like TuneIn Radio it has also become widely available. But it's not so well known many international channels also have fantastic language classes on their websites. These resources are definitely worth your time.

Why broadcasters offer good language tuition

Not only are these channels ambassadors of their country, but they also have a stake in their own good image in their country. They  have a massive archive of great audio and video to show you how the language is used. And finally, they broadcast in that language - of course they want you to learn it because then you'll be a new customer. Oh, and the resources are free. Everybody wins. 

Here are some TV and Radio station websites offering excellent language courses:

tv5monde.png

Language: French

Who? TV5 Monde is the leading global network broadcasting in French, based in Paris and available on every continent.

Where do I look? The service is called TV5Apprendre, and you can start right from the beginning with "Première Classe" which shows you a little video clip and many exercises corresponding with the topic. It's a great source of multimedia, well structured and a fab way of practising your French.

TV5 also offers excellent reading exercises based on current affairs, and online games like Lettris (French language Tetris...).

Any other goodies? Try the monolingual dictionary before you use a French-English one.

deutsche welle.png

2. Deutsche Welle

Language: German

Who? Deutsche Welle (German Wave) or DW for short has been around since 1953, and it's Germany's best-known international broadcaster and actually offers programming in lots of different languages.

Where do I look?  The DW website itself is available in 30 languages, and you can switch at the top right of the site itself. The German language offering is split into

Any other goodies? Great Twitter account full of interesting words and retweets from greats such as @fluentlanguage
bbc.png

2. BBC

Language: English, or you can visit many world languages in the BBC Languages Section.

Who? The BBC is the world's biggest broadcaster, part owned by the British government and nearly as iconic as the Queen. Their international branch is called the World Service.

Where do I look?  The English Learning home page is a nice place to start with current affairs, news and quizzes. There aren't any courses taking you up to a level systematically, but just so much fun material to practice with.

Any other goodies?  Don't miss the 11 "In your language" sections, where you can study English from your own native language such as Vietnamese, Pashto, French or Chinese.  

russiatoday

4. Russia Today

Language: Russian

Who? Russia today is a young international broadcaster, founded in 2005 and based in Moscow. They've become a staple of hotel rooms worldwide and broadcast in 4 languages.

Where do I look? Get started by registering on the LearnRussian page.

It may not be as flashy or multimedia-rich as its heavyweight colleagues from the other countries, but RT makes sure it teaches you a healthy dose of grammar and the exercises build up in a sensible way. I think it's a fine little resource.

Any other goodies? Indeed, there is a great introduction to the Cyrillic alphabet with audio examples.

Love your Fluent community

If you know of other free courses from national broadcasters, please post a comment recommending them or email me about it.