We were in line at the check out, and one woman asked if I had a card for the store. I said, "Yes," and handed her my card. A couldn't believe it. Just moments before the cashier asked if I had the same card and A answered for me, "No," until I told him, "Yes, I do have it." He couldn't believe that I understood the question. Truth is, I still can't hold a conversation in Russian. I can barely form a sentence, but after living here for a year and a half you learn things about language acquisition that you wouldn't think possible. Here are a few things I learned about language learning and the Russian language in general.
You Learn a Language Quicker When Immersed in the Culture
This is probably a no-brainer, but it does still take time to develop the language being surrounded by it with no formal education. Spending a week or even a month in a place won't make you fluent in it. I came to Russia with absolutely no language base. I learned the alphabet before I came (which helped immensely) but nothing else. Many of the words I learned in my first year I learned from hearing it repeated in grocery stores or reading them on signs. In fact, I have had no formal training in prepositions but I can tell you the basic meanings of them just from passively reading street signs.
Understanding native speakers also comes quicker when you are immersed in their language. In the 5+ years I spent learning Spanish I can still barely understand native speakers. I can read and speak decently - and by decently I mean I can barely survive if I was left in Mexico alone - but I can't understand native speakers. With Russian, I can understand them more than I would if I had learned it in the USA. I can also recognize accents, which is kind of surprising because just last year I remember my friend saying, "His accent is so cool," when referring to a Chinese man speaking Russian, and I thought, "Wow, it all sounds the same to me."
Context and Nonverbal Communication Go a Long Way
In the story above A was shocked, but, to be honest, I only understood two words: "card" and "have." However, I knew the context, and her asking me for a card would only mean one thing, and I assumed she wasn't asking for my credit card. This is how I survive in the grocery stores and on the street. I watched a video the other day, and I understood about 90% of it for two reasons. First, the language was simple and basic. The second reason was because the video was showing what they were talking about, so I didn't know all the vocabulary, but I gained an understanding from the context. Even with A I can sometimes understand what he's talking about when he's on the phone if I recognize some words because he often tells his family stories about what happened that day. On the other hand, I am constantly passive listening to Anton's podcasts and I have no idea what they are talking about because I don't know the context or the vocabulary.
Know How You Learn a Language
I envy people who have told me they learned English or another language just by watching movies or listening to music. I can't learn a language that way. I can't teach myself a language. I tried to this past September, but after about 4 months of not doing any thing to improve my Russian I made the conscious decision to hire a tutor despite my financial situation. I came to Russia to learn Russian, so it is important for me to be able to speak, even at the basic level, before I leave. I know what my strengths and weaknesses are and I know I have to learn the grammar and I have to external motivators to learn. I need to have someone, like a teacher or tutor, holding me accountable to learning the language.
You Need to Learn the Pronunciation and Grammar
Unlike Spanish, Russian grammar is much different than English grammar. My first tutor said that he wasn't going teach me the grammar because it was too hard. I respected his decision because he was tutoring me for free, but I wasn't making any progress. My current tutor told me I have to learn it because Russian is a grammar based language. I can already see much more progress in the two months with this new tutor than all the progress I made in an entire year with the last tutor.
As I've progressed in the past few months my tutor has also been focusing on pronunciation and stress. In the past when people asked me if learning Russian was hard I'd yell, "YES!" but that's because I always heard Russian grammar was one of the hardest in the world. Honestly though, the grammar isn't that bad. Of course I'm still at the elementary level, and I haven't learned verbs of motion (which I heard is one of the hardest parts of Russian), so my feelings might change in the future. Right now, though, the grammar is actually pretty easy. You definitely need to think and learn about it, but it's manageable. What is my biggest problem is stress and pronunciation. In English we tend to stress the first part of words and the rest gets swallowed. In Russian any part of the word can get stressed so you have to know where the stress is in order to pronounce it correctly. Even with questions you have to stress different words. For me, this is extremely hard. I can't imagine learning Russian on my own knowing how important stress and pronunciation are. Also, Russian has hard and soft letters, but neither are like English. You can get away with pronouncing hard letters like English, but not the soft letters. Remembering the vocabulary, grammar, and where to place your tongue when pronouncing letters makes me want to cry sometimes.
Knowing a Second Language Will Help with Your Third
Russian is actually my third language (or second since my Spanish is terrible). I remember learning Spanish conjugations in middle school and being so confused. Fast forward 15+ years later and had I never learned Spanish I would probably be so lost right now learning Russian. There are actually a lot of similarities between Spanish and Russian that have helped me learn Russian (cognates, stress, gender nouns). Once you learn that second language learning the third becomes a lot easier. It's still a lot of work, but once you can start making connections between languages it really helps.
Don't Ask Me How Much Russian I Know
This honest answer is I don't know. My passive Russian is much better than my active Russian, but this is common when learning any language. Usually, you can read or listen much quicker than you can speak or write. I understand when people ask me for directions on the street or I knew when the evil ladies in the office were talking about me, but I couldn't respond because I just didn't have the vocabulary. I also know a bunch of random words that aren't really that helpful like squirrel, nail file, and swear words. These will eventually be useful, but not when there are other words I should know like "help!" and giving directions. My Russian is also contextual. I can understand people at work, taxi drivers, and in the grocery store, but I can't hold a basic conversation. I can also tell when people are speaking a language that isn't Russian; there are a lot of people speaking Bashkir in my city.
My Advice for You
1. Find a good tutor: If you are like me and you need a teacher find a good one. This will seriously make all the difference. My Russian tutor now is ABSOLUTELY amazing. I really can't say enough great things about her, and since I've started seeing her my Russian has increased so much. Don't feel bad about telling someone you want to stop lessons, especially if you are paying for them, if you don't feel like their teaching style is right for you.
2. Don't wait two years to start learning the language: When my tutor told me if I had studied last year I would be at the upper intermediate or advanced level in Russian now I wanted to cry. My biggest regret is being really cheap and not wanting to pay for language lessons (unfortunately my work doesn't provide additional money for learning the language). If you know you are like me and need formal classes to learn a language don't fool yourself into thinking you'll learn on your own. You won't. Additionally, if you depend on English most people won't want to start talking to you in Russian once you start learning it because they either want to continue practicing English or are just used to talking to you in the first language. This is my struggle with A because he always refuses to speak to me in Russian.
3. Learn the grammar: I'm not saying you can't learn the grammar passively. I picked up a lot of grammar just listening to people or reading in Russian, but your progress will be quicker if you do learn the grammar.
Do you speak a second language? What have you learned about your second or third language?