Tuesday, October 30, 2012

More on learning Russian

As mentioned before, I went to Tver to learn Russian. I had 2 reasons to leave my family for 2 weeks and take this trip: 1) to push me over the 1+* hump I have been riding on for too long and 2) strengthen my political Russian vocabulary and idiom for the purpose of passing the Russian language test that lies between me and becoming an FSO.

The format of the program was this: I had two sessions each day, of two hours each, one on one with an instructor. Class was 6 days each week. They gave homework. In 12 days I went to 2 plays, 2 museum tours, and one Philharmonic performance. In each case I was accompanied by a Russian speaker, whether a teacher or my host mother.

Wow, did I learn a lot. Both literally and conceptually. Some important takeaways:
- For me, learning a word or phrase and then putting it into immediate use is key to retention.
- My two teachers were both wonderful. The one I'd say helped me a bit more did a great job of speaking Russian the entire time, and in absolutely desperation would open the dictionary to show me a word but did not herself use English.
- The above point is important because the more I spoke English - whether it was phone calls home, spending time with a fellow American or using it in class - the harder the Russian seemed to be.
- Four hours of class time does not sound like much. However, it translated to an additional minimum of 2 hours,often 3 of review, homework, and cleaning up my notes. For the purpose of comprehension I also would take my notes from each day's theme and craft a 1 page summary/presentation that I went through the next day with my teacher. I also napped every day and am not in the least ashamed to admit that. It was exhausting.
- I know as much Russian grammar as I need to know until I start reaching for a much higher level than I have or plan to attain at any time prior to a 4-6 month stint at FSI. More than any other thing, I need to speak Russian. Just speak. Right now my biggest pitfall is the "deer in headlights" reaction. I really flubbed some level 0 conversation by overthinking the reply or just panicking.
- After 2 weeks away my language skills really have improved. The time just doesn't sound significant enough to have the impact that it did, but that is the joy of immersion. I spent entire days without speaking or hearing a single word of English until evening, when I'd call home.

* 1+ is the way my prior-to-Tver language ability would be scored by the system used by various language testing/rating organizations, most relevantly FSI. The score I need is a 2. Doesn't sound far apart, but the truth is it's probably 200-300 hours of learning between the two levels ... or something like that. Don't quote me.

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