Learning Russian with Immersion Methods: 6 Months Update

Hi! I’m Attenius, I’m a native English speaker from the US learning Russian. I switched to immersion methods around the start of July 2020. This is my first update on how that's going, so it's also my longest and ugliest. Hopefully I'll have some pretty graphs from my new immersion tracker to include in the future.


  • My two best friends from high school are Russian speakers. One’s a native Russian and the other learned out of personal interest and for career opportunities. Being able to share things together in Russian makes me feel closer to them. I still remember walking around the neighborhood with my Russian friend ten years ago pointing at things and asking "что такое X?" 
  • While working on a setting based on the Mongol Empire for a tabletop roleplaying game, I took a renewed interest in the history and folklore of Asia and Eastern Europe. I hope to add additional authenticity to my settings and share them and collaborate with native speakers of Russian and other languages I learn.  
  • Russian is a widely used language, especially on the internet, and the number of Russian-speakers who are also fluent in English is actually quite low. Learning it offers a lot of opportunities to talk with people I wouldn’t otherwise be able to. 

Before Refold/MIA

I went to Moscow and Kiev for a week and learned the alphabet and some basic vocabulary beforehand with help from my friends. This was fun enough that I decided to take two semesters of Russian classes in college.

Each semester was 1 hour/day, 5 days/week. I can’t say I didn’t get anything out of it, but looking back it feels like the pace of the classes was abysmally slow. My vocabulary was probably around 500 words by the end, and I understood the basics of grammar. We were forced to write and speak as part of the classes, and I found both difficult. We were exposed to almost 0 native content besides being assigned to read 20 pages of a novel of our choice, which felt nearly impossible. I didn’t complete that assignment.

After those classes, I would sporadically become interested in learning the language again for the next several years, and I would use things like Duolingo or Pimsleur audiobooks for 10-30 minutes a day during those periods. By the time I started Refold, according to Duolingo I had a vocabulary of 2,000 words, but I’m not sure how they count different inflections of the same word (e.g. огонь - “fire” vs огня - “of fire”). My best guess is that my actual vocabulary was around 1,000 words.

A while after the pandemic began, I started learning again using a 3,000-word shared Anki deck and two podcasts: Slow Russian Podcast and Russian With Max. I was learning 10 words/day and listening to these podcasts for 30-60 minutes/day. Max’s use of simple vocab and slow speech made it very easy to understand him—it was the first time I’d actually been able to follow anything substantial and interesting in the language. While it’s pretty far from how Russians actually communicate and it’s been a long time since I listened to his podcast, it was very motivating and engaging, and for that I credit Max for much of my success. Most of the content by Daria in Slow Russian Podcast wasn't as easy to understand for me and about half of each episode was in English, so I didn't find it as useful as Russian With Max. I still appreciated that podcast's discussions on Russian culture, however.

What I could do then

I would occasionally try to talk with my friends from highschool in Russian, and I struggled to understand or produce basic sentences. I couldn’t understand their Russian friends or family at all on the couple of occasions that we talked or played games together. Since I started immersing I’ve really noticed how bad my pronunciation is, and I’ve stopped speaking for now.

Russian TV shows, dubs or otherwise, were almost totally incomprehensible. I just recognized the occasional word.

I would sometimes read comments on Reddit, YouTube, and Twitter that I came across. I recognized a few words here and there, sometimes got the gist of what they were saying.

Books and articles were 90% incomprehensible. I felt like I was getting headaches from trying to read for more than 30 minutes when I first started.


About a month into my pandemic studies, I kept seeing Matt vs. Japan in my YouTube recommendations while watching Russian With Max's videos. “Who’s this self-important weeb who thinks he knows so much about language learning?” was a frequent thought I had. After watching a few of his videos, I found that a lot of his points made sense, and I began to follow Refold (formerly Mass Immersion Approach), a guide to learning languages through consuming media.

You can read more on the Refold website at https://refold.la, but the core assumptions of the methodology (based on the theories of the linguist Stephen Krashen) are:

  • Subconsciously acquiring a language is different from consciously learning it—knowing the mechanics of swimming is not enough for you to be able to swim well. 
  • Language is acquired only through comprehensible inputreading or listening to language that is slightly above our level. Corollary: speaking and writing do not contribute directly to language acquisition.

The core methods of Refold are:

  • Stage 1. First, learn the sounds, writing system, and basic vocabulary (500-1,500 words) of your target language (TL).
  • Stage 2. From then on, immerse in the language—listen to and read as much content by native speakers of the TL as possible. Look up grammar and vocab when you feel like it. The easier the content is, the more comprehensible input there will be to learn from, but enjoyment takes priority.
    • Use Anki to supplement immersion with sentence mining—when you find a sentence in your immersion with only one unknown word or grammar concept, make a card for it with the text or audio on the front and a (preferably TL) definition of the unknown word on the back.
  • Stage 3. Once you have almost perfect comprehension of a particular domain of content (e.g. slice-of-live TV shows), work on outputting (writing and speaking) by immersing in everyday conversation and choosing a parent. Immerse in your parent’s content until you can understand them with ease, then copy their style of speaking. As you output, you'll notice gaps in your knowledge to target with further immersion.
  • Stage 4. Once you’re comfortable outputting, master other domains. 

Stuff I’ve done for the last 6 months

When I first started Refold, most of these steps weren’t laid out clearly, so I just dove in with watching, reading, and sentence mining. I started watching game playthroughs on YouTube and Russian anime dubs for at least an hour a day and reading a series of fantasy light novels (translated from Japanese => English => Russian, slight oof, but still by natives for natives, and easier than a Russian original and WAY more fun than graded readers) for at least 30 minutes a day. 

For most of the process I’m guessing I've been averaging 1 hour of reading, 2 hours of active listening (paying full attention), and .5 hours of passive listening (while exercising, cooking, etc.). My average sentence cards made in Anki per day is about 13. It takes me about 25 minutes total for repping and card creation each day. For a while I was making and learning 20 sentence cards/day until I fell off the wagon during a 5-day solo roadtrip, and I’m sticking to 10/day now.

I stopped playing games or watching TV or movies in English if they’re available in Russian. I still take breaks with some English YouTube though.

Besides YouTube and anime, I watched several seasons of the dub of American cartoon Adventure Time  early on. I found it way easier to comprehend than anything else I had tried at the time, on top of it being high-quality compared to most anime dubs.

Reading at first was agonizing. Graded readers were super boring, Harry Potter was hard and boring, the light novels I started were less boring but super hard. I could only read for about 30 minutes a day before I felt exhausted or my head started to hurt, but my speed and stamina quickly improved. The first volume (~40k words) took me over a month, the second a few weeks, and now it takes about 5-6 days per volume. It surprised me how quickly the difficulty level dropped and the fun level rose.

I tried Кухня (Kitchen) and a few other Russian-made serials early on, but I just hated watching them. In addition to having to tolerate ambiguity, I had really never been into anything slice-of-life even in English. When Refold released and explicitly recommended slice-of-life as your first domain to master since it’s closest to everyday speech, I made a renewed effort to watch Кухня after months of gains from reading, anime dubs, and YouTube, and I’ve enjoyed it much more since.

Also, lots of native Russians recommend classic Soviet comedy films, but I’ve only liked Иван Васильевич меняет профессию (Ivan Vasilyevich Changes Profession) so far. There’s a lot of wordplay I’m guaranteed to miss at my level, the sound quality is bad, and a lot of the jokes rely on context I don’t have yet. Something to come back to.

About ¼ of my listening immersion since the beginning has been with video game streamers on Twitch and YouTube. I started off only catching every third word, but now for at least a couple streamers I’ve spent a lot of time with I can understand almost everything they say.

I usually used audio from anime I had already watched or the news from Дождь (TV Rain) for passive listening. I made repeated attempts to get into a couple podcasts about anime and TTRPGs up until about 3 months in, but I still wasn’t understanding enough to enjoy them and have set them aside for now. 

One exception to this is ДжоШизо's Russian dub of Trash Taste on YouTube, which is an English podcast hosted by YouTubers discussing anime and life in Japan as foreigners. Since translated content tends to be easier and I've already heard the episodes in English, it isn't too hard to follow.

I had set a goal to finish all 20-ish volumes of the light novel series I’m reading by the end of the year, but overwhelmed myself in the last couple months and ended up not reading anything for almost a week. I did at least hit 500,000 words read. I’m back into it now with a goal of at least 2,000,000 words this year.

I also set a goal to finish the 3,000-word Anki vocab deck by the end of the year. When I started Refold I deleted the English => Russian cards, set a really low leech threshold, and started suspending any word I even vaguely knew the meaning of. I did manage to complete it in early December.  I think honestly my vocab level was high enough just to get by on sentence mining from the start and my time would have been better spent immersing after the 1,500 mark, but I don’t think it was really harmful overall. I definitely wouldn’t recommend that specific deck from AnkiWeb, especially not for beginners. There were many wrong or confusing definitions.

Tools I used

For sentence mining while reading, I first just pasted sentences into a Google sheet, but this process took way too long, especially on my phone. I started using an Android app called Moon+ Reader, which allows me to highlight sentences and mass export them to make cards later.  

For sentence mining shows, I used subs2srs which takes a TL video with TL subtitles and creates Anki cards for each line.

I used Morphman, an addon for Anki, which reorders cards based on how many unknown words they have and how frequent (according to a custom word frequency list) those words are in the language. 

Morphman treats different inflections of the same word as separate words, and Russian is a highly inflected language, so it takes a lot of effort up-front just to mark sentences I already understand entirely from subs2srs. This isn’t as much of a problem for sentences from reading, and I partially alleviated this using some scripts to add every possible inflection of words I already knew at least 3 inflections of. 

Morphman was an especially big help up front just learning the most common words, but now it’s primarily a somewhat better than arbitrary way to select my sentences from reading to make cards from. There are way too many, and I don’t want to have to think about how many things I’ve highlighted while I’m focused on reading. I don’t think MM is necessary and don’t think everyone will like it.

Initially I relied mostly on Wiktionary (Russian and English) and the Migaku Dictionary addon for Anki to look up words when watching stuff and making cards. I now use GoldenDict, which I found a ton of both monolingual and bilingual dictionaries for by googling around. I can highlight anything and get 10 definitions for it using a hotkey; it’s awesome. I still use Migaku Dictionary to look up example audio for words from Forvo and quickly add them to cards.

I still haven’t found a good dictionary for looking words up while reading on my Android tablet. I use a combination of Lingvo, Wiktionary, and Google Translate (just to quickly look up 1 or 2 words I’m usually on the cusp of remembering—GT often drops significant details when translating whole sentences).

I made a separate YouTube account with my region and language set to Russian and watch only Russian videos on it. If I accidentally watch something in English while signed in, I delete it from my watch history. This helped me find a lot of content I liked via YouTube's recommendations.

What I can do now

Here, I reference Refold's comprehension scale, summarized as:
  • Level 0: Nothing
  • Level 1: Something (occasional word)
  • Level 2: Bits and Pieces (vague sense of the subject)
  • Level 3: Gist (most main ideas)
  • Level 4: Story (many details)
  • Level 5: Comfortable (almost everything while concentrating)
  • Level 6: Automatic (virtually everything with little effort)

I still am only at a level 2-4 comprehension most of the time with Кухня after 70 episodes and the movie. I tried the Method and Better than Us on Netflix recently and was most of the time only at level 2-3 comprehension.

I haven’t been watching much anime recently, but I’m still probably only around 3-4 for most shows.

When I listen to the news I get most of the transitional dialogue and introductions to stories, but when they start doing interviews and such I can only understand what topic they’re on, little else.

I can understand a few streamers on Youtube and Twitch that I like almost completely if I concentrate (level 4-5). They tend to just be talking about the games they’re playing or briefly responding to chat, so the language used isn’t terribly broad or complex. I think playing games in Russian and reading fantasy books helped somewhat, as I know lots of vocab regarding fighting, magic, etc. relative to other domains.

I can read for hours at a time, and I could absolutely follow the plot of my translated fantasy novels without looking anything up if I had to. I probably only need 2-3 lookups per page on average now, down from 2 per sentence (usually, I have some pages where I understand absolutely everything and some pages where I need to look up 10 words). I also used to notice myself translating everything I read in my head, but this has been fading quickly recently. I get the gist of most comments I see on videos and streams. Reading Cyrillic is almost as comfortable as reading Latin characters.

I can enjoy video games in Russian. For dialogue-heavy RPGs I’ve just accepted that it will take some extra effort and that I won’t get every detail, but I can definitely understand quests and abilities in WoW and 90% of the quips I hear in Valorant. The vocab needed to navigate menus in a game is very small relative to the rest of the language, so I 100% recommend other learners switch their game language for extra immersion.

Plans for the future

I plan to use Morphman and subs2srs less. I don’t have subtitles to use with Кухня, but I do have a transcript for the first 60 episodes which I use to make cards from while I rewatch them. I watch new episodes without making cards.

I plan to continue doing at least 50% of my listening immersion in slice-of-life to reach level 5 in that domain. I’m also trying to do most of my cards from SOL shows instead of from reading.

I’ve been looking around for a parent so that I can start immersing with them, but it’s been difficult. I’m pretty sure I want to find a game streamer as that’s something unscripted I can watch a lot of, but many I’ve tried have had incompatible voices (wrong age/gender or accent that sounds strange to me), not enough content, or have expressed something that I would consider bigoted. I’m confident I’ll find someone if I keep looking though.

I’ve started tracking my immersion hours. Gamifying things is fun for me, and I think it will be useful data for other learners and myself when I want to learn another language.

I’m looking forward to moving on to Russian-original novels, but I’m 60% through my translated light novel series, so I’d really like to finish it first, especially knowing there will be a significant jump in difficulty.

I think it would be really cool if I were able to speak comfortably while playing games with my Russian friend’s group by summer, but I’m not in any rush.

The goal I set for myself was to be able to GM tabletop RPGs comfortably in Russian before I moved on to another language, but that still feels pretty far off, and I’m very excited about starting Mandarin. I’ll check in in July.

I’d really like to visit some Russian-speaking communities near me this year, but I know it’ll be a while before I can get a vaccine.


Right now, my impressions of immersion methods are that they’re very fun, so far effective, and time-consuming. I haven’t put much effort into my other hobbies recently, and I get a slight sense of guilt whenever I’m not doing Russian stuff, but overall it’s been nice to have something to occupy me during quarantine.

I don’t really think there are a lot of accessible Russian shows and movies that are on par with the shows and movies I like in English. That’s okay though, most of my favorite content I’ve seen is actual interactions and discussions between Russians, the news, and stuff like Navalny’s videos. I’m looking forward to trying some classic Russian literature when my level is higher, and I’m okay to wait on it since it’s not one of my primary motivations for learning.


Огромное спасибо to my friends and the Refold Discord server communities for enduring my complaints and humoring my questions.



  1. That's a great overview. It looks like you are few steps ahead of me in learning Russian so I'll be sure to check in with you as I progress. My main issue right now is not enough active immersion. Normally I don't want shows or movies so I have to put in conscious effort to watch them. Hopefully I can progress to interviews and podcasts because I find those more interesting.

  2. BTW, I keep a blog about my Russian acquisition journey as well and I also track everything I do: https://learningrussianthenaturalway.blogspot.com

  3. Какой отличный обзор и отчет по погружению в русский язык. Думаю, я могу писать по-русски? Дополнительные погружение в комментариях. Я понимаю, все сложности которые вы испытываете изучая русский. Я так же погружаюсь в японский уже третий месяц, вместе с Refold + AJATT. Я рекомендую иногда заглядывать в блог AJATT, чтобы черпать мотивацию когда это так необходимо. Чем больше я стал добавлять активных погружений в японский, тем сложнее стало находить в себе силы продолжать, так как в лучшем случае я понимаю 5% контента. Не знаю на какой стадии вы находитесь, но желаю успехов.


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