18 Months of Learning Russian with Immersion Methods: Rebound

Hi! I’m Attenius, a native English speaker from the US learning Russian. I switched to immersion methods around early in July 2020. I'm roughly following the plans and advice given at https://refold.la. If you're not familiar with me or Refold, you might want to check out my earlier updates, although I didn't make any effort to be brief on this one, and I've copied my summary of the Refold methodology below:

Refold

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, a guide to learning languages through consuming media which Matt co-created.

You can read more on the Refold website at https://refold.la, but two 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: grammar study, 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). Skim through some basic grammar. Start consuming content in your TL, even if you feel like you can only catch the occasional word.
  • Stage 2. Fully 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. This helps keep your memory of that word or concept alive long enough for you to acquire it in your immersion.
  • 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 one native speaker as your language parent. Write small amounts each week and 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.

Numbers

Here are my summary stats for this year:

As a table:

Sum/Mean, in hours except for total time spent in Anki and cards made. The "Total" at the bottom is the sum of:

  • Reading
  • Active Listening
  • Shadowing
  • Writing
  • Speaking
  • 0.33 * Passive Listening
  • Anki
  • 0.75 * Cards
I think this puts me in the range of 2,700-3,400 hours spent on Russian. As I've said before, I know that number sounds huge, but all the caveats from the 12-month post apply, and I'll even add another one: I actually struggle with myself a ton on how much to count as passive or active or how much to count at all (Matt vs. Japan has mentioned this as one of the major minuses of tracking). "I nodded off partway through the episode, how much did I actually watch?" "I was listening from the kitchen for like half that video, but felt I was pretty attentive the whole time, how much active and passive was that?" "Did I spend too much time checking Discord during the quiet parts?" "How long have I been reading this argument in the comments?"
 
Anyway, I still find tracking motivating, and the way that I do it right now hasn't been too painful for me (rounding time spent to the nearest 10 minutes and using the 3 very broad categories of Reading/Active Listening/Passive Listening). Some people do their tracking by timing down to the second everything that they're doing, and I think that would drive me nuts.

Events

Still no big "eureka I'm fluent" moment, but I hit a couple of milestones that were important for me.

I finished my first full-length native-written novel! I read the Нашествие монголов [Invasion of the Mongols] trilogy, historical novels written by Василий Ян [Vasiliy Yan] in the 1940s and 50s. While they felt difficult at first, overall I feel like the transition from translated books and native-written fanfiction to this was fairly smooth. Nothing like my struggles with my first books or with Джамиля. I talk more about my opinions on the books themselves in the Stuff I Did section.

I had my first conversation! I'd spoken the occasional word to natives before, but this was my first real conversation, a full ~25 minutes of pure Russian (other than asking for a translation of one word from English). I was extremely nervous the whole time, but luckily it was with somebody who I was already friends with and had gone through the struggles of learning another language as an adult themself, and they were very supportive. I had 4-5 stumbles where I just couldn't remember a word or case, and I also had 3-4 moments where I let them pick up the conversation where I probably would have tried to come up with something to say if I had been speaking English. 

They said my accent from the last time we had spoken had improved dramatically, which I attribute to spending a lot of time studying pronunciation through the YouTube channel PhoneticFanatic and the Russian phonology article on Wikipedia along with about 25 hours of shadowing my language parent (more details about my process below).

By the end of those 25 minutes whatever part of my brain is in charge of producing Russian felt absolutely fried and my accent deteriorated the longer we spoke, but we continued to chat for quite a while after that in mixed Russian and English. Overall I'm pretty happy with this result! I was able to have a conversation way beyond "my name is X, I work in Y", and a lot of it felt pretty natural to me. It was fun enough to rekindle my interest in trying to spend a little more time on slice-of-life content rather than so much on fantasy and historical stuff.

I'm also celebrating:

  • 1,000 active listening hours this year!
  • 50 hours of shadowing!
  • 3,000 sentence cards in Anki made this year!
  • 2,000 hours studied this year!
  • 3,000,000 words read from books total!

Content and resource recommendations

I made a separate post a little while ago where I list out my favorite resources and content, you can read it here:

https://atteniusll.blogspot.com/2021/12/my-favorite-resources-and-content-for.html

Stuff I did

Listening 

Dalada podcast logo
 
This period, my spread looked like:
  • ~20% Dubbed shows and movies
  • ~15% Podcasts 
  • ~20% Streams
  • ~15% Native TV and movies
  • ~20% YouTube, mostly pop history, video essays, game and anime reviews
  • ~10% Audiobooks 

I continued to listen to my language parent from Вечерние Кости [Vechernie Kosti--Evening Dice/Bones] a fair bit, although I also counted shadowing time towards my daily goal of one hour of listening to his content. Sadly I finished all the episodes of his TTRPG review show, so mostly listened to his D&D campaign, Эноа.

For the first time in a while I actually watched a Russian TV show all the way through, Жуки [Zhuki], a comedy about 3 young programmers from Moscow sent to work in a tiny village, at the suggestion of a user on the Refold Russian Discord server, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. I wouldn't say I had level 5 understanding for most of it, but I didn't feel like I dipped below level 4 much. 

Of the dubbed stuff I watched in this period, I especially enjoyed (begrudgingly, as a long-time Dota fan) Arcane, a Netflix animation based on the League of Legends universe, and Ranking of Kings, an anime with really unique kinda Western-style art that's absolutely captivated me. It's kinda like if you made a more serious, grounded, and violent Adventure Time with a deaf child as the main character. It's in the running for my favorite anime ever.

I became a pretty big fan of Далада Подкаст [Dalada Podcast], a podcast in Kazakhstan where they set up a table in random places and let anybody walking by sit down and be a guest for a few minutes.

I kept up my habit of lurking in native Discord voice chats whenever I could.

I've been getting more into Russian music (although I hold strongly to the opinion that it's a very inefficient way to learn a language, it's still something I enjoy). Король и Шут [Korol' i Shut], Пневмослон [Pnevmoslon], and Омела [Omela] are a few favorite bands. I've even been finding that I like listening to the kinds of 20th-century pop and rock songs I don't like in English--something to do with the effort it took to be able to understand them and knowing that this is the stuff that all Russians know that's totally unknown here.

Reading

I'm at just over 3,000,000 words from book-like materials! Here's a summary of my words read by genre (most books I assigned two genres, so words are double-counted for those books):
 
 
While I'm still not back to the pace I was at before, I got back into reading more thanks to some help from my eye doctor. A few things that really helped me were taking longer breaks (often going for walks in-between reading sessions), reading in well-lit spaces, reading in wide-open spaces (like outside), using a very large font on my e-ink reader, and standing up while I read.

Campaign of Genghis Khan by Nicholas Roerich
Campaign of Genghis Khan by Nicholas Roerich
 
I finally finished the Нашествие монголов [Invasion of the Mongols] trilogy, my first full-length native-written novels. My opinions on the books are mixed. Mild spoilers follow. I felt like I saw a lot of patriotic or nationalistic undertones, but given the author and subject matter that isn't very surprising. One review for the series said it was fairly kind in its depiction of the Mongols as noble, clever, or ruthless and that that was the reason Stalin was a fan, but I can't say I felt the same way--Batu Khan in particular just seemed petty most of the time. A lot of characters in general felt very stiff--you'd get introduced to them in droves and they'd seem cool at first, but then they'd either never really grow or they'd never get enough screen time to do anything interesting. Haji Rahim, a wandering dervish who eventually ends up in Batu Khan's service, is probably the biggest exception to this, and I definitely liked him the most, but the 3rd book doesn't treat him very well. I think overall the scope of the events was just too large to fit satisfying continuous narratives into. However, there were many bright moments throughout the series that stuck with me, like a king fleeing so far from the Mongols that he ends up dying in a leper colony on a remote island, or when a couple of fighters returning home to find their town destroyed and seemingly abandoned, then raising and ringing a discarded church bell from the ruins to summon all the survivors out of hiding, metaphorically reviving the city
 
I also read my first classic work, Руслан и Людмила [Ruslan and Lyudmila] by Pushkin, a fairytale told in the form of a long poem. I still didn't know maybe 1 in 30 words, but it was enough to get through it and appreciate how beautiful it was. All my time spent with fantasy books and Нашествие монголов definitely helped, and I actually found that knowing how Old Church Slavonic and Old East Slavic roots are related helped me grok some extra vocab (words derived from OES have extra vowel sounds between consonants when compared with words from OCS, e.g. ворог [vorog] vs. враг [vrag]). Thanks, Микитко сын Алексеев!
 
I read my first couple of nonfiction books, translations of political theory stuff. I was actually surprised at how easy the vocabulary was--I could guess the meaning of most new words from their roots--however, I found it extremely difficult to keep all the ideas in my head long enough to digest them, like I didn't have enough RAM to process the language at the same time. 
 
I'm becoming more and more interested in reading politics and linguistics stuff in Russian, but I feel like I need to prioritize the fantasy and slice-of-life domains right now, as I still want to get where I can have casual chats and play tabletop roleplaying games in Russian before anything else.

A note on reading speed

When I started paying some attention to my reading speed last January, I was really worried by just how slow it was. A few things that gave me some relief:
  • A lot of people talk about being able to read at crazy speeds like 1,000+ words per minute in English. This is basically nonsense. Comprehension starts to drop off way before then.
  • English speeds don't translate to Russian speeds--Russian words are longer.
  • My speed does seem like it's slowly but steadily increasing.
My notes on this are pretty sparse, but here's what I've got:
 
DateSettingTranslatedDifficultySpeed (wpm)
Jan 2021FantasyYesEasy50
Jan 2021FantasyYesEasy70
Oct 2021HistoricalNoHard70
Oct 2021NonfictionYesHard70
Dec 2021NonfictionYesMedium75
Dec 2021FantasyYesEasy105
Dec 2021ModernYesEasy120

The average reading speeds in Russian for adult natives I've seen have been all over the place. The lowest I've ever come across is between 120-180 wpm, and I'm happy to be breaking into that range in material that I have very high comprehension of.

Shadowing

Vitaliy and Sasha from Вечерние Кости
Vitaliy and Sasha from Вечерние Кости

Shadowing, according to Refold--basically either listening to something long and repeating everything you can catch in real-time (continuous shadowing to improve flow) or recording yourself and comparing it to the original of something short (perfect sentence shadowing to improve pronunciation). What Refold doesn't mention that I also did was chorusing, where you repeat along to a short (1-10s) recording dozens of times, trying to reproduce exactly what you are hearing.
 
Towards the end of the year, I set a goal to hit 50 hours of shadowing my language parent, Vitaliy from Вечерние Кости, and I pushed myself towards this by trying to do one hour every day that I was home. I spoke with a native friend at around 25 hours in. They said my accent had improved greatly. I don't know how much of that to attribute to shadowing and how much to attribute to studying phonetics (although I think you would get little benefit from doing one without the other), however my accent did improve without ever having a native correct my pronunciation. I also felt like shadowing provided additional benefits for my listening ability, as I spent a fair amount of time looking up IPA for words and learning to listen for the slurred sounds and colloquial pronunciations of words my parent used. After a long shadowing session it also actually feels like I start to subvocalize involuntarily along to any Russian I hear, which seems to help my comprehension.
 
My setup was a Blue Yeti mic + cheap earbuds (in one ear) for listening to myself live and over-ear headphones for listening to my parent/recorded audio. I sometimes took out the earbud while continuous shadowing to give my ear a break.

As for my process, I extracted the audio from 4 long YouTube videos of my parent (both alone and with a conversation partner) to do perfect sentence shadowing/chorusing from. I would open the original audio in one Audacity project and my clips from it in another, using the clips to practice from. My usual routine looked like this:
  • 30 minutes chorusing and perfect sentence shadowing on previously rehearsed material
  • 10 minutes looking for, clipping, and learning new material
  • 20 minutes continuous shadowing from random videos of my parent

At this point, I don't think my pronunciation will improve a ton without some tips from natives on what to practice, so that's something to prioritize for this year. I also want to do less shadowing overall (because it's tedious) and shift to more continuous shadowing as my confidence in my pronunciation grows.

Output

As I mentioned earlier, I had my first conversation in Russian! I still feel like holding off on speaking was the right decision, and I still feel unsure whether I'm ready to start speaking even now, but I'll be putting more time into it in the coming months.

I also had a couple native friends I usually speak with in English catch me off guard by asking me something in Russian, and I was able to exchange a few replies with them without much hesitation. That felt great.

I didn't do as much writing as I would like, probably only a few sentences a day, mostly in large Discords or stream chats. I did write some longer form stuff about my TTRPG world, but I ended up feeling like I wasn't really ready for it.

Plans

For a while now I've been devoting (successfully and consistently!) at least an hour a day to content related to the tabletop roleplaying game I'm designing--mostly fantasy, folklore, or history covering Eastern Europe or Inner Asia. I plan to keep this up even while learning Mandarin. I was hoping to switch languages to Mandarin at New Year's, but I've changed my mind about it. Currently goal is to be regularly playing TTRPGs with Russian speakers before I make that switch.
 
I plan to continue working quite a bit on my speaking over the next three months and begin looking for people to play with towards the end of that period. In April I'd like to split my time 50/50 on Russian and Mandarin, then in July go 20/80 until I hit 3,000 hours in Mandarin, but the pain from the gaps I feel in my Russian ability still might hold me back from that transition. I've become pretty attached to the culture and language and my ability in it, and I have doubts about whether I'll be able to go this hard at another language ever again, especially one that's even more challenging. But I'd like to try!
 
I felt that my "shadowing gauntlet" was a big success, and although I haven't decided on the specifics I plan to put myself through similar challenges over the next three months for writing and speaking.

Thanks

Огромное спасибо [huge thanks] to my friends and the Refold Discord server communities for chatting with me, enduring my complaints, humoring my questions, and correcting my mistakes!

If you have any questions feel free to leave a comment here or hit me up in the Refold Discord.

 

Comments

  1. I'm in awe of the amount of time you've put into this. I've only managed around 600 hours in the same timeframe so I need to up my game.

    ReplyDelete

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