21 Months of Russian Immersion + Mandarin Month 1ish

Content warning 

I am (to put it mildly) against Russia's invasion of Ukraine. I'm going to be talking about things related to the war and other unpleasant events freely throughout this post. Please skip this post if you're not up for reading about that stuff. Also skip this post if you feel like getting into an argument with me about it--I am just going to ignore you.

I encourage you to donate to organizations supporting the people affected by the war. DirectRelief is providing medical aid to both refugees and people still in Ukraine. The Center for Disaster Philanthropy is focused on providing access to basic needs in the medium and long-term for those affected.


Hi! I’m Attenius, a native English speaker from the US learning Russian and Mandarin. I switched to immersion methods around 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.  

I've copied my summary of the Refold methodology below.


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 helpful, but not enough for you to be able to swim well. 
  • Language is acquired 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.


Here are my stats for this period:

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

Events and plans

Post-Новый год [New Year's]

Outside worrying about the violence in Kazakhstan, I had a really great time with Russian in the period after New Year's. It's the biggest holiday in Russia, and many of the people I play social games online with had several days off. I hung out in Discord as much as I could, listening to and playing a lot of Jackbox Party Pack games (which usually involve different ways of coming up with jokes and voting on them, trivia, drawing, etc.) and a lot of Bunker in that time. 

I don't think there is an English version of Bunker, so it felt really cool to know that my ability allowed me to access something I would not otherwise be able to. In it, a random apocalypse and a random bunker to shelter from it are described, and each player is assigned a list of traits (which only they can see) at the start of the game. On each player's turn, they reveal a trait about themselves of their choice (occupation, sex, age, health status, hobbies, personality, equipment, etc.), and once all players have had a turn, a vote is held to choose one person who will be kicked out of the bunker (based on who the group thinks would be most useful during and after the apocalypse), as there isn't enough room for everyone. This continues until there are as many players left as there are spaces in the bunker, and the remaining players win.

I've always been terrible at social games, but I absolutely love them, and Bunker has stayed fun for the group for probably more than 20 sessions (which can take from 30min-2hrs, depending on the number of players). I mostly used text chat (and there were a couple natives who did as well, so I wasn't the only one), but on one occasion that I did speak, a player used a special ability on me which was roughly "target player must imitate a foreign accent or speak only in English", so I put my heaviest American accent into my Russian and earned a few laughs for it.

For a period after the start of the invasion, the web version of the game was down with a message stating that some of the developers were from Ukraine, and they encouraged those within Russia to protest and others to send donations.

Protests in Kazakhstan

One of my closest friends is from Almaty, Kazakhstan, so I think I pay a little more attention to the country than the average Russian learner, but still not as much as I think I should. In 2020-2021 during the protests in Belarus, my Russian ability wasn't really adequate enough to follow the news well, and I didn't have many personal ties to the country, but this time around, I was spending multiple hours a day doomscrolling or listening to the news. Even so, especially with the internet being cut-off, it was very difficult to suss out what was generally happening. I at least knew that my friend's family was able to stay safe, and that violence did not spread much outside Almaty, as most of my acquaintances in Kazakhstan live in other cities.

As of the time I'm writing this, Jokeasses, the channel/comedy group whose podcast I followed unfortunately seemed to have stopped posting anything on their accounts since the events. I hope they are safe.

Preparing for Kosticonnect

I'm a fan of a Russian-language group called Вечерние Кости [Vechernie Kosti - evening dice/bones] that does various projects related to tabletop roleplaying games (you may have heard of Dungeons & Dragons, the most popular game of this type) -- from streams of their gameplay, to advice articles and videos, to game reviews, to their own games and settings. I even chose Vitaliy, one of the gamemasters in the group, as my language parent. They had planned an online festival via Discord with lectures, interviews of and presentations by both local and foreign developers, merch and art stands, and hundreds of game-sessions for participants to sign-up for.

I bought a ticket for the festival with the intention to try and play in a couple games, chat with people in the various social channels, and watch the lectures and interviews. I set a few goals to help me prepare during the period between New Year's and Feb 23rd, when the festival was supposed to start:

  • 12 hours of speaking practice
  • 6 hours of shadowing after going over my pronunciation concerns with a native
  • 12 hours of actively listening to TTRPG gameplay
  • 12 hours of passively listening to TTRPG gameplay
  • Read the Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook in Russian cover-to-cover
I accomplished all of those goals except for 12 hours speaking practice -- I only managed 8. I had 1 iTalki lesson which I didn't really enjoy as I get nervous speaking with strangers and didn't find my teacher and I had a lot in common to talk about. The rest of that time was almost all with a friend learning English, which was enjoyable, but still difficult and somewhat stressful for me. We actually did play some D&D together which was fun but took a lot of preparation from me both because of the one-on-one nature and my low Russian abilities. I found I still had a lot of pronunciation kinks to work out (especially with word-stress and the ш/ж sounds), and, not to say that I didn't improve at all, but I had a hard time both putting feedback I received to good use and finding the energy to continue shadowing during the week between our chats to reinforce good habits. I made Anki cards for a lot of mistakes, but I still found I was making them anyway in practice.

For a long time I had tried to listen to TTRPG gameplay in Russian as I did in English--something like a podcast to put on in the background and not pay much attention to. However, I found actively, intensively (doing lookups, trying to make sure I heard every word, even keeping notes on the story to make sure I didn't get lost) listening to the gameplay videos extremely beneficial, albeit very tiring. I felt like my listening ability and understanding of social interaction improved more doing 30 minutes of this than 2 hours of vegging out in front of Minecraft videos, and I also enjoyed the content way more than before. I plan to pick this up again in the future.

I'd seen most pages a dozen times in English before, so reading the Player's Handbook was sort of fun and nostalgic the first couple days, but a miserable slog every day after, especially the 100 (long!) pages of spell descriptions. I'm not sure how helpful it was.

I signed up for two game sessions at the festival, one in Russian and one in English--I am pretty sure I was the only native English speaker planning to participate in the festival, but a couple native Russian-speakers wanted to run games in English anyway. At the session 0 (brief meetup to talk about what people wanted in the game and what characters they wanted to play) for the Russian game, to my great embarrassment I found I couldn't understand anybody except the gamemaster, and him only partially. Either due to connection issues or poor quality microphones, everybody's audio on my end was terrible, and I was astounded they could understand each other. I decided to back out of that game and was feeling pretty defeated, but at least I had the other session to look forward to, which, even though it would be in English, would still provide an opportunity to meet Russian speakers.

Russia's Invasion of Ukraine

Due to the high tensions on the border in the week leading up to Kosticonnect, the organizers (who mostly live in Uzhhorod, Ukraine) made the decision to indefinitely postpone it. On Friday the 24th, on what would be the first full day of the convention, I had already taken the day off work, and I spent the whole weekend glued to both independent and state news broadcasts and social media. My news comprehension went way up during the protests in Kazakhstan and the period leading up to the invasion, and I found I was even able to live translate (to a degree) a news broadcast to my dad, which is not something I've been able to do with any audio content before. 

I don't want to elaborate too much on my own mental state or suggest that what I was feeling was worse than people living in or with family in the region, but I was in a pretty low mood for an extended period and haven't totally gotten back to feeling normal yet. I still check the news on various Telegram channels first thing when I wake up and listen to podcasts and watch videos on YouTube related to the war or sanctions nearly every day. I've been in a Telegram channel of about 150 Ukrainians who share a hobby for a long time, and I've been occasionally reading through their messages throughout the events. People chat freely in both Ukrainian and Russian, checking on each other, talking about where to shelter when the air raid sirens go off, offering to give someone's mom a ride to a safer town, asking for help on crossing the border to Poland, etc.

Despite what polls have suggested about Russians' opinions, the overwhelming majority of Russians I know have been against the war. The content creators I follow that aren't involved in news and politics have either avoided talking about it entirely or directly denounced it. Most of the people I talk to and follow on social media are in the 18-35 age range and tend to be comfortable with consuming media and information from non-Russian sources and platforms, so I don't find this discrepancy surprising. 

I'm active in a Discord server where people from Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine hang out together, and the first thing I saw the day of the invasion were messages from people checking on the Ukrainian server members. Not even considering the close proximity of the countries or familial and cultural ties, I think it's hard to imagine being in favor of your country attacking the place where the guy you play Minecraft with lives, especially when he can tell you firsthand that it's happening.

I would not say that the invasion has made me less motivated to learn Russian, but it has had some negative effects on my learning. Independent news in Russia has been pretty much entirely closed down by the state, and several sites and sources with Ukrainian team members I use have closed for the duration of the conflict, including all of Вечерние Кости's [Vechernie Kosti, the TTRPG channel/community my language parent Vitaliy is a leading member of] platforms and projects. I have also found it hard to watch the group's content or shadow my language parent while the crisis is ongoing. Here is what Vitaliy posted on March 1, a week after the invasion and after closing the group's Discord server:

Обращение к подписчикам из России.

Дорогие Костяшки!

Настольные игры всегда были уютным убежищем, где реальные проблемы и разногласия уходили на второй план, и оставалось только хобби.

Но в наш дом пришла война. Россия воюет с Украиной - да, воюет, какими бы словами это ни прикрывали: «спецоперация», «миротворческая акция», и так далее. Гибнут не только наши и ваши солдаты, но и мирные жители, и, что самое ужасное, дети.

Для многих из нас воздушная тревога и взрывы бомб уже стали обыденностью. Кто-то оставил свои дома, чтобы спрятаться в метро и бомбоубежищах, а у кого-то дома просто больше нет.

Но не думайте что мы сломлены. Нет, наоборот. Мы дружнее чем когда-либо. Работаем как единый организм. Волонтерим, отдаем свою кровь, принимаем под свою крышу тех, чьи дома находятся под обстрелом.

И если вы думаете, что война где-то далеко, посмотрите: она уже отражается на ваших жизнях. Новые и новые санкции отнимают у вас привычную жизнь, работу, возможность путешествовать. Все они - результат политики Путина, его решения напасть. Но мы верим. Верим, что общими усилиями у нас опять будет мирное небо над головой.

Что до нашей команды - мы помогаем беженцам, собираем гуманитарную помощь, поддерживаем друг друга изо всех сил, и мы в безопасности. Пока что. Но мы уже не будем прежними. И канал прежним уже не будет.

Эта война коснётся каждого. Мир изменился навсегда. Но в ваших силах повлиять, каким он будет. Распространяйте правду. Не отводите взгляд и не молчите. Не нравится - дверь там!

Ваши Вечерние Кости.
Солнце Хранит

My crummy translation:

In address to our subscribers from Russia.

Dear Kostyashki [community members of Vechernie Kosti]!

Tabletop games have always been a cozy refuge, where real problems and disagreements were moved to the background so that only the hobby remained.

But war has come to our home. Russia is warring with Ukraine - yes, war, no matter what words are used to conceal it: "special operation", "peacekeeping action", and so on. Not only are our soldiers and your soldiers dying, but also peaceful citizens, and, most terribly, children.

For many of us sirens and explosions have already become a routine part of life. Some have left their homes to hide in the metro and bomb shelters, some don't even have a home anymore.

But don't think that we are broken. No, on the contrary. We're more harmonized than ever before. We're working like a single organism. Volunteering, donating our blood, taking under our roof those whose homes are under fire.

And if you think that the war is somewhere far away, consider this: it's already affecting your lives. More and more new sanctions are taking away the life you're used to, your work, and your ability to travel. All of these are the results of Putin's politics, his decision to attack. But we believe. We believe that by combined efforts we'll have peaceful skies over our heads again.

As for our team, we're helping refugees, gathering humanitarian aid, supporting each other in every way that we can, and we're safe. For now. But won't be the same as before. And the channel won't be the same either.

This war affects everyone. The world has changed forever. But it's in your power to influence how it will change. Spread the truth. Don't turn your gaze away and don't be silent. Don't like it? There's the door!

Your Vechernie Kosti.

The Sun Protects [a common blessing/greeting/farewell used by characters in Vitaliy's game setting that the community has also taken up]

Plans and Goals

Learning Mandarin

I finally decided to pull the trigger on starting Mandarin 2-3 weeks ago. I'd been pushing back the date for almost 9 months because I kept feeling dissatisfaction with my Russian level, but I decided that I wouldn't always have as much free time as I do right now, so I didn't want to risk one of the only two languages I'm interested in getting to fluency being trapped in the beginner/low intermediate stage if a life event got in the way. Right now, I can pick up a book or put on a podcast for native Russian speakers and understand 90-99.9% of it and treat it almost like pure leisure, and I can stumble my way through conversations on many topics if need be. Right now I'd rather bring Mandarin up to that level rather than trying to polish my Russian to near-perfection. I could see this changing if another opportunity like Kosticonnect comes up or if I decide to visit a Russian-speaking place.

The sum total of my time spent before committing mid-March probably amounts to less than 50 hours. I did Remembering the Hanzi up to ~400 characters last year, learned ~500 words with an awful 52% retention rate in Anki over the last year or so (usually just doing 1 new word a day), watched a few hours of Peppa Pig several months ago, and read one level 0 Mandarin Companion graded reader last year. My roommate in college several years ago was a native speaker and taught me about tones and a handful of words, and I brushed up on tones and pronunciation by watching some of Grace Mandarin's videos.

In the past few weeks I tried to stick to 30 minutes of immersion/day but have ended up going way over that most days. I watched random stuff on Youtube and Bilibili including beginner comprehensible input channels, increased my new words/day in Anki to 5 + whatever I mine in Pleco each day, and I've read 1.5 Mandarin Companion graded readers. I feel like my progress is skyrocketing--although I'm still nowhere near being able to follow Peppa Pig, I'm able to catch lots of words and even understand the occasional sentence.

I had considered avoiding reading from the start, as I think that approach might make more sense for trying to build up native-like listening and pronunciation, but ultimately decided that since written content is what I tend to enjoy the most, it would probably be best to feed that interest. I think it would be difficult to stay motivated with a listening-only approach.

Over the next 3 months, I want to do about 50/50 Mandarin and Russian while I make it over the initial beginner hump, where it's harder to find compelling comprehensible content. In July I intend to switch to 80/20 Mandarin and Russian and keep that going until I've got over 3,000 hours in the language. At that point I think I'll have a pretty solid foundation, and I can start to think about bringing my Russian up to an advanced level even if no big opportunities to use it have come up before that.

Refold Russian Movie Club

As part of my Russian maintenance throughout my Mandarin-learning period and continuing to advance my cultural knowledge of Russian-speaking places, I recently started a weekly event where we watch Russian movies on the Refold Russian Discord server on Sundays. If you're a Russian learner, feel free to join us! Join the Discord server at https://refold.la/join


I also want to keep up reading in Russian for the rest of my life. Right now a yearly goal of reading 6 books in each of these two categories is how I'm planning to do it:

  1. Nerd shit: Russian-original fantasy and historical novels, folklore, history books on Eastern Europe/Central Asia, linguistics of Slavic languages
  2. Classics: any Russian-language work of fiction that's either had a big impact or is considered a highbrow bigbrain literary work 
I'll talk more about what I've been reading and what I plan to read in the Stuff I did section. 


For those who haven't seen it, I keep a list of my favorite resources and content here:


Stuff I did


I of course watched a ton of news and podcast stuff, and I feel like my comprehension of the news has improved immensely over this period. I also listened to the audiobook of Atomic Habits, a nonfiction self-help book, as part of Refold's bookclub, and found I didn't even have to actively try to pay attention to absorb the content, which is definitely something I can't say about audiobooks for native fantasy novels.
I watched a couple of anime dubs early on in this period, but I haven't been that engaged with it recently. One show I did think was cool was Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut, as it features (stereotypical) depictions of Russian culture. My favorite site for watching anime where I tracked which episode I was on for each show has also closed down due to the war, which has also had an impact on my anime interest. I've also become a bit bored with video game streamers lately, although Ork Podcaster's streams of Elden Ring have been fun to watch.
In part of a string of arbitrary challenges I set for myself, I did a "movie month" in March where I tried to watch a Russian/Soviet movie, TV movie, or animated short (e.g. Ежик в тумане, Сказка сказок) every day. I only ended up getting about 24, as while I liked a lot of the movies I watched, it's just not the kind of content I want to consume that frequently. I'll be relying on our Discord server's weekly movie event to keep pushing me to explore Russian film now. Some of my favorites from that month:
  • Остров сокровищ [Treasure Island]. Cartoon film that was just ridiculous and trippy with catchy tunes.
  • Ёжик в тумане [Hedgehog in the Fog]. 10 minute cartoon with a really unique style, beautiful music, and an intentionally unsatisfying and abrupt ending that stirred up some strange emotions for me.
  • Тот самый Мюнхгаузен [The Very Same Munchausen]. Satirical Soviet comedy which I found very fun. It was one of the first things I watched, and later I got pretty tired of just how many famous Soviet movies are satirical comedies.
  • В бой идут одни «старики» [Only Old Men Are Going into Battle]. Relatively old WWII movie featuring pilots led by an eccentric officer who doubles as the conductor of an amateur musical group made up of members of the crew.
  • Последний богатырь [Last Knight]. Recent movies made with Disney money. I watched all three movies in the series and really enjoyed recognizing so many characters and symbols from Russian fairytales, the high-production action in Moscow, and the medieval Russian costumes and sets.
  • Кавказский пленник [Prisoner of the Mountains]. Two Russian soldiers are captured during the First Chechen War. I just felt it had an interesting plot.
  • Я шагаю по Москве [Walking the Streets of Moscow]. A very "slice-of-life"-ish movie about young people in Moscow in the 1960s.


I have been having just an absolute blast reading in Russian lately. I did do some of my usual political science nonfiction stuff and trashy Japanese light novel translations, but also discovered that comics are actually pretty dang fun. Webtoon-format comics are awesome for reading on your phone (as opposed to manga or classic Western-style comics), so they're great to relax with when I'm in bed or out and about. I watched the  movie Майор Гром [Major Grom] with some friends, which led me to look into the Russian comics industry, and there I came across a Russian-original manga-style comic called Избранница луны [Chosen of the Moon] which I absolutely adored. It's only one volume long, and features horror and romance in a medieval Slavic-ish setting. I'm very excited for future stories set in the same universe.

I also made a return to fanfiction with Описание торгового путешествия на Восток, а так же стран и людей, в них живущих, сделанное Евой Айтерзенталь [A description of a trading journey to the East and also the countries and people living in them made by Eve Ayterzental] (what a mouthful), a fanfic based on Spice & Wolf, but having basically nothing to do with it. It managed to capture a lot of Spice & Wolf's vibe minus the romance, with lots of episodic stories of interacting and trading with people from a bunch of different fake cultures--mostly ones based on places I find more interesting than Western Europe. I counted this towards the "nerd stuff" of my yearly reading goal.

Working towards my "classics" yearly reading goal, I read Трудно быть богом [Hard to Be a God] and Пикник на обочине [Roadside Picnic] by the Strugatsky brothers, two very famous scifi novels. Roadside Picnic is known as the original inspiration for the Stalker film and ultimately the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. video games. Both of them were a bit difficult for me but absolutely fantastic, and I was glad to finally feel like I'm getting the full experience of that beautiful, depressing Russian literature everyone's always talking about. I preferred Hard to Be a God as it was moment-to-moment more fun, easier for me because of all the medieval/fantasy-ish vocab, and the themes were slightly brighter. I definitely wouldn't recommend either book to beginners. Next up for "classics" I'm considering one more Strugatsky book, trying out Gogol's folk short story collections, or one of my favorite books I've read in English, Один день Ивана Денисовича [One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich].

I again picked up Волкодав [Wolfhound], a Russian-original fantasy novel which I've been trying to read for ages, and found it's finally not just manageable, but a smooth and enjoyable read. I still don't know 1/100 words and there are still structures I find confusing sometimes, but it's not way more painful than reading a light novel translation now.

One last exciting note for me: my reading speed has been climbing quite a bit! I'm up to over 130wpm on Spice & Wolf, a translated fantasy series, and regularly at 100wpm with Волкодав and the Strugatsky brothers' books. In light of this, I've decided I want to set myself another arbitrary goal (as they seem to really help) and push myself to 5,000,000 words read from books by my Refoldiversary around July 7. I'm currently at 3,600,000, so it will be difficult, but I think I can do it.


I've made about 5,300 cards, and my Anki retention rate has absolutely tanked over this period. For a long time I was at well over 90%, but now it's dropped all the way to 83%. This is due to increasing my interval modifier, keeping my graduation step at a whole 2 days, and of course learning rarer and rarer words. I don't see this as a huge problem, but it has made Anki more of a slog, so I recently turned my interval modifier down a bit and changed my graduation step to 1 day.


A friend of mine on the Refold Discord helped me translate one of the tabletop roleplaying games from this collection: https://lumpley.itch.io/the-sundered-land

It's intended for playing on forums, so it worked well on Discord and made for a fun writing prompt for myself and other members of our community. You can find the translation on the Refold Russian Discord if you'd like to play with your Russian-speaking friends.


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. I'm usually tired after I write these, so it might be a bit before I get back to you.



  1. A great update. Good to see your progress. I've been struggling with motivation since the invasion of Ukraine for the past few months. For now I'm still going as an intellectual exercise more than anything else.


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