Update Day 3 Russian ‘Snapshot Challenge’

Brew finished. Russian alphabet finished…

So, this is how I spent my time:

  1. 20mins with LinkWord – pretty satisfied with that. The ways to remember the letters were generally helpful. It was great that this PDF was free. I’m not sure I’m interesting in learning vocabulary this way but for the alphabet it was really useful.
  2. 10mins using the seminar notes I discovered that TOM KAT are the same letters and sounds in English. It was also helpful in grouping letters together.
  3. 15mins russianpod101.com. A useful first podcast going through pronunciation and recognising the alphabet as largely phonetic and the ‘hard sign’ and ‘soft sign’ which altered any pronunciation.
  4. 10mins Memrise. I decided to leave the YouTube vids and set about consolidating what I had learned. Another reason why I didn’t want another podcast just yet – want to feel comfortable in what I know before I work on the pronunciation. Got to make sure I’m not confusing things like  в (=v) and Б (=b). Link Word can help with this, though.


Where next?

Well, I have to strengthen my knowledge. Aside from the podcasts and Memrise, I would like to look into actually handwriting the characters maybe do some kind of guided translation with characters. I’ll look into that over the next few days. Nonetheless, for less than an hour of study I feel great that I can now recognise so many characters. The resources I used were great too – focused and really helpful. I didn’t waste time with laborious explanations but used resources that were clear and consolidated what I learnt.

Time for Duolingo. Time to put the kettle on.

Day 3 Russian ‘Snapshot Challenge’

So, I gave in today. Before I could even use Duolingo I had to do something about the alphabet (Cyrillic script). I felt rather than waiting for that Eureka moment and recognising the sounds that corresponded to the letters, I would actively find out the names and sounds of those letters (are they the same things?).

How long does it take to learn the Cyrillic script?

With a quick Google search of ‘how to learn the Russian alphabet’ I came across a range of helpful advice and also resources for support. At http://www.fluentin3months.com, Dani from isimplylovelanguages.com gave the following comment:

I would say it takes you a few hours to get started with the script. The rest is continuous practise that will happen naturally when you study the language. If you have a free afternoon or a weekend, grab a big cup of tea or maybe even some Russian sweets and just do it. Once you get started with the exercises you will see the progress really soon, I promise!

Before I got the cup of tea ready (don’t really need much persuasion ever to do that) I went back to Google and scanned through the resources available. I tried to select only a few resources to make sure that I keep focused.
This is what I have at hand and also the order I’ll do it in


1) Link Word has useful ways of remembering the letters and what they represent.
2) Another website organises the alphabet and proclaims it can also be learned in two hours by grouping the letters


I’ve always enjoyed the Innovative Language podcasts – I’ve used them for Japanese, Italian and Chinese. So here I’ve found five lessons on pronunciation. I’ve printed out the PDFs for ease. I’m hoping this will secure any knowledge.


4) YouTube
A general search for ‘russian alphabet’ has revealed a lot. I’m leaving this until last as it will be difficult to see how long it will take to find the videos I find most helpful.

So, pot of tea at the ready!

Day 2 Russian ‘Snapshot Challenge’

Still only working with Duolingo though begging for phonetic practice!

Focused on the ‘Alphabet’ lesson, I’m working on some negatives, some personal pronouns, common nouns etc. Interesting grammar structures ‘Are you an actor?’ is ‘You actor?’ in Russian. But the writing is proving difficult. I can translate and also select the correct words from the options to form sentences but writing using the keyboard is near (not always) impossible. So, I am making progress and I am noticing things in the language which means I can complete the lessons. Yet, I’m now wondering if I need to go away and do extra work on understanding the phonetics of the alphabet – simply hearing the sentences doesn’t mean I know the characters to choose. Instead I’m relying on my remembering the words. So, I went to the Duolongo website and found there some useful clarification about the sounds of the character but no audio. Early days I know but would like to work on the phonetics more so I can concentrate more easily on vocabulary and grammar.

Ёё⁰ (your) Вв (vase) Бб (bed)
Ээ (red) Нн¹ (nap) Дд¹ (dab)
Уу (soon) Хх² (Bach) Гг (gap)
Ии (meet) Йй (yes) Лл¹ (nil)
Юю (you) Рр (trilled R) Пп (poor)
Ыы³ (hit) Сс (Sam) Зз (zebra)
Яя (yard) Фф (photon) Цц (cats)
Жж⁴ (seizure) Шш⁴ (shun) Щщ⁴
Чч (cheer) Ъ and Ь⁵

A Snapshot Language Challenge

I’ve set myself  have a number of challenges over the next few months and I’ll post a little bit more on each of them in other blog posts. Today, though, I want to share a monthly challenge which might seem a bit crazy. I’m calling it my ‘snapshot language challenge’ and aim to spend just a month working on it just to see what happens and even if I want to take it further.

Resource: Duolingo

Language: Russian

Time: 15mins

I’ve been using Duolingo for some time for Italian. I often find it a nice app on my android to brush up on my skills or to finish the evening off doing something short and snappy which involves, reading, writing, speaking and listening. Recently I’ve been thinking a new language so looked at the other ones available for English speakers. As I did this I wondered just how far can it teach me a language? If I ignored books, websites etc and just used Duo, where would I be at the end of a month? Indeed, can I really ignore other resources? Will I be able to figure out the grammar? Tackle the pronunciation? So, rather than using languages I have some awareness of I decided to choose the only one that I have no knowledge or experience of whatsoever. Russian. Here goes.

Day 1 – ‘Alphabet’

Installed the Russian keyboard (!) and have started ‘Basics’ lessons. So sentences today have included simple sentences – ‘This is Tom’, ‘where is the house?’ etc. Here I noticed that there seem to be two words for ‘and’ not sure if there are rules for which you use but I have used both correctly. I’ve also used words for ‘aunt’, ‘cat’, ‘where’, ‘house’. I noticed that there is no word for ‘is’ or ‘are’  it looks like it’s not there in Russian. I’ll keep a look out on that. In terms of ‘Duo’ itself, there have been no speaking exercises yet – maybe that will come later? The listening has been good – all words and sentences have audio.

Reading- An Approach to Language Learning

I’ve recently joined a language group whose focus is to read ‘The Hunger Games’ in thhunger-gameseir target language. Yet, within this is also the extra focus of exploring a range of reading strategies. Whereas normally I would be quite linear in my approach to reading – using my dictionary when needed but always with a incentive to move forwards – now I’m considering a whole range of possibilities to approaching the book. Two polyglots that we are considering are Benny Lewis and Olly Richards, both established in the field of language learning and both who inspire would-be polyglots. I’m always reading a number of books in Italian but I’m now going to explore some of their principles in practice. The links to their full articles can be seen at the end of this post, but for myself I’m going to follow just a couple of their key principles..

Benny Lewis – Reading

2. Comparative Reading: Keep Two Books Side by Side

This strategy is more work than keep a dictionary to hand. Nonetheless, it is absolutely worth it. I call it “comparative reading”, It involves reading the original book and a translation at the same time.

This method is not solely about reading. It is also about taking notes. What kind of notes? Well, writing down interesting excerpts, commentaries, vocabulary, everything you figure will help you to learn even more. Again, these notes need to be taken in a reliable notebook, and should be easily available for future reference.
Extract interesting passages, great sentences, and new vocabulary.
Another way to apply this strategy is to use bilingual books. This is easier because you only need to handle one book at a time. But, you still have to take notes and follow the same rules: write your notes in a reliable notebook. Extract interesting passages, great sentences, and new vocabulary.

Olly Richards ‘simply try to keep reading’

How to be a smart reader

With this in mind, here is the thought process I recommend you have when reading books in your target language:

  • When reading books, enjoyment and a sense of achievement are vitally important because that keeps you coming back for more
  • The more you read, the more you learn
  • The best way to enjoy reading books, and to feel that sense of achievement, is by reading entire chapters from beginning to end
  • Consequently, reaching the end of a book is the most important thing… more important than understanding every word in it!

How to deal with words you don’t know

If you find yourself stumped by an unknown word, here are five ways to tackle the problem:

  1. Look at the word and see if it’s familiar in any way. There is often crossover in the vocabulary of different languages. Take a guess – you might surprise yourself!
  2. Go back and read the problem sentence many times over. Using the context of that sentence, and everything else that’s happening in the story, try to guess what the unknown word might mean. This takes practice, but is often easier than you think!
  3. Make a note of the word in a notebook, so you can check the meaning later. Then keep reading.
  4. Sometimes, you might find a verb that you know, conjugated in an unfamiliar way. For example, in Spanish:
    hablar – to speak
    hablarán – they will speak
    hablase – speak (subjunctive)
    You may not be familiar with this particular verb form, or not understand why it’s being used in this case, and that may frustrate you. But is it absolutely necessary for you to know this right now? Can you still understand the gist of what’s going on? Usually, if you’ve managed to recognise the main verb, that is enough. Instead of getting frustrated, simply notice how the verb is being used, and then carry on reading!
  5. There will be times when you’re simply dying to know the meaning of a particular word. Fine – but if you stop to look up every word, you’ll never get anywhere. Instead, only look up words that seem to be cropping up again and again – they will be the key to understanding what you’re reading

Now that we’ve dealt with the big issue of difficult vocabulary, let’s look at the reading process itself.

The six-step reading process

  1. Read the first chapter of the book all the way through. Your aim is simply to reach the end of the chapter. Therefore, do not stop to look up words and do not worry if there are things you do not understand. Simply try to follow what’s going on.
  2. When you reach the end of the chapter, try to summarise what you’ve read – the characters, places, ideas, events etc. You could make a few notes in the target language, maybe writing down some of the main characters and events.
  3. Go back and read the same chapter again. If you like, you can read in more detail than before, but otherwise simply read it through one more time. As before, don’t worry about understanding everything. It’s a gradual process that can take time, and I call it “reducing uncertainty”.
  4. At the end of the chapter, continue to jot down notes about what you’ve read. This can be whatever is in your mind – it’s yet another way to help you process what you’re reading.
  5. By this point, you should start to have some understanding of the main events of the chapter. At this point you might like to continue to re-read the chapter, this time using a dictionary to check unknown words and phrases. Just remember – avoid the need to understand everything. Use the skills mentioned above to deal with words you don’t know and focus only on the vocabulary you think is vital to the narrative.
  6. Otherwise, if you feel you have followed the main events of the chapter, you should continue on to the next chapter, and enjoy the book just as you would in your mother tongue.
For Benny Lewis’ ideas see http://www.fluentin3months.com/reading/

Update of Mini-Goal: Japanese Speaking

So, a few weeks ago I set myself a mini-goal of speaking Japanese. This was a big thing for me as I always feel self-conscious and reasonably stupid when I speak – struggle witconversationh finding the right words and structures for a length of time. I needed then a way to help me both with confidence and skills. Whilst the mini goal was really only for two weeks, I’ve actually being doing it now for a month. I’ve taken different steps to build my confidence and I’m really pleased with how it is going. In the points outlined below, I started at point one moved to point two and I’m now at point 3.

1) Shadowing and noticing

I have a Japanese shadowing book which is basically a script of short exchanges with accompanying audio. I approached this in a couple of ways.
a) Read, listened and repeated
b) Listened and repeated
Both approaches had different advantages but both certainly got me to focus on intonation and pronunciation. Another useful resource for this are the Innovative Language podcasts. I’ve often used their Japanesepod101.com as for a Premium subscription they have conversations set out sentence by sentence so it’s easy to repeat the words.

2) ‘Japanese for Busy People Book 2’

This textbook has a number of conversations for each chapter which I used for shadowing but also I used the book to complete exercise by actually speaking the answers. This way I’m reviewing grammar points and making them more natural for me to use them in speech.

3) Free speaking (alone)

This is obviously the more difficult but it is important to do – what vocabulary or grammar constructs do I find myself needing? To explore this question I used Audacity to record myself speaking, that way I can keep moving forward knowing I have a record of words/points I later need to find. So, essentially, all I’m doing here is describing my day, things I’ve seen in the news, thoughts about the Olympics, books I’m reading etc. I’m trying to keep going and will say out loud things like ‘I need more connectives’, ‘which particle is correct?’ so I can work on my gaps rather than continue to have them. As I collect words and grammar points anything I’m still unsure about I write a few sentences and post them to LingQ.

This is where I am at the moment. Speaking for 20min for five days a week. It’s the most tiring thing I’m doing and I’m still struggling through it. Hopefully by keeping to it I’ll be building my own corpus of vocabulary, strengthening my grammar and ultimately feel more relaxed when I finally meet to have a conversation.



Making the most of time

Over the past few months, as I’ve been trying to improve my classical-guitar playing, I’ve read numerous books about goal setting and routines to aid playing tricky pieces but also to maintain motivation – nothing makes you give up more than stuff you can’t do! Some of things I’ve learned for music, though, have also proved useful for me in language learning.


‘The Practice of Practice: How to Boost Your Music Skills’ by Jonathan Harnum has been particular useful in exploring the problems of a ‘fixed mindset’ (intelligence is fixed, fail at something will lead you to completely give up) and the benefits of a ‘growth mindset’ (intelligence grows through effort, work and challenge. To persist in the face of failure). So, rather than avoid challenges, or ignore critique and feel threatened by others’ success, it’s useful instead to:

Keep Trying – learn how to overcome this.

Seek Challenges – if I fail, I will learn something.

See Effort as a Key – harder I work, the better I get.

Pursue Critique – what can I learn from this comment?

Feel Inspired by Others Success – I want to do that.

In addition, such thoughts have also proved helpful in considering long-term, mid-term and short-term goals. In music, this means I break down a single practice session in terms of immediate goals (learn a particular section), micro goals (focus on right hand arpeggio pattern or left hand finger movement and placement) and nano goals (now putting it together by slowing down the arpeggio and even looping a small section).  I’ve also found it extremely useful in my language learning. When time is of the essence for me, at best an hour or two a day, any time where I’m studying a language it has to be carefully organised; I need to make the most of the time I have. So, this idea of immediate goals, goals for that specific time, is something I will often use.

To give an example, recently I have been doing a great deal of input of Italian. This week, though, I decided I wanted to do my own writing, be that to write about current events or making comments on things I’ve read. I want to post comments in Italian on LingQ rather than asking questions in English. This will hopefully lead to my long-term goal of being an active participant of the Italian book club at GoodReads. So, back to today then. I was working through an Italian textbook which gave me the task of filling in gaps as I listened. As I did so, I was left with a couple of questions not really explained in the book at the point. I understand why they didn’t explain but I still wanted to know and I didn’t want to write about my own day (as the book asked for) until I understood these points further. So, the following was one of those points broken down into goals.

Immediate goal – understanding ‘mi riposo’

mi riposo – Why mi? What other words use mi instead of io? Is ‘mi’ always before the verb?

Micro goals for mi riposo

So, after noticing such things I set a mirco goal of identifying the grammatical terms and researching further explanations

Nano goals for mi riposo

I copied out a few complete sentences and annotated them – just to secure my understanding.
I then wrote a few sentences (set by my textbooks) and checked they were correct.
I used spaced repetition (more on this below) as I tried to write more unseen sentences from my textbook.

griffinAs I mentioned above, spaced repetition was also used during these tasks. This is particularly useful in making the most of my time and also learning things I don’t understand. Again another book, Michael Griffin’s ‘Learning Strategies for Musical Success’, helped me with my music but also the example of spaced repetition has helped my language learning too. Naturally, most language learners, me included, use spaced repetition particularly when learning vocabulary be that with Anki, Memrise etc. However, use it for grammar points? Consider nuances with the language? Hum.

In ‘Learning Strategies’, Griffin shows how a thirty minute session can be divided either into ‘blocked repetition’ or ‘spaced repetition’.

Blocked repetition – useful for introducing new skills to create a foundation’
Passage A – 10mins
Passage B – 10mins
Passage C – 10mins
Spaced Repetition – more effective
Passage A – 4mins
Passage B – 3mins
Passage A – 3mins
Passage C – 4mins
Passage B – 5mins
Passage A – 3mins
Passage C – 6mins
Passage B – 2mins

Both types of repetition can be useful provided full attention is maintained during that time. As Griffin goes on to argue, ‘if concentration wanes during blocked repetition, progress can stagnate and possibly deteriorate’. For myself, I probably work with both possibilities. But in terms of SR, I’m always careful in what I choose for A, B and C.  For example, I wouldn’t have three new things for SR. There is nothing more off-putting than struggling to follow three different tricky pieces of music – really doesn’t boost my confidence nor my enthusiasm to play (especially if I only have that thirty minutes and nothing else for the rest of the day). Instead, I would have pieces which vary in focus and also vary in my competence. – two-three bars struggling and slow, focus on dynamics at 70bpm, consistent placement as I play tremolo. So, in terms of language learning, then, I will follow the same pattern rating my current competency out of five to ensure a balanced and motivating session. Similar to my music practice, I would also choose three different language focuses. I wouldn’t, say, choose three verb types to practice. That would just get confusing in my head. So, for example, today I focused on the following

A = Basic expressions – I’m sometimes forgetting the formal and informal version of general getting-to-know someone (name, age, live, work). 3/5 competency.Task: Translating English in Italian (there is a glossary of phrases in my textbook, so I’ll just cover the Italian)

B= Object pronouns – in terms of usage, omission, contraction etc. 1/5
Task: ‘Collins Grammar Practice’ has a variety of English-Italian activities – though need to make sure I’m remembering how to use it and not just remembering the sentences themselves!
C = Present tense verbs – know -are, -ire, -ere. Also including irregular verbs I’m familiar with (avere, andare, fare, essere). 3/5. I’m leaving out the two -rre types as I’d give myself 1/5 for these and need to do them separately in order to give myself concentrated time with them.
Task: Write out (without looking) verb forms with the correct pronoun. I will then check. I will do all types with the option of doing more of one type should that be a particular weakness. I will also notice any patterns.
In terms of time then, this works out as:
Task A – Basic expressions 4mins.
Task B – Object PN- 3mins
Task A – Basic expression 3mins
Task C – Present tense verbs 4mins
Task B – Object PN – 5mins
Task A – Basic expressions 3mins
Task C – Present tense verbs – 6mins
Task B -Object PN – 2mins
For me, this is just one way that I get to know the nuts and bolts of a language. I might do it everyday, I might not. I might do a reduced form and just spend 15mins. The point is, it depends how I feel.  if I’m tired or have a lot of work stuff to deal with, then I’m not going to be fully attentive when I do the practice. As is often written, ‘practice makes permanent’ – I need to make sure that I’m not sloppy, make mistakes over-and-over again without changing it, otherwise my brain will just remember the mistakes. Whatever I do, though, in this session, I’m interested in noticing and improving. If I had to do something I didn’t want to, often because I find it too hard to figure out, I would use the SR time to work out the ‘why’, to clarify the difficulty. This may include attempting to write something or just commenting on examples. Either way my goal there would be to share that with someone on LingQ or iTalki so I could better my understanding. So, from my own experiences, SR for grammar can be a useful tool in making progress – just need to make sure you’re focused throughout!

Update: Mini-Goal – Noticing Kanji

One of the mini-goals I set myself was to find out specific elements of a Kanji. I was interested in the particular characters of 静、速、遠、静 One particular book that looked like it could be helpful was ‘Kanji Power’. Though helpful explanation of the Kanji elements and useful compounds and adjectives, it only has 250 (first grade and second grade Kanji). My three were not in the list. I then turned to my well-thumbed Heisig’s ‘Remembering the Kanji’. I have used this way back when I first started practising Kanji and found it useful to remember some meanings. Yet, two of my Kanji were missing (they weren’t in the index) and one was confusing in its ‘story’ – this is certainly a book where you have work through it linearly. Obviously I hadn’t worked though it enough.

So, I then turned to my dictionaries and Kanji cards. This may have been a more obvious place to start but I was fascinated to discover if the books specifically aimed at aiding writing and memorization would be just as beneficial in supporting an inquisitive approach to the characters. Sadly, not. So, back to the dictionaries. I have two good dictionaries for this. Yet the one that helped the most was ‘The Learner’s Kanji dictDictionary’. Finding the character was relatively straightforward using the book’s system of reference but it was also helpful as each character was accompanied by the corresponding graphemes which were helpfully referenced. Alongside this book I looked to my Kanji cards. The White Rabbit Press are pretty good at having everything in Japanese, showing stroke order and also words that use the Kanji. Yet the Tuttle cards have the advantage of noting and labelling the graphemes which is great to aid my understanding as well as interest. Sadly, though, the cards use Romaji. So, whilst I do like these particular cards for there clarification, the lack of Kana means I’m not using them for vocabulary. So, if you’re interested in discovering the elements of a Kanji, definitely the Tuttle cards and the ‘Learner’s’ dictionary seem the way to go.

Month 2: Goals

So what will be my goals for the second month? The ultimate goal here is ‘manageability’. At the end of my first month, I have so many things I want to go and away and do but if I’m not careful I’ll simply overdo it, become exhausted and then just give up. Therefore, my plans for this month are going to be from the viewpoint of being committed but also setting a minimum (albeit a substantial and taxing minimum) rather than a maximum range of tasks. If I feel like doing more, that’s fine but if I don’t that’s fine too. 🙂

Japanese Goals – spending time with the language

This is not going to be completing books – like last month. Instead it’s about skills and spending time developing these skills. It’s also about ‘time’.

Writing Goal –  3 days for 1hr (intensive)kanji

Here I will be writing sentences/paragraphs which attempt to address my grammar targets established last month as well as consolidate prior knowledge but all with the aim of writing natural Japanese. This will be all my own work and not filling in gaps. The hour set aside really gives me the freedom to write at my own pace, to enjoy finding new words, remembering grammar points I thought I’d forgot. I’m also going to stick to three days as well – I think it’s important to spread the writing over a few days rather than do some crazy mammoth 3hr writing session.

Vocabulary and Kanji Goal- 5 days for 20mins (low to medium)

Random pages in ‘Basic Kanji 1’
Dip into ‘Look and Learn’ for character recognition and practice

Speaking Goal – 4 days for 20mins (medium to high)

Include ‘speaking’ grammar practice rather than writing answers (this will be by using a new textbook), shadowing speech and posting to LingQ for comments. Will I be confident to speak to my past Japanese tutors on iTalki during this month?
I did the first day of this schedule today and I was mentally exhausted. Naturally, this will get better over time as retrieving past knowledge will improve through practice. So I am liking this current schedule as by not committing myself to heavy-going tasks each day will strengthen my learning but also I won’t become stressed if I can’t complete it that day. There’s always tomorrow. It also allows me to do fun stuff with the language be that through books, dramas or films. I want push myself but I’m going to be doing fun stuff as well. Where will I be at the end of this second month? Naturally,  I hope to feel more secure in grammar and Kanji, to have reduced the targets I have in regard to both of these, to have really improved my vocabulary and even become overconfident to speak. My goal of the month, then, is simply time with the language.
Interestingly, just as I was about to post my blog I read an article by the polyglot, Olly Richards on what he describes as ‘sprints’ in language learning. He also spoke about setting goals according to ‘process’ and not ‘product’:

‘For example, rather than saying:

  • I will learn 10 new words today (product)

Say instead:

  • I will spend 10 minutes memorising vocabulary with my spaced-repetition software (process)

Rather than saying:

  • I will understand everything in this chapter by the end of the week

Say instead:

  • I will read this chapter through twice each night, checking key words in the dictionary

You can control process, but you can’t control product.’

Italian Goals  – Reading & Listening

readingI’m pretty much going to carry on doing what I did in the first month. That is, keep to my LingQ 90 challenge targets. So, this will be plenty of reading and listening as well as vocabulary practice. Whilst I naturally do loads of listening, I’m specifically given myself 20mins a day to do focused reading and listening where I will be paying particular attention to nuances of vocabulary and structures. I may break up the 20mins into different slots and even repeat sessions. So I’m leaving the ‘what’ pretty much open. This allows me to simultaneously read and listen to things I feel like on that day. Again, I’m not constraining myself to particular books or even to complete particular books – just simply to read and listen to whatever I want.

Italian – end of the 1st month

My monthly goals for Italian were very different to my goals for Japanese. Japanese was heavily focused on grammar and Kanji. My focus for Italian was simply to enjoy reading and listening with the odd review of vocabulary. Certainly the schedule was less onerous. There was no real need to work out how many chapters I had to do each week or each day. sono leggendaInstead, it was just to explore as much reading and listening as I could and to see how my knowledge of the language would progress during the weeks. Funnily enough, the lack of a rigorous schedule sort of made this like relaxing with a few books than language study. Everyday I would listen to an audio book on its own or with the accompanying book. I managed to download and read a variety of books on my Kindle as well as reading articles on LingQ. Loved it. I was noticing things with the language, asking questions about it and really wanting to find out further about specific nuances. My goal was simply to immerse myself in the language and I really felt I did this. 🙂