I heard about the Polyglot Gathering 2020 from a student of mine before the pandemic was a thing. Sigh. The silver-lining is that the gathering moved online and therefore I was able to attend it. I’m still going to comment on some speeches but I’m waiting for the organizers to upload them on their channel so that you guys can also access them.
Okay, so to get to the point, which is something I always have a problem doing (you see!) in preparation to this gathering I decided to give my Russian a quick boost. As you can learn from the post Lessons on My language Failures I’m up and down with my language learning. This means that in a year and a half of “learning” Russian I perhaps did two months of study with months on end of not doing ANYTHING with it.
Nonetheless, the gathering was there on the horizon with its language practice opportunities and I knew that “Извините пожалуйста, где находится банкомат?” (Excuse me, do you know where the nearest ATM is?) was not the best conversation starter. I decided to try an experiment and do a lesson of Russian every day for the remaining 12 days. I used professional and community tutors on italki and only stayed with a teacher, if I liked them. Below are some of my findings.
1. Some Teachers Are Great, Some Are Hopeless
Instant enlightenment. I guess it’s something that I learnt a long time ago but somehow forgot about it because I was lucky with teachers for a long time. Community tutors or professional teachers alike can be great or totally not.
During my experiment I had lessons where teachers expected ME to lead the lesson. This means there were uncomfortable silences and prolonged pauses. Sure, anyone can be in a situation when they need to gather their thoughts but if your teacher makes you feel it’s your job to lead the lesson, they suck.
I enjoyed the following mixture of teacher’s characteristic:
I’m not kidding, just a nice person who smiles from time to time makes it much easier for you to learn. When they don’t make you feel judged and encourage you it’s really important for your progress. We all know we sound silly in the beginning when learning a new language so someone who can put us at ease is gold.
And yes, unfortunately not all teachers think it’s important. I literally had a teacher roll her eyes at me when I was struggling with telling the time in Russian. NOT cool!
If a teacher comes for the lesson unprepared it’s a bad sign. Even if you’re just doing informal conversation practice and they have no questions/activities prepared for when the conversation dies out this means they’re not prepared.
- Good at explaining the language
This is one thing at which non-native speaking teachers are often much better than native ones. It’s simply because they’ve been through the process. Teaching courses are theory and somehow they don’t really really understand certain problems of learners.
Having said that, I find native teachers fluent in at least one foreign language with a lot of experience really good at it too.
2. Progress Sometimes Comes Later
This is something I heard Lydia Machova saying during her speech at the gathering and I can totally relate to. For the most part of my twelve day experiment I couldn’t see much progress. Sure, I could introduce myself much better after doing it 9 times (I’ve tried 9 different teachers) but other than that I didn’t feel like my Russian was getting any better. This was obviously very frustrating. I started doubting myself.
Weirdly, the progress came only a week or two after the conference, when my Russian was downgraded to two lessons a week, homework and some vocabulary learning. One day out of the blue I was able to use vocabulary and structures learnt during the experiment. I guess the take home message here is that you just have to be persistent and the results will come.
3. You Need That Homework and You Need It to Be Good
You’ll spend so much more money on your lessons, if you don’t work on your own. Still, not all homework is equal. It was drilling what I’d covered during lessons that really helped me not some random exercises.
Don’t move on to anything else before you feel more or less at ease with a new topic, otherwise you’ll be repeating your mistakes and they will fossilize. Ask your teacher to slow down. That’s what 1-on-1 teaching is made for and that’s why it’s much more efficient than group work.
You can also create you own homework by expanding to weaknesses that came up during lessons. I’m, for one, a bit cavalier with Russian cases because my native language has given me quite a good intuition about them. The intuition can only get me so far, though. I can’t get away without drills for the cases that I find counterintuitive and these are really difficult to work on.
4. Personality Differences Can Hinder Your Progress
I mentioned a number of things when it comes to teachers in point 1 but this one needs a separate paragraph. As much as someone can be a good teacher there are certain issues that may hinder your progress, namely, major personality differences. If you’re supposed to be getting frustrated with your teacher or your conversations won’t flow because you’re very different, rather change them.
During the experiment I would decide whether to stay with a teacher or nor after one lesson. This doesn’t mean 7 teachers I rejected were bad teachers but it means that their teaching style and/or personality and/or beliefs would not make us a good match longterm.
For instance, for many people it’s surprising that I’m Polish and I live in South Africa. Add to that that I moved here for work (as a woman!!!) and you may get into certain conversations you don’t want to be having.
I understand genuine interest. “How come did you end up in South Africa?” and similar are just good conversation starters. However, I can’t deal with what I’d call interrogation driven by someone’s lack of appreciation for all kinds of diversity. I’m not interested in explaining my life choices to people who are there to teach me a language.
This experiment did cause me a bit of fuming but actually, more sadness about how some people see the world. Still, I ended it walking away with two great Russian teachers whom I gladly share with you: Anastasia and Marina.
5. Your Attitude Is Crucial
Did I manage to have a lesson every day for 12 days? Sure! This doesn’t mean that these lessons were equally effective, though and I was to blame too. Particularly on the weekend I really had to push myself to even attend a lesson and my attitude was just wanting to be done with it. A great teacher can help you with motivation but when you’re very tired or low the learning process is much less effective.
When not participating in an experiment book a lesson for when you know you can concentrate on what’s being discussed. Don’t add a lesson to a day that you know will be long and frustrating.
7. There’s Something About Kickstarting
When you struggle with language learning motivation it’s a good idea to kickstart your progress by making an intense effort like I did in my experiment. The thing is, life’s busy and language learning can be slow when you just put two hours a week into it. A crash course is a great idea to start with and whenever you feel like you’re getting nowhere you can just do a challange similar to the one I just did.
My 12-day Russian marathon has certainly improved my vocabulary and knowledge of important phrases A LOT. I advanced from using Polish words and hoping for the best to actually knowing basic Russian words, phrases and structures beyond my survival travel vocabulary. More importantly, my motivation to learn Russian has been high ever since I completed the experiment.
Learning a language is a commitment and sometimes it may feel like a chore but whatever your goal is you’ll feel amazing, if you achieve it. You’re reading this blog so you’re probably a person who values their time and money and wants quick and sustainable results.
To do better in a language you must learn better. To learn better (= smarter rather than more) you need motivation. You can spend years and years in language courses and schools putting your progress in someone else’s hands or really commit and become intermediate or higher in a year. These are completely achievable goals with the right tools.
I know it, because I did it before and I’m trying to crack the code of how one can do it over and over again. This is because I also know that trying to optimize your language learning process means going against years if not centuries of old school and ineffective language teaching. If you don’t fight for yourself you’ll loose your motivation, money and perhaps even the interest in learning a given language. We can do it!
Bonne chance à vous et a moi ! À bientôt !