Teaching and learning Russian and English

Learning Russian by immersion and avoidance of English

Why is immersion so valuable?

I often wonder how my language abilities improved in 3.5 years to a level where I can read listen to an audiobook or read a news article and understand decently - lacking some details, but with the main point understood. I just finished listenting to "Nine Princes in Amber" (in Russian) and enjoyed it immensely; as I listen to more and more, I understand many words that I have never "studied".

I like it this way, due in part to an unpleasent experience I had when I tried listenting to a Russian radio station for the first time (But not only then). At the time, I was taking my third or fourth class, and knew very little vocabulary: I could probably have counted the verbs I knew on my fingers. Nonetheless, I tried listenting to the station for a while. What I found was that when I heard a word I recognized or knew, I was kicked out of my intent listenting into English - becuase I knew the words as "книга => book", not as "книга => (the object itself, somewhat independent of language)". So, the idea was to have some sort of a picture, not a translation into my native language. C. S. Lewis expresses this idea much better than me in "Surprised by Joy":

"... I was beginning to think in Greek. That is the great Rubicon to cross in learning any language. Those in whom the Greek word lives only while they are hunting for it in the lexicon, and who then substitute the English word for it, are not reading the Greek at all; they are only solving a puzzle. The very formula, "Naus means a ship," is wrong. Naus and ship both mean a thing, they do not mean one another. Behind Naus, as behind navis or naca, we want to have a picture of a dark, slender mass with sail or oars, climbing the ridges, with no officious English word intruding."

If I am running to Google Translate to figure out the meaning of a sentence, I am cheating myself in the long run; I am not really using the language, but relying on substitution. I think translation (in the context of learning new words) is a great boon in the beginning - in my first Russian class, learning that Меня зовут ... == My name is ... was useful, and I built on that foundation of basic vocabulary as I learned more and more: grammar, vocabulary, syntax, etc. But at some point, I believe the learner needs to outgrow this method of learning, and learn words by what I would call 'immersion': by exposure to them in multiple contexts, by using them, and looking them up in dictionaries.

I don't think there's anything wrong with using your native language - it would be a waste not to! What saddens me is when I see other learners who rely on translation even after they are well beyond intermediate; by relying on their native tongue, or automated translation, they slow down their progress in the language, becuase often they're barely using the language: it is more a puzzle (Make English sentence => translate word-for-word into foreign language) than a creative endeavor, where the artist (be it a writer, painter, or musician) is engaged in a creative process that is intense and concentrated. I speculate that translation is easier in the beginning, but that in the long run it lets us down by cheating us out of a difficult, rewarding learning process that builds our ability to read and understand in the language.

My learning process so far has been:

  • Soaking up the language like a sponge, and enjoying myself as much as possible while doing so. This has mostly consisted of hours of listening to audiobooks, watching the news, and to a lesser extent, reading books. I would liken this to a staircase: on the first step, I gained a certain amount of knowledge, much of it invisible, but no less valuable (bits and pieces of the syntax, intonation, and all other attributes that make the language unique). On the next step, I would do the same thing: take in what I was hearing. But in addition, there would be many unknown words that I had heard multiple times. There were too many of these to look up, however my brain was keeping track of them, and eventually some of them started to stand out: I got a sense of what something meant, often becuase I already knew a word or two surrounding it.

When I thought I knew what a word meant, I would look it up if I felt like it. There was a definite thrill when my guess was close to the meaning! So if I had some guidlines for this process, they would be to a) keep it fun b) listen to things multiple times. I cannot stress this enough - I set a track of one audiobook as my alarm and would listen to a good bit of it every morning. You should be able to come up with your own variation. c) if you can, have a notebook handy while you listen, and jot down anything that stands out to you - this really helped to cement words and sentences in my memory. If I understood a whole sentence and found it funny, I would often jot down the whole thing. For example, I remember the sentence that I jotted down meaning "as if she has/had two heads" - "как будто у неё две головы", from 'Маруся', one of the first audiobooks I listened to in Russian. It doesn't seem like much now, but I think it was instrumental to my journey in the language; I was soaked in native expressions and intonation.

  • Being creative with the language. For me, this means writing stories and just... thinking in the language. I don't know if it's weird, but in addition I'll think up a person and then imagine a conversation with them, as if I was writing the lines. I enjoy speaking as well, although I don't do it very much: I'm not very social, and don't have many Russian friends that I see on a regular basis.

Learning Russian has been the most interesting and exciting thing I've ever done, but also the most mysterious: I've never been able to look inside my brain and see what kind of structures are being built by what I do with the language, but I can observe the results - writing and speech that is usually natural, listening and understanding not troubled by my native language, and a complete absence of English when I'm thinking in Russian - if I want to I can think in English, but while writing or speaking, there's not an English word in sight.


With all of that said, all I have are my own experiences and what I've read and learned; I don't think that I know the "one true path" (I doubt one exists), and admit that what worked for me might not work well for someone else. More than anything else, I'm interested to hear what you think, based on your experiences. I would welcome any disagreements or confirmations that you may have :)

Some ideas that I have for future posts:

  • Resources for finding and listening to audiobooks (in Russian)
  • Apps for iOS & Android that have helped me in my journey
  • My favorite audiobooks and readers of audiobooks, including ones with a lower level that were easier when I was starting out