Learning a language : where to start ?

6 minutes read —

I’m currently neck-deep in the process of trying to learn the Russian language and I believe the best time to teach anything is often while we are still learning it oneself. In today’s article, I’m going to discuss how to best learn a language in the initial stages. But first, I need to answer why even bother.

Kick-starting the practice

I believe English is the single most useful thing I’ve learned at school. It is a key skill in that it allowed me to learn a lot of the other stuff I’ve learned across the years. It gave me access to the global brain. English represents around 54% of the internet content, which is quite a lot more than the 4% or so of the french language. Russian comes in second with 6%. Many East-European people frequently write and talk in Russian on and off the internet. It is not just about Russian people, which makes the ground it can unlock quite large.

I must say although the reasons expressed above make sense on a logical level, they were insufficient for the practice to stick with me for quite a while. More personal reasons needed to be there to really kick-start the learning process. In my case I have a couple of Russian speakers in my immediate surroundings. There is one young soul in particular who cannot yet speak french, which meant I had to learn some very basic Russian quite fast in order to communicate at least a little with him.
Those circumstances opened the door for learning this language for me. When such doors are opened, I believe we should go and learn while it lasts. I’m currently 26. Fluid intelligence is maximal at that age, there is never going to be an easier time to pick on new knowledge. Learning now is better than later.

Fast and loose first, vocabulary is king.

Jumping in ; one thing I realized really rapidly is that grammar is not that important in the beginning stages of learning a language. We want to go fast and loose first.
Learning vocabulary is essential. Without grammar, one can still be understood even though the sentences will likely be all wrong, ugly and unproper. Without vocabulary, we are kinda stuck however and are left hitting a hard stop.

It follows that vocabulary is an essential parameter in how easy or hard it is going to be to learn a new language. French and Spanish are very closely related for instance. I found that even though I have not practiced any Spanish in years since I was out of school, I can still pick-up on it quite easily for the simple fact that we share a plethora of word radicals. Knowing this many words already without even trying is a huge head start. Russian on the other hand is quite alien from any of the language I am familiar with. There is thus a gigantic memorizing job to be done before I can move on to the subtleties of the language.

So how to go about that ? It makes sense to learn the most common words of a language first. In fact, it takes about 1000 to 3000 words to reach a casual conversation level. Depending on how many new words you are able to reliably absorb in any given day, this word-count can be reached relatively quickly. Adverbs are going to cover ground quite fast, verbs are very important to be able to express oneself, adjectives are nice, and nouns are the most contextual of the list.
It is very worthwhile to push hard in the beginning to acquire those most common words. Once a certain threshold is reached ; it becomes possible to continue learning in a more passive way through simple reading and listening. To propel a rocket into space, most of the energy is burned on takeoff.

This means some hard drilling is going to be necessary. ANKI is a very useful tool for that.
Spaced repetition is a technique that leverages what we know about how memory works. Retrieval is the action that really solidifies memories. Each time a memory is recalled, it gets reinforced. What follows from that is that forgetting should in fact be an integral part of the learning process. Rather than trying to learn all in a single sitting session and then never recalling the knowledge ever again, it is in fact more appropriate to space out our learning over time so that it gets recalled more.

In-context learning, well rounded practice

But beyond that, what really will solidify the knowledge is to witness the vocabulary used in context and then try to reuse it oneself. For that reason, I would highly recommend installing an extension called “Dualsub” on your browser. It allows to watch YouTube videos with 2 subtitles tracks on at the same time. For example, you could watch a guy speak Russian, have subtitles for that, and then be able to read the English translation right below. This is obviously really useful for absorbing the language, but then comes the next step which would be recreating the language. You need to write in the destination language, and try and talk with it also. Expression of any kind is what will really solidify the grammar part of the language.

In fact it is useful to think about a quadrant comprised of oral comprehension, written comprehension, oral expression and written expression and find ways to practice each. Most often than not at least one of those gets neglected. In my case, English was learned through written and oral exposure and then I have a habit of writing in English often enough. However, one thing I do not do on the regular is to speak the language. I am a indeed a french person in France and thus speak french on the daily rather than English. To combat that lack, you might have noticed that I started to record readings of my written blog posts and pinning them at the top of the articles. The reasons I do so is to practice my oral expression skills in English, specifically I’m trying to get my tongue used to English pronunciation. In the case of Russian, in the beginning stage, one shouldn’t neglect to learn how to type with a Cyrillic alphabet for example. Paying attention to those sorts of things should ensure a well rounded and ultimately very usable acquisition of the language.

Arts and languages are one and the same

There is one more thing I want to talk about.
The process of learning a language has many carry over with the arts practices.
In fact I use the terms “Grammar” and “Vocabulary” all the time to distinguish between what constitute rules and articulations from what are idioms and specifics in all domains. In digital painting, grammar would be things such as perspective and solid drawing, light and color theory, understanding of reflections and material properties. Vocabulary would be specific pieces of information such as the structure of a face, pieces of anatomy, how to draw a motorcycle, a sword or an helmet.

On a side note regarding vocabulary, it is funny to think that even in digital painting, the idea of etymology makes sense. For example, although mammals differ in proportions, they are in fact very similar in structure. Learning to draw a specific mammal can therefore carry over easily into drawing all others. It can even teach you to draw made-up creatures, or neologisms, which is particularly relevant to concept art.

The thing is, learning languages is what I do. Although I didn’t understand it at first, Arts are just as much languages as Russian is, and like the all languages they are a pillar of culture. Arts are special in that they are especially apt at communicating feelings and experiences in vivid and poignant ways. But at the end of the day, they are all about exchanging with our fellow humans and are thus inherently interesting for us social creatures.

Let’s keep this short and wrap-up ! Until next time.