Learning Russian – In Anger

In my other life, I loiter on the outskirts of a geeky, developery community where the term ‘in anger’ always amuses me. It has nothing to do with being annoyed, but refers to doing something for real, rather than just playing at it. For example, you use a Moodle plugin ‘in anger’ instead of just experimenting with it on your test site.

The time is approaching where I need to think about learning Russian ‘in anger’ – upping  the pace a bit, and thinking about my future intentions. I’m nearing the end of the Oxford Take off in  Russian book (link to previous blog) which has formed the basis of my daily practice, along with a variety of exercises from the useful Red Kalinka site and, of course, my daily dose of Duolingo.

The other day I did some sample GCSE Russian listening and reading papers – just out of curiosity. I got 46 out of 50 on the Listening and 42 out of 50 on the Reading. (In fact, I was surprised at the slow speed of the listening, contrasted with the Oxford Talk Russian CD) While that was encouraing, there is no way I would reach an acceptable level in speaking or writing yet – although it made me realise it is achievable. But do I want to achieve it? What purpose would it serve other than being able to say I had a GCSE in Russian?

Alternatively there are the Test of Russian as a Foreign Language (TORFL) exams. My son already has one and is currently working towards the third level exam. I could try the Basic level – but again – is there any point?

I don’t need to be certified to be motivated to learn; the pleasure of being able to communicate is enough for me. As for upping my pace, I start on Monday with weekly private lessons via Skype with Lilya, whom I met in St Petersburg. These will supplement the face to face lessons (which are fun and involve real human contact 🙂 ) and I hope will help me move on from the Take off in Russian book. Which will get a full review shortly!


The Pleasures of Private tution

I’ve never actually had private language lessons: I learned at school, at university and home on my own or in lengthy stays in the countries. So it was a new and fascinating experience to have a real life Russian Russian teacher all to myself for an hour and a half each time for three days during my stay. She is Lilia and I got to her via my son who takes advanced lessons from her via Vivalinguaplus . When I went into her room to start my first lesson -feeling excited but also a bit nervous – she started to speak to me in Russian to gauge my level and I realised that, because she was speaking slowly using simple words and cognates – cognates RULE!! – I could understand almost all she said. And so – bar a couple of times when she had to use an English term – our three lessons (total private tuition time 4 and a half hours) took place entirely in Russian. And I had her all to myself! According to my duolingo app I now “know 875 words in Russian”. I suspect I might know a few more – so imagine I know 1000 – that gave me a thousand words to reply to her and try to make myself understood to her during that time as we went through various exercises. I know I got verb and adjective endings wrong – but I also know the confidence of at least trying and being  understood – and then understanding her replies was so gratifying.

Not sure what to focus on for our three lessons, Lilia followed my son’s suggestion of studying the Russian verbs of motion. Here was the first example of how, if you know other languages, you can build on that understanding when you learn a new one. In English we say I go (on foot) or I go (by bus/ car etc) So we happily use “to go” for any means of getting from A to B. In German they make the difference between “gehen” to go on foot and “fahren” to use transport. They do this in Russian too, so I had an advantage of having encountered this concept already. THEN Lilia hit me with a new concept – and told me this is the case not only in Russian but in other slavic languages too. ( I love to learn stuff like that!) In Russian etc they also make the difference between going in one direction and going there and back – going once and going repeatedly. So there is a whole list of verbs to learn depending on if you are going once on foot somewhere or going on the plane somewhere with the intention of coming back  – or not!

These lessons me two of the key aspects important for progressing in a language: repetition and retrieval. We drilled and drilled these verbs and if I had questions or simply wanted to make a remark I had to generate the words myself (from my 875+ vocabulary) Brilliant.

But it wasn’t just the one to one tuition that enchanted me. Lilia is a linguistics graduate. She speaks some English but has understanding of the roots and structures of language, of etymology and differences in concepts. I had a great time making connections across the language tree, trying to use adjectives and nouns with the correct case and gender (although I confess at times I made random guesses to see what might happen!) and basically loving being with a like minded person.

So – are private lessons The Future? I’m back in “Peter” as they call it in April and June and if she is free I will certainly book more with Lilia. She does Skype lessons – I am interested to find out more about how these can work. Interested because, even though I use web conferencing tools all the time, I am not sure how you can do more than the conversation aspect via Skype. Do we both need a text book?  How can she mark my homework? Would she do screen-sharing? Would I? All to discover 🙂

The key to mastering a language…

…is not to panic when you don’t understand every word.

(OK so there is more than one key, but this is still a very important one!)

As a languages teacher training  lower set GCSE pupils for the listening test, I would tell them to listen out for key words that would help them build up a general understanding of the situation. I had personal experience of this myself today, as I am back in St Petersburg visiting my son. It’s minus 18 and beautifully sunny:


And today I was left to my own devices while my son was at work. So at lunchtime I took myself into a cafe and tried out my cafe-Russian phrases. First lesson: they do actually say the stuff you learn in text books, but it might sometimes be surrounded with other words you won’t understand. That’s OK 🙂

I decided to play it safe and order something I could actually pronounce as this was my first time ever alone in Russian  in a cafe. I ordered tomato soup and coffee (Americano – multinational!) with milk. Then the waitress asked me something I didn’t quite catch ,but amongst the words I heard – молоко , горячее and холодное which I know mean respectively milk, hot and cold – so assuming she wanted to know how I wanted my  milk, I opted for холодное (cold) and – guess what? I got what I ordered!

Encouraged by this, I went back in the evening to order dinner. Consolidation of learning! I’d been practising in my head for weeks how to ask for a glass of house white -and then I learned from my son how to get another one: you simply use the Russian for “repeat please”. But last night I discovered that if you say ноль пять (zero five) you can get a half litre carafe. Well, who wouldn’t?

It’s still baby steps, as they say, and I confess for my main course and dessert I ordered Italian food, making the process easier somewhat. But that’s ok too. Baby steps are how we learned our own language, and we got there in the end.

I mentioned in an earlier post about individual tuition. Well I have now completed three one to one sessions with a lovely teacher, Lilia, who is my son’s advanced tutor. It has been a fascinating experience and the subject of my next blog post. Once the ноль пять has worn off 🙂

Learning Russian… four months on

It’s just over four months since I started this blog about learning Russian? How have things progressed? What have been the satisfactions and the frustrations? Where would I like to be after another four months?

I discovered very quickly that simply learning phrases, “holiday Russian” didn’t suit me. I was  always trying to deconstruct the sentences and wasn’t prepared simpy to accept that, for example the word for book is книга but if you read a book it becomes книгу. So my main satisfaction has been persevering with cases so I have some understanding and also so -sometimes – I can formulate my own sentences correctly without having to refer to a table and without randomly guessing. In this respect the biggest boon has been without question the RedKalinka Moodle course I blogged about previously It presents me with hundreds of quizzes on vocabulary, verbs, cases at basic and intermediate level and it is the repeated practice with these which is making them finally start to sink in. I’ve been aiming to do two or three quizzes a day – and often that means redoing them several times until I get 100%. It’s simply hard work, but the reward will be worth it.


Another pleasure has been learning together, in the weekly Russian classes at UCLAN. I even joined the Russian society and attended a screening of The Irony of Fate, a cult comedy film they all watch religiously every New Year. (A bit like Morecambe and Wise or the Great Escape!) When you’re in a mixed ability class, the teacher always has a balancing act to do ensuring everyone has sufficient talk time and practice time, and one area I would like to do better in is in conversation:

My frustration is that I have nobody to talk to at length (not that I can talk at length!) but for more than just thirty second bursts. On the CEFR scale I am barely at A1, but we all have to start somewhere I think if I could have regular conversation practice or be able to ask individual questions, I’d move along more quickly. This became apparent over Christmas when I forced my son to give me some private time – and it’s encouraged me to book some private lessons when I go to St Petersburg in a couple of weeks’ time. I’m having three sessions with VivaLinguaPlus, the company which gives (very) advanced Russian lessons to my son and I am looking forward to their intensity very much 🙂


If at first you don’t succeed…

In November I wrote about how research says it’s retrieval more than repetition that helps consolidate our learning. That said, it’s still very valuable when learning a language to do ‘drilling’ exercises that help embed into your brain certain patterns. I’ve been trying to memorise case endings. Using the ‘look, cover, write, check’ method helps somewhat, but it is putting them into real contexts that rather than learning them as an isolated list that aids  progess the most. This is where Moodle quizzes really shine: when created well, they offer regular drilling practice to supplement other teaching by presenting the case endings in meaningful sentences. I’ve been working through the RedKalinka Moodle quizzes (blog here) and am starting to really feel the benefit. I am determined to get 100% on each quiz  but this sometimes involved repeated attempts until I get them all correct. And that act of repetition is embedding the structures. Dative case anyone? I wasn’t so good at twenty past nine, but half an hour later, I was much more confident 🙂

There are no shiny, sparkly, gamified aspects to these quizzes: no hidden treasure,tokens,  XP points or badges (although seeing the progress block go from red to green is quite motivating.) But the satisfaction in finally getting that 100% does it for me. I’m off to try another one……

Learning a language: One to One tuition is best

So after a nightmare journey (major delays because of fog) my son finally came home for a week during the Russian Christmas/New Year holiday. I’ve persuaded him to give me daily half hour private tuition (well Ok the money helped with the persuasion!) I’ve really felt the benefit of having individual attention, being able to go at my pace, being able to direct the lesson where I wanted to go and have my questions dealt with promptly.

I enjoy learning online with Duolingo, RedKalinka and I enjoy working on my own with my Take off in Russian CD and book – and I very much enjoy our weekly classes with Svetlana and our weekly conversation classes with Anya. As someone who works each day from home  and whose work focuses on online education, I particularly appreciate being able the face to face contact I get from the weekly classes. It’s nice to share the learning with others and have some rapport. BUT in a mixed ability class you are dependent on the progress of others and the teacher always has to maintain a balance. Plus I guess I might be in a slightly different “camp” from the others, not because I speak other languages – several of them do – but because I know about teaching and learning languages and I know what I want to learn and how to learn it. Private tuition, one-on-one would suit me for a number of reasons. However it’s expensive. Even when it’s your own son!!! That’s the down side and why I probably won’t do it for a while yet. It’s something to consider for the future however. I am off to St Petersburg again in February and I plan to book a couple of stand alone private lessons with a school there which my son knows. Watch this space:)

Learning Russian on MOODLE

My two worlds have collided! About time too. In fact, I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner.

I’ve been learning Russian for four months now, from books and CDs, from Youtube and from a  face-to-face course at UCLAN (where they use Blackboard, not Moodle!)

Moodle is my day job, but I did wonder what it would be like to learn -or practise- Russian on Moodle. Now I know..

I signed up to some online exercises from Red Kalinka – note  I don’t know them; they don’t know me; I have no affiliations with them at all, but I have previously bought some of their products and blogged about them here. Well, Red Kalinka, your marketing emails worked, because I was intrigued when I read about the “thousands of questions of all kinds”  so I registered. I knew it was Moodle as soon as I go to the log in page and saw the new user message. It’s Moodle 3.1 (very good) using what I believe is a purchased theme, Kallos30. After logging in you’re taken straight to the dashboard where you clearly see Beginner or Intermediate options. I’m assuming users are either enrolled into all courses on registration, or there is an auto-enrol plugin once you click on an option (course).


There’s the Completion Progress block – wonderful! That said, it’s pretty daunting when you see so  many blue (not yet started) activities there to be done. These activities are all quizzes with a variety of questions. If you pass the quiz, the blue turns green; if you fail, it turns red. You can see I failed the second one in Beginner Grammar and Vocabulary  –  here’s my result:


I got 95% because I put “station” for вокзал instead of train/railway/railroad station. OK, I’m fine with that, but it  does show 95% is not good enough to pass  – you need a clear 100% 🙂

As well as being divided into beginner and intermediate/advanced, the quizzes are divided into grammar and vocabulary, listening and reading comprehension. I liked the Reading comprehensions – read a passage and do some multiple choice questions  based on it. Perhaps I liked them because I found them easier. I was less taken with the Listening because I found them harder: you listen to several clips and have to put them in conversational order. This is a very good task, but I got disillusioned because I’m sure I got a question all correct but it told me I did not! Red Kalinka, if you’re listening, perhaps you can enlighten me?


And, Red Kalinka, if you are listening – I have to say I respect and admire all the hard work which has gone into these quizzes. Someone has put a lot of thought into this site. Having made many Moodle quizzes myself, I appreciate the effort that goes into them, not only devising the questions but also thinking of all the possible alternatives people might put (for short answer questions). All this has to be done manually, by a human… I empathise!

It’s always interesting to see Moodle from a student point of view.  On this Moodle site, there’s no interaction with other participants – the navigation and adminstration blocks have been hidden (although you can still view participants if you know where to look!) but its function is to provide the quizzes, and it does that very successfully and with a professional interface.   Red Kalinka admin,  you might think about enabling mobile access so people could do the quizzes from the Moodle mobile app.  Learning Russian on the move!

I’m going to go back and try a dictation now.. using the Russian stickers on my laptop 🙂

Learning a language is HARD!

It just is. But of course. I knew that. I used to spend hours, weeks, months (happily) shut in my room obsessively absorbing French.  With this new Russian study, it’s been interesting to see if my ageing brain has lost some of its retentive powers – and the answer is – a bit – but not enough to put me off. The main thing is that I’d forgotten just how much work you have to do to memorise, understand and retrieve/reproduce a new language. I try to do an hour a day – although according to Dukette and Cornish (2009)*, adults can only focus for twenty minutes before needing a break.  I try to vary how I learn: a quick fix of Duolingo which I can do anytime, some reading out loud practice from a RedKalinka book, vocab learning from our UCLAN Blackboard course, another page of  Talk Russian and a personal treat (yes, I know what you’re thinking) of grammar from my Russian grammar book. This way, although I’m doing an hour, I’m actually only doing ten minutes or so of one particular learning tool.

The most successful way I have found to retain the knowledge is to write it down or speak it. The act of handwriting (longhand!) forces your brain to generate words. Speaking is the same to – it’s that retrieval aspect again – but not just conversation classes which we have every Friday with a lovely Latvian native Russian speaker called Anna – but memorising spoken passages, songs and poems. I’ve written about this before, and in our class we’re currently tasked with learning parts from a Chukovsky poem: телефн.

All this IS hard work though – especially when you have a full time job or are a full time student, as some of my classmates are in our UCLAN course. The course is an elective, so they’re studying other, sometimes unrelated subjects and come to Russian out of interest and for a different experience. With  my language teacher hat on, I’d say, even though it’s an elective, it’s still vital  to devote time to learning, if only  fifteen minutes a day learning the vocab or verb endings. And by that I don’t mean simply reading through the class notes. Languages when learned as adults do not permeate our brains through osmosis – we really have to make the effort.


The first hurdle to conquer is the Russian alphabet. It’s achievable, if you take the letters a few at a time. Verb endings, along with genders of nouns, shouldn’t be too difficult if you have any kind of memory of a language learned at school because at least you will have been introduced to the idea that in other languages, the endings of verbs change depending on who is doing the stuff and inanimate words can be masculine, feminine or neuter. (That’s NEUTER, not neutral, OK?) Possibly the hardest thing to master in Russian will be the concept of ‘case’, if you’ve never come across this before. Here, I’m unashamedly at an advantage, having  studied both Latin and German, and so, if my grammar book tells me B takes the accusative case when it means ‘into or to’ and the prepositional case when it means ‘in or at’, I won’t bat an eyelid. Here is where the balance between me and my young student classmates evens out. Their brains are younger and more retentive than mine; my brain is already wired up for varying word order made intelligible by inflected words.

But, together, we’ll get there!


*Cornish, D. and Dukette, D. (2009). The essential twenty. 1st ed. Pittsburgh, Pa.: RoseDog Books.

Keyboard stickers – gain one skill; lose another

Although I can usually manage reasonably well typing French and German accents on my keyboard, typing Russian is quite a challenge. Until  recently I used http://russian.typeit.org/ which is fine but it does involve copy/paste. On the recommendation of my son, I scoured Amazon and bought some Russian keyboard stickers. (There are several brands and colours to choose from.) Not being particularly digitally skilled, some of mine went on a bit lop-sided, but they’re functional:

keyboardstickersSo now all I need do is switch my language to Russian and I can practise using the keys on the keyboard – proper typing!  Мне нравится изучать русский язык  (See what I did there?) It’s slow at the moment, having to look for the keys – but then handwriting is equally slow. I feel like a child learning how to write all over again, laboriously.


For some reason, my brain has now forgotten how to type in English! Nearly half a century ago (yes, really) my auntie taught me how to touch type and it’s been one of the most useful skills I’ve ever acquired (that and Latin!!)  Usually, I only rarely look at the keys and I can type very fast. Well I could. It seems adding extra letters to each key is warping my brain such that, if I glance down now, I will hit the wrong key, type a Russian B from the sticker instead of the British B I’ve been using for decades -and end up with D. I’m making so many typos in English when I rarely did before. It’s very frustrating but I shall persevere, secure in the belief that brain plasticity will win out in the end. And in the meantime -the solution? When typing English,  don’t look at the keyboard! Ever!


More Russian songs – Oi! Frost!

I am liking the Ruslan Russian songbook very much.  One easy song to learn is ой, мороз, мороз! (oi! Frost, Frost!) which is about someone returning home in the cold to his waiting wife. He’s asking the frost not to freeze him and his beautiful white maned horse. Coincidentally I was reminded of this song in the last few days when I received a 30 second mobile phone video from my son on his way to work in St Petersburg. Minus the horse, of course…

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