Thursday, 29 January 2015

#Add1Challenge update

Today is day 18 of the challenge. So far it has been quite an experience, and I'm so glad that I decided to do it. There will be another Add1Challenge starting soon, so take a look at the website -

Lessons Learnt so Far

Having a group of people around you (even though it's a virtual group) also learning languages, is so motivating. The facebook group is amazing, and I have gotten so much support and advice from it. There's a real sense of achievement when a member does something they've struggled with for the first time, so much kindness and resource sharing, and a feeling that we're all in it together. I think when we're all sat at home on our own learning our languages, it's easy to undervalue how important it is to have a little network of like minded people around you. To an extent I try and get that through posting here, being on twitter and reading and commenting on other language learners blogs or forums, but it's not quite the same.

A significant number of us (myself included) finally managed to get over the fear of having online lessons with a native speaker. This topic alone has produced lots of great posts, and I think it was probably the no.1 concern for a lot of us! It was so great to see all the 'yay, I did it' posts, and to realise that even when you have a session that perhaps you feel didn't go well, you will survive it! 

I found that booking my next online tutoring session, the moment the one I was having finished works well for me (I picked that tip up on the fb group as well!). Otherwise I start procrastinating, and over-thinking..."Well that didn't go so well so I'll give myself a break and then I might book another one or I might wait until I've studied a bit more..." Yeah, don't go there. Just book the session!  

It's also ok to be picky. I've tried out several different tutors, and while I'd say only one was really not great, some just didn't suit me. I tried to make my messages to the tutors as specific as possible, but I think some tutors just like to do things certain ways! There are a couple that will be great for later on when I'm a bit further along in Russian. I also had to try out some tutors a couple of times, as I just couldn't tell from the trial session.
Of course if there's only a few people offering the language you're learning it makes it harder. As well as Italki, there is also My Language Exchange and probably a lot more. I also found that by joining specific groups on facebook (e.g. Learners of Russian, Learn Dutch now, Easy German, etc) I could contact tutors who advertised there (if that group allows it). However, some of these groups are nothing but spam, so you have to spend sometime checking them out. 

Accountability has also been a huge motivator. Having a set amount of time to study each day, and recording it for all to see on the fb group really makes you focus on what you're actually doing. So, although I may think I'm studying Russian, if I take a closer look at what I've spent my time doing it may look like this - memrise (15 mins), check facebook (10 mins), watch russian youtube video (10 mins), check emails (10 mins), check twitter (5 mins), read blog posts on language learning (10 mins),  etc... The I turn off the computer, feeling exhausted and thinking I've been studying Russian for an hour, but actually I've either been procrastinating or distracted! Definitely something I needed to realise to keep my learning in check!

Onwards and Upwards

I still have a long way to go in the challenge, and plenty more to figure out and discover. I still have days when I question why I'm doing this, when I feel as if I'm not making any progress and I can't remember the simplest things. But I also have days when I finally understand something that I've struggled with, or I say a whole sentence in Russian to my family without thinking about it, or I have a really motivating skype session.  I recommend the Add1Challenge to anyone learning a language. It's been a great journey so far...

Friday, 23 January 2015

Chronic illness and language learning

A couple of years ago I became ill. My recovery is a slow and ongoing process (and I may never return to 'normal' whatever that may be!), but I am now much better than I was. However, one of the 'leftovers' from being ill was/is a much lower energy level. I now have to rest more, take breaks from activities more often, and if I do too much (either physical or mental) it will take me a while to recover.  For example the Toki Pona marathon while being a great experience really pushed me physically and mentally. Because I now know my limits I was prepared, and although frustrating I knew I'd have to do things like not stay on for the Christmas party we'd been invited to. I also needed 3/4 days of very quiet downtime to recover after the event.

What does this have to do with language learning? 

I decided to learn Russian again 18 months after my initially being ill.  One of the reasons was to give my brain a workout. I was suffering from 'brain fog' and my memory was pretty bad. I hoped that by taking up a language again, and giving my brain something to do these symptoms would lessen. I'm not sure if learning Russian has had much effect (yet!), but these articles give me hope!

What happens in the brain when you learn a language?
Learning second language 'slows brain ageing'
For a Better Brain, Learn Another Language

How do I do it?  
It's taken me two years to get to this point, and I'm still figuring things out, but what I can say is that it's all about pacing yourself, knowing and managing your energy levels and coming to terms with what you can and cannot achieve on any given day. It's about being flexible enough to change plans on the days when it just isn't happening. It's about coming to terms with being a slow language learner and being ok about it. :) 

In practical terms this is what it can look like.

Bad Days - Having an illness like this can mean that I have to change how, when and what I study. On really bad days it can mean doing nothing, and realising that taking one day to rest might mean I have a better week than if I push on when exhausted, and end up having to take 4/5 days to recover (yeah, been there done that more than once!). 

Slightly better, but not great days - On the days when I'm in zombie mode I rely heavily on apps, stuff like Memrise or Duolingo. Anything that means I can use my phone or tab and just lay in bed and press buttons really. I might listen to podcasts or watch videos on youtube. I've also found the Pimsleur and Michel Thomas audio courses useful for days like these. I might not take much in, but it's all exposure. Sometimes I can't take much before it feels like my head is going to explode, but I think that 10 minutes is better than nothing. 

I'm having less and less bad or zombie days as I become better at managing my energy, but they do still happen.

Good days -  I obviously take advantage and do more.  It might be studying grammar or using a course book, reading, writing, translating, anything I know I can't do on a bad day. It also means knowing my limits and stopping when my brain starts to get fuzzy. I also make sure I'm only focusing on one task so I'm not studying verb conjugations while on facebook with the radio playing. I'm putting all my energy into that one thing. 

Balancing activities - I find that by balancing a draining activity and an easy one (what is draining/easy will differ for each one of us) I can still have quite a productive day. An example is italki sessions - yes I've had 3 more! These are obviously a big draining energy activity for me, so on the days when I've had an italki session the only other thing I will do is review on Memrise. I won't go over the lesson and/or homework until the next day. This way I'm not completely knackered, I've had a good day and I'm ready for some more tomorrow. 

Speaking of italki, I think that it and other online tutoring or language exchange services are fantastic for people with low energy levels. We can choose the time of our lesson, and don't even have to leave the house. It provide us with another option than taking a class, which can involve travel and the stress of having to be somewhere at a certain time.

At the moment language learning is the only thing I'm able to do in terms of interests or hobbies. I haven't the energy for anything else, so reading, creative writing, knitting and all the other things I've enjoyed doing in the past are on the back burner for now. However, it isn't all bad. Having an illness can be very isolating, you can become quite a recluse having to turn down invitations, or explain that you're ill again can mean that people stop asking. I have found the online language learning community to be so very friendly and welcoming. I've met some lovely people because of it, and I'm very grateful to be a little part of it.

I hope this post may help language learners who are in a similar position to me, or people that really want to learn a language, but feel their illness is stopping them. 

Thanks for reading this far, it's a bit of a monster post! If you have any comments please leave them below. 

Friday, 16 January 2015

We need to talk

I last spoke Russian (to someone outside my family, who can't understand me anyway) in 2007. Yep, 2007, probably around June to be exact, when I had my last Russian lesson. Of course I also stopped studying Russian at this point. I had two small children and my third baby on the way. It wasn't until last Summer that I actually started learning Russian again, and not consistently at that.

taken by Emma Sibley, Russia, 2007

I looked around for classes at first (this is how I learnt first time around). Although I don't feel this is a great way for me to learn, I know it does make me speak. There's little choice really! Russian classes are usually quite small here, so there's no chance of hiding at the back! Unfortunately they had stopped due to lack of interest, and the nearest class was in London. Not so far, but travel and the cost of the class itself would make it very expensive. At this point I turned to the internet and discovered that in my 7 years of absence the language learning world had erupted. It took some very late nights to get through all the fascinating language blogs I was discovering. I spent a while on sites like Fluent in 3 Months, while getting to grips with Memrise and playing around with Anki. I dug out my old language learning books, and after reading many reviews ending up purchasing a load more. I discovered language learning apps, podcasts, and much more all while avoiding sites like italki.

I know it's a subject covered by lots of language learning blogs, and I've read some great articles about over coming the fear of speaking. There's lots of advice out there. I especially like this post and more recently this one. I still couldn't bring myself to do it though!

Part of it is personality. I'm shy and introverted. I find that talking and generally interacting with people takes a huge amount of my energy, and so it's not something I'm drawn to, or have a real need to do. I kept doing that thing of saying 'I'll talk to someone when my Russian is better'...whatever better is and whenever that may be! 

My preferred language learning activities are reading and listening, followed by writing and lastly speaking. I recently realised that I was spending most of my time on reading and listening, far less on writing and really nothing on speaking (unless talking to myself or the 6 year old counts!) - my preferred activities were ones where I didn't have to produce anything. I found this an interesting discovery. I'm not sure exactly what it means, but I realise that I have to find a more balanced approach if I want to go to Russia and do more than eavesdrop and read signs!

  taken by Emma Sibley, Russia, 2007

One of my reasons for joining the Add1Challenge was just this, and it has been the other participants who have encouraged me to get on italki and get talking. I honestly don't think I would have done it without that support. Although the challenge has only been going 4 days it's incredible how strong the sense of community already is.  One of the first challenges was to make a video of ourselves speaking the language we were leaning, and frankly I was shocked at how little Russian I could turn into proper sentences. I spoke better Russian in Russia seven years ago. All because of not practising, and not putting what I was learning into practice.

So, I finally registered for italki. I trawled through the Russian tutors for a few days before sending messages to 3 different tutors saying that I needed to practise basic conversation skills, and that I was still very much on a low level. I received messages back that we're friendly and encouraging, and I booked 3 trial sessions. I had the first of those sessions today, and I cannot tell you how nervous I was! Part of me wanted to cancel, and the other part wanted the tutor to cancel! As it grew closer to the time of the session I really was a nervous wreck. I had a cheat sheet written out (that in the end I hardy used as it just didn't seem right once I was actually talking to the tutor), and google translate open (which did come in handy for words and phrases I didn't know). But I was terrified of the call starting! And then it did! And I spoke a bit of Russian and then the tutor did, and we spoke a bit of English (frowned upon by some, but there is no way I could explain to her why I was learning Russian or what I wanted to achieve otherwise), and then we spoke more Russian and we did an exercise from a book she had. And then time ran out. And I survived! It probably wasn't the most pleasant experience ever, but that was due to me and my nerves not the tutor! And as we spoke I remembered more, and she has already addressed a few things I didn't understand and how to say some things that I couldn't figure out.

taken by Emma Sibley, Russia, 2007

Will I be having more sessions? Yes! I have already booked another session with the tutor from today, and have 2 other trial sessions to go, so hopefully I will be able to update you next week with how I'm doing. Am I annoyed I didn't do it sooner? To be honest not really, it's all part of the process and I just couldn't do it before now. I have no time limit on how long I'll be learning Russian for, and I'm not rushing to achieve a certain level in it so I'm happy to go at a pace that suits me.  I won't be returning to Russia for a few years, so have time yet to perfect it!  :)

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Toki Pona update

I know there was quite a bit of interest in this, and it's one of the most popular posts on my blog. So, I thought rather than update my post I'd start a new one with links to review/articles about the whole Toki Pona experience!

Memrise blog - Lessons from two days of Toki Pona (lots of videos as well)

Guardian - What happened when I tried to learn Toki Pona in 48 hours using memes

Actual Fluency - Tokiponathon

My original post - Toki Pona in 48 hours

Will add others as I find them.

Thursday, 8 January 2015


Ok. So, I had decided I wouldn't do any of the (many) language challenges that are starting this month. Until I changed my mind!

I was feeling a bit defeated and unmotivated, and not sure where to go (as I mentioned in my last post).
At first I thought this meant I shouldn't take on any of the challenges as it would just add to that feeling. Then I started to watch the Add1 videos on youtube, people who were applying for this year and who had taken part the last few times around, and I started to get really excited about taking part!

There is a fee to join this challenge, but luckily for me I have a birthday this month so I could use that to fund it. I filled in the forms, made the video and tried not to keep checking my email to see if I'd been accepted! The video was actually the hardest part for me. I have never made a video, so I had to enlist the help of my 12 year old! I was quite nervous making it (actually there were several attempts), but it's actually already boosted my confidence that I can make a video (even though I cringe looking at and hearing myself!) and put it on youtube.

So, I was accepted (yay!), and will be taking part in the hope of improving my Russian and in particular getting over my fear of speaking. My reward at the end of it will be (hopefully), to be able to speak Russian a bit (lot?) better than now, go for a meal in one of the Russian restaurants in London, and to begin my Dutch language learning journey in May!

If you want to join us please click here!

Sunday, 4 January 2015

New Year ramblings

Happy (belated) New Year! 

I've been meaning to write a blog post for a while, but Christmas and New Year holidays have taken up a lot of my time. I have been enjoying reading other blogs and all the New Year posts though, especially with all the language challenges and resolutions being made.

I thought I'd list the challenges here that I'm aware of. Please let me know if I've missed any!

The Add1Challenge is running again, but I couldn't find a sign up link...Here it is!

Italki are running a language challenge, which you can read about here.

LindseydoesLanguages has an instagram challenge, which I think is running for the whole year.

Memrise are offering $1,000 (plus runner up prizes) to the person who learns the most words in the January mem-athon.

I've never made New Year resolutions before, but after being inspired by some interesting blog posts I do have a list! Several of the items are health/diet related as I do have issues I need to keep on top of, and I haven't been very good lately. I'm not going to post them all on here, but avoiding gluten as much as possible is one of my goals for this year. I have only succumbed once so far! :)

Language Learning in 2015

I've really struggled the past month to get anything much done with my Russian. After the Toki Pona event I spent a week doing lots and feeling excited about Russian again, but that momentum faded away in the run up to Christmas.  I've studied a bit of grammar here and there, reviewed my memrise courses and a few other random things which haven't added up to much. Christmas is part of the reason, but I'm also struggling with maintaining motivation. I'm not sure where to go with this at the moment, and feel like I'm treading water. I know if I don't push on now I will quickly lose what I've learnt over the past months, but it's a bit hard and a bit boring and I'm not sure what I'm doing right now!

One of my thoughts was to switch to Dutch for this month. I have played around with Dutch a little bit, but in the end realised that it was too hard for me to try and learn both Russian and Dutch. I simply don't have enough time, and decided to just concentrate on Russian. However, I'm still really interested in learning Dutch, and wondering if taking on a Dutch challenge for a month will be helpful in keeping my language learning going while giving me a break from Russian (and maybe coming back with a renewed enthusiasm for it in February?!). It will also be the first time I have ever attempted to learn a language (not including Toki Pona!) without attending a class first, and I am just a bit curious to see how that goes.

Of course it could also be beneficial for me to stick to Russian, and work through my struggles by pushing on with it rather than running off with an attractive and shiny looking new language! Maybe that would be worth doing to prove to myself that I can get over these humps and bumps in the (language learning) road?

I'm at the point where in the past where I would stop and tell you it's too hard, I can't do it, I haven't got the language learning 'gene', and so on. If you've read my post about being a scanner, then you'll know that staying focused on one thing for a prolonged period of time is really difficult for me. (If you're interested Jana Fadness writes much more eloquently than me about scanners here.)

I know I'm not the only one who finds this hard. For me the problem is never getting very far with one thing. I may know about lots of things, but nothing that goes beyond the surface. This used to feel ok, but not so much anymore.

I really want to keep digging with languages, and Russian. I want to keep going, stay focused and get back some of that motivation. I just need to figure how to achieve this, and what would work best for me right now.