A Russian Dinner Party Last Night

I thought I would write about a Russian dinner party I went to last night. In a way, it was a culmination of my Russian studies for the last 7 years. It has been a very long journey so I thought I would allow myself one indulgent post )))

Last night my Russian wife and I went over to some old Russian friends for a dinner party. What made it particularly interesting is that there was an American there who spoke nearly perfect Russian.

Going to the party I was nervous about my Russian for the first time ever. I have been speaking Russian since day one of studies starting in 2007 when I lived in Novosibirsk. I read my first lesson and I used those lesson phrases in a Novosibirsk store that very day. I have never ever once been shy about speaking - until last night. Before last night, I was just an American trying to learn an impossible language. But now, the situation was completely different. There was an American who spoke that same impossible language way better than me. Now it didn’t mean the language was too hard. It meant I was insufficient and it was now a reflection on me.

For the first 30 minutes at dinner I froze completely and said hardly anything but basic phrases. When I did speak I spoke super slowly and I worried about getting the grammar correct. I looked like an idiot. I wasn’t being brave like a man should be and I spoke like a mouse. I then whispered to my wife - “This sucks. No one is going to make me feel bad about myself. I am going to start speaking like I always do. I don’t care about mistakes.” So I did and afterwards everything was awesome.

This other American’s Russian was nearly flawless and I was in awe. My wife had whispered to me that he makes almost no mistakes and has a very small accent. I got to talking with him and he tells me that he lived in Russia for 15 years or so. I asked him how long it took him before he felt comfortable with Russian and he said 8 years. Then he said with emphasis, “You know, I went through 3 years of intensive study at the premier East Coast School and then lived in Russia for 5 years before I was comfortable.” It did not come easy to him he said.

Over the 3 hour dinner, I understood almost every single thing that was said - often as easy as English. There were only 2 times I got truly lost. This was full speed natives speaking to each other. I have never been able to hear it that easily before. At one point last night I was intensely listening to this woman because she was speaking crazily fast. Her husband saw me focusing and said “I am sorry. She is excited and speaking way too fast.” I smiled and answered, “I understood everything she said.”

I was at this same house for a dinner party 2 years earlier and I almost left in tears as I understood almost nothing. There is a big difference between listening to someone speak Russian to you (as they often adjust their speed and complexity to your level and you have some control over the conversation) and listening to Russians talking crazily fast to each other with the speakers and topics jumping all over the place. Last night was the first time I ever felt in my heart - I know Russian.

Later in the evening the men went and sat in the nearby living room and the women stayed at the table. I overhead one of the women say to my wife in astonishment - your husband speaks fantastic Russian! How?"

The lessons I took away from the night:

  1. The experience, communication, friends, and culture is the goal. This is something Mr. Kaufman talks about. I enjoyed last night so much and I got to enjoy it thanks to all my efforts in learning. I got to again experience Russian culture, meet new friends, and just soak it all in. What a huge treat in life and I felt so terribly lucky to be there.

  2. Enjoy the learning experience. I was an idiot during my studies. I was always fretting about this and that. Always worried about progress. I just needed to enjoy the ride because it is a long one. I needlessly suffered a lot with Russian over 7 years. Worse, it hampered my learning.

  3. You need to have the right expectations. It is a long journey if it is your first foreign language. imho - forget the idea that you are going to study 6 months and all of a sudden truly speak a foreign language with true proficiency. I always had that type of expectation and that constantly made me feel like a failure even while I was succeeding.

  4. You need to trust that your ear will eventually hear what is maybe impossible for you at first. I always thought that my ears were different and I would never hear it. I remember listening to the phrase перед тем, как from the “Eating Out” series over 100 times in a row. I simply couldn’t hear it no matter how many times I listened and it caused me great stress and pain that I couldn’t. Like I mentioned above, 2 years ago I couldn’t hear the lightening fast conversational Russian from a dinner party. I never believed I would be able to hear Russian even as my hearing got better and better. I just needed to believe in myself.

  5. Don’t let anyone or anything make you feel bad about your language abilities (or about anything for that matter). I did for a few minutes last night and shame on me for doing so. I studied my butt off for 7 years and I let some guy I have never even met make me feel bad about my level of Russian. Really??

Finally, as of yesterday, I feel I can say I know Russian. Being proficient means different things to different people. But I reached my original definition from when I started all this. Not only did I reach my goal but I did it with severe ADHD that even medicine only partially helps. It is one of the proudest accomplishments of my life.

And a huge huge thanks to Mr. Kaufman, lingq, and all the people here who have given me help and advice. It was and is invaluable.

Now, back to studying ))))


I really enjoyed reading your post, although the similarity of our usernames left me a bit perturbed :stuck_out_tongue:

I can really relate to the sensations you felt when you heard your target language spoken well by another American. I used to either get really jealous or I’d freeze up when this happened to me in French. As I’ve gotten a bit older the jealousy problem has sort of fixed itself on its own, but the freezing up thing took some conscious strategizing. One strategy is to do like you did, and just turn the subject into one where you learn from them without putting the person on any kind of pedestal. The second has been to simply focus on the topics that are discussed, and the fact that a language is a tool more than anything. Even if the other person speaks more eloquently than you do, you can surely function in the language just about as well! With the confidence in being able to at least function, I just embrace my errors and speak as well as I would otherwise.

It’s really cool to hear about your experiences learning Russian. I’m about two months into my Russian studies, and I’ve fallen in love with the language. Not so coincidentally I fell for a Russian girl about 8 months ago, and I’ll likely be living in Russia in December, working as an English teacher. Maybe after 7 years of study I’ll be able to post about similar successes as yours, here :slight_smile:


You have to enjoy the journey because it is a long one. Yes, once you are immersed in the language environment, if you have had enough exposure and have enough words, everything just starts to activate. And the key is to give yourself credit for what you can do, and not worry about your gaps. There will always something left to work on. Thanks for the post.

This is one of the best summations of LingQ I have read.

This is a very interesting post, and exactly the kind of story I think most of us like reading. I very much hope that I can be at your level of Russian at some point in the next decade. In German, which I have been learning for three years now, I certainly could not do what you describe. Sitting with a group of native speakers at a dinner party and understanding what they are saying when they are babbling at full speed is possibly the most difficult thing you can do in a foreign language. It is nice to know that, based on your experience, I might be able to do it in German in a few years.

Some of the lessons you have shared in the list are things I think most of us can relate to. I think it is especially important not to feel bad about your abilities. There are so many stories that people tell, especially on the internet, about how quickly they have gotten to advanced fluency in a language. I often found such stories to be demotivating when I was maybe a year into learning German. In the end however, they always turn out to be not quite what they seem. Either the person has been learning the language for a very long time or they have a very loose definition of advanced fluency.

In Austria, where I live, I have often talked with people about how they learned English. Most of them are very realistic about how they did it, but sometimes I will meet somebody who tells me ta nonsense stories about how he/she learned all their English during some three week stay in London. I hated hearing such stories in the past, but now I realise that it is a mistake to let them bother me. I have met so many people who are genuinly excellent at English as a foreign language but I have never met anyone like that who has not been learning the language for a significant fraction of their life.

Here is a bit more info on my learning. I hope this helps others who struggle with doubt like I did………….

Those “Learn any language in x months” claims are the worst. But to be honest, I also found Mr. Kaufman’s ability to learn Russian so quickly to be completely destructive too as I didn’t understand what he was doing until now. I always thought, “How can he do so easily what I find to be so impossible?”

Besides his obvious natural ability and the dedication he puts into it, I think a big difference is that he already learned how to learn a language when he started Russian. I think that is a bigger challenge than learning the language itself. Even with him clearing tell us what to do it is hard to internalize and use.

I don’t think it takes 7 years to learn Russian. I bet if you could erase from my mind everything I know about Russian but could retain everything I know about learning a language I could be at the same level in half the time. But, you have to learn how to learn.

I have read a lot about language learning but I don’t remember seeing anything about dealing with feelings of failure, shame, and inadequacy. Yet, these are very important things if it is your first foreign language (especially if other things in life come easily to you). You are going to struggle and fail and have self doubt and you better be able to deal with it. Many people quit things simply because they can’t deal with the negative effects on their self esteem or they can’t handle the fear or reality of failure.

I highly recommend listening to Brene Brown’s Ted talk about shame and vulnerability because it applies to language learning too. You are trying to achieve a target that you don’t know you are capable of achieving and that is vulnerable. It doesn’t matter if Mr. Kaufman or a million people tell you that you can do it. It doesn’t matter if millions of people before you have learned a second language. Until you have done it there is going to be some element of doubt.

And then, you have that testing moment after studying for a long time and then hearing natives speaking blistering fast and not understanding anything where you think, “OMG. I will never ever understand this language.” I have talked to many students who have had this moment. I remember my translator in Russia telling me about how she won an English contest and got to go to school in America for a year but got here and couldn’t understand a word and she broke down and cried for weeks.

The truth is that I quit Russian last November. You can see the post here on lingq where it was the beginning of the end for me - http://www.lingq.com/forum/25/34080/ I was listening to the lingq series of Eko Moskvi talk radio broadcasts and it destroyed me deep down. Certainly, there were many parts that I understood but overall I couldn’t “feel” the language. It was just too much and I could not deal with it. So, I quit. Worse, my Russian wife’s mother got sick so my wife went back to Russia to live with her for the winter. For months, I was getting almost no Russian at all. Enough. Done. Move on in life with something you can achieve. No more suffering.

Then in February, I was at the mall and I just happened to be sitting next to an old Russian lady. I said to myself, “I am going to play a character and I am going to pretend to really know Russian. I am not going to stop and ask her to clarify anything or slow her down. I will simply nod like I understand.” There was no pressure on me because I was no longer David. I was an actor. And, there was no pressure because I had quit Russian. I was just going to play a silly game. So, I talked with her for 90 minutes. She spoke blazing fast but I didn’t stop her. There were lots of parts I didn’t understand, especially when she was explaining all these details about her church. But, overall I responded freely and easily. At the end of the conversation, I smiled and said to her sheepishly, “I don’t really know Russian. I was just playing around.” She looked at me in shock and said, “Your Russian is excellent and I understood everything you said. I wish I could speak English that well.”

After that I relaxed and started studying again but this time it was different. I didn’t have the expectations on myself. I said, “Well, I can never really learn but I will go as far as I can”. Being relaxed changed everything. I started to listen to conversations differently. I didn’t stress trying to translate every single word. In fact, I didn’t translate at all. Russian simply took a different form in my head. I didn’t hear a bunch of words I was trying to translate at lightening speed. Rather, there was now a beauty and a flow to Russian. It just started unfolding (and it continues to unfold). It is impossible to describe and the “today me” couldn’t explain it to the “old me” if I traveled back in time 6 months.

There is a dizzying amount for me to still learn but now I know I can and I am completely relaxed and it has become so enjoyable and my learning has accelerated.

One note: I debated adding the following because it sounds bad. However, people (me in particular) like to benchmark and I don’t want to be misleading. My word count now is 39,300. However, my true word count is way higher than that. I have tons of known words unmarked. 39,000 is probably not enough to understand a lot of native conversations if those conversations delve into deeper topics.


I think you have gift for describing the language learning process in an encouraging way, but staying with the truth of the matter. I wish you the best and I encourage you to maybe think about writing more in depth about it for publication.

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The only remark: it’s not so important what is yout word count. It is much more important how acrive you know these words. For erxample I lingqed about 30,000 French words. 75% of them I can guess by reading, so I know them passively. But only 600 words ( just 2 per cent!..) I can use by speaking in French because I have no time to remember the others in the real conversation.
And I believe that this problem is the problem for the most language students who don’t have an opportunity to use the target language on the daily base.

In fact, if you want to understand what people are saying, or understand books, radio and movies, your passive word count is important. In order to activate this passive vocabulary, we need to speak, and to speak a lot. Wen we start speaking we will stumble and struggle. The larger our passive vocabulary when we start, the better we will do, the better we will understand our counterparts, and the more meaningful conversations we can have. However, it will be a struggle. The important thing is to continue and to give ourselves credit for whatever we are able to say. We will only improve through continued exposure and conversation.