LEARN RUSSIAN LIKE A MINIMALIST
So you’re enthusiastic about learning Russian. You’re a high achiever. And you want to learn Russian ASAP. (I understand that!)
You start working hard and try to memorize anything you can find. Or anything that comes up in a conversation.
But then you realize that you don’t use the most of it and forget a lot. You feel overwhelmed. If you force yourself to use and revise what you learned, it still doesn’t work very well – it’s just too much!
At the same time, you become unhappy. Sometimes you feel like you’re being oppressed by a dictator (that critical voice in your head). It seems you’re progressing slowly. But worst of all, remain that way, and you risk burnout.
No, it’s not bad memory or lack of talent. It’s lack of priorities!
Let’s see why more is not always better and how to pick your learning targets so they work for you instead of you working for nothing.
What is minimalism
Sometimes people collect too much stuff. They don’t use most of it. The more stuff, the less personal space and the more dust, so more cleaning and maintenance is needed.
Imagine a wardrobe crammed with clothes, yet nothing to wear. 30-year old magazines that lost colour and lie in the far corner of a shelf collecting dust. A couple of lamps and batteries and who knows what – kept just in case… That guitar causing guilt each time its owner looks at it. And in addition – the burden of unfulfilled promises, postponed decisions and growing overwhelm…
That’s why people turn to minimalism.
“Minimalism is a tool to rid yourself of life’s excess in favor of focusing on what’s important – so you can find happiness, fulfillment and freedom”
When I got rid of the stuff I didn’t need, I felt relief. The overwhelm was over. No more guilt. Instead, came calmness, clarity and more energy to engage with the things I like in order to live a life I enjoy.
Do you treat your Russian learning targets the same way I used to treat my stuff?
Why more (vocab and grammar) doesn’t mean better
Of course, it’s good to become a skilful speaker of Russian who can use complex sentences on the fly and pick words very precisely.
The question is how you get there.
Here are the mistakes you make when you hoard information (and what they lead to):
- Lack of priorities causes wrong choices. If you learn the stuff you don’t need, you won’t use it and you’ll forget it.
- If you insist on revising the unnecessary stuff, you’ll end up having too much to work on. You’ll get distracted with the unnecessary, but your time is limited! As a result, you won’t get enough time to practice the really needed things and you won’t get the most out of it.
- All that can lead to negative thinking. There’s too much to learn and you do learn but seems like you can’t keep up with it and forget a lot. So you start thinking you’re not good enough. You criticize yourself and try to learn more and harder but it doesn’t help – after all, your energy is limited. You feel unsatisfied: you’re still progressing slowly even though you’re pushing hard. The efforts to outcome ratio is not optimal. These negative feelings cause your motivation drop.
As a result, you are slowing yourself down even more.
A better approach would be:
- Prioritize – choose less but what you need.
- Use it a lot to maximize the value – and believe me, it can be tremendous. There are people who can explain what they want having only 500 words in their vocabulary – but the right words!
- Make maintenance easier – recycle your learning targets in speech and in your exercises, not “revising for revising’s sake”.
If you focus on the few essentials and really maximize them, then move on to the next learning target, as opposed to “learning all at the same time”… then you’ll remember more, progress faster and feel happier.
You might have noticed it in your personal life:
- developing many habits at once is harder and takes longer than focusing on one habit at a time;
- doing many things and multitasking at work is less productive than focusing on one task.
Why does a minimalistic approach help?
If you don’t learn many words and grammar patterns, wouldn’t you sound “shallow”? Not able to express complex shades of meanings and make subtle jokes you are used to in your native tongue?
I understand your concern. The answer to your question is: yes, but only for a while. But if you do that, you will learn Russian more efficiently without wasting time. It will create a solid foundation for your beautiful, complex, impressive Russian. You’ll get there, but it’ll be faster if you go step by step.
Here is why:
The brain doesn’t work like a storage place. It works like a muscle.
It doesn’t grow literally like a muscle of course. Using your learning targets in speech across different contexts creates new connections between neurons. The network of such connections grows and gets more complicated as you gain experience.
Here’s what to keep in mind:
1. Skill vs knowledge
It’s not enough to memorize something once to be able to use it. There is a difference between knowledge and skills.
Think of muscles: knowing how to make a move is one thing, and being able to do it confidently is another.
You need to train your brain like you train your muscles. You do it by using what you have learned in speech.
2. Time & repetition
Your ability to use each bit of information takes time to develop.
If you workout regularly, your muscles grow. And vice versa.
Some repetition is needed before you can use things automatically.
When you learn something new, “owning” it requires regular maintenance: you need enough opportunities to apply it so you can get used to it and make it your own.
You need to work hard but you also need rest – that’s where learning happens (and that’s the reason why 7 hours of learning Russian a day is not better than 4 hours).
It’s just like in the gym: you can “overtire” your brain or “burn it out” if you study too hard without breaks.
How to pick your learning targets so they work for you
No words or grammar patterns are created equal. Here’s how to tell what’s necessary:
1. What you frequently need to use
It’s highly unlikely that you need abstract or rare words at the beginning (like, “strengthen” or “tortoise”). I don’t mean one-time needs!
Example: P. wanted to know the Russian for all the words that would come to his mind (because he was thinking in English). But soon he couldn’t keep up with them! They were random and not useful in other conversations.
But when he tried thinking in Russian and relying only on what he already knew or learned recently, he soon noticed that he both strengthened the old things and got comfortable with the new ones faster.
Also, he learned to find “workarounds” to explain concepts he lacked words for, which is a definitely useful skill for conversation if you’re a beginner in Russian and your vocabulary or grammar is limited.
2. What you CAN use at this level
For example, when your level is A1 or A2, it’s hard to talk about politics or another advanced topic in a detailed way. You can only say basic and general things. That’s not only because you lack words, but also because you speak relatively slowly and your sentences are simple.
If you had to choose between learning more advanced vocabulary and strengthening your skills, the second option would be more optimal. Complex topics require developed speaking skills if you want to communicate successfully.
Another example. You’re just starting out and you want to learn some high-frequency words like “to go”, a common perfective verb while you have no idea of aspects or a frequently used verb that requires a case which you haven’t learned yet.
The problem is, you can’t use them efficiently without making constant mistakes if you’re starting from scratch: your message is going to sound vague and with time your errors can become fossilized.
That’s why frequency lists (especially for verbs and prepositions) are not very useful for an absolute beginner. (Another reason is that you need to learn vocab in context; there are exceptions to that, but more about it later.)
3. What you love…
…if you love it so much that you remember it instantly. It’s gets imprinted in your memory like a photo. That’s the power of emotions.
…if you love it so much that you’re going to use it all the time. Even if it’s not objectively the most needed word but you intend to constantly use it because it suits your personality (for example, you adore tortoises or you like to joke that you’re a loafer).
4. Balance it!
What I do with my students – I help them keep the balance between what they WANT, what they NEED and what they CAN at the beginning and gradually coach them so they learn to decide on their priorities. This is a good skill at the intermediate level and above when you already can read some authentic texts and you don’t want to get lost in the ocean of new words.
- Check your vocabulary-to-learn and eliminate the words you’re not going to use any time soon.
- Download my Beginner Russian Grammar and Speaking Roadmap to see the minimum grammar you need at each level that will impact your speaking the most.
- Make it a habit to learn verbs as a pattern: verb (+preposition) + case. It will save you lots of time and frustration in the long run and will maximize the verb’s potential (note: start with 1 construction, not all!).
Let’s wrap it up
When you are a beginner and choose to stuff all the words and grammar you come across into your brain… including the ones that “might be useful later”, so you try to learn them “just in case”… then it’s normal to feel overwhelmed, unhappy and even burnt out.
You feel the pressure of the unfulfilled promises you give to yourself – “One day I’ll learn them all!” Sometimes you feel like a loser for not being able to meet your own expectations.
But it might be that the expectations are too high and the strategy is not optimal.
It would’ve been awesome to know 9000 Russian words, but do you really need all of them right now? Or will they slip through your fingers like sand? Or worse – will they crush you like a pile of stones?
And if you say you need them, can you pay the price for your curiosity? Do you have enough time and energy for the value you get from these words?
If you learn everything you come across, it will be a liability requiring constant maintenance and refreshing. Vocabulary and grammar require being used, otherwise, they’ll be forgotten. Gather dust somewhere in a dark corner of your brain. And when you need them, you won’t be able to get them out so easily!
If you focus, you’ll have created an asset.
Curiosity is a great thing (that lead you to learning Russian in the first place). But you don’t buy all the things that seemed curious to you, do you? You can touch them, engage with them and pass by, maybe rent or borrow them…
Get rid of the unnecessary in your vocabulary list – and you’ll feel such freedom! You don’t have to learn it all. At least not right now.
Just throw them away! Guilt-free. You’re allowed!
You have words that you love and use. They are interconnected with each other. Together they form your “language garden” that you’re cultivating with love. Your garden is not a rubbish heap!
Be curious, try new things, but be mindful of what gets into your garden as its resident!
Learn less, use it more.
P.S. The photo was made by Alexander Popov in Moscow, Russia