The Hard Work Of Learning Languages

You guys, this article, How I Rewired My Brain to Become Fluent in Math, means everything to me. I discovered it earlier today and it’s written by a woman who’s an engineering professor at a university. However, before she became a professor, she learned Russian in the Army (at the Defense Language Institute, no less). One of my favorite things about this article is that she talks about the hard work and rote memorization that you have to put in to learning a new skill, whether it’s math or a foreign language.

Something that bothers me about the language learning blogosphere is that language learning has to be “fun” all the time and that the rote memorization you have to do to learn many grammar concepts or vocabulary words is useless because it’s not enjoyable. This article belies that fact, because even though there are a lot of interesting aspects about learning a foreign language, there are parts of it that are just really, really hard. Sometimes, you have to just sit down and memorize the declension of a noun or the conjugation of the verb, and that isn’t always the most fun thing. I can remember many an afternoon during my freshman year sitting for hours at my desk, declining nouns and conjugating verbs, and then having to do it all over again the next day. I’m not trying to scare anyone off from learning a foreign language—just trying to say that it’s not something you can just do for a few months and become fluent with little effort.

Anyway, here are some of my favorite parts of the article. You really should read the whole thing because it contains some excellent advice for learning languages (and learning in general!).

As a young woman with a yen for learning language and no money or skills to speak of, I couldn’t afford to go to college (college loans weren’t then in the picture). So I launched directly from high school into the Army. I had loved learning new languages in high school, and the Army seemed to be a place where people could actually get paid for their language study, even as they attended the top-ranked Defense Language Institute—a place that had made language- learning a science. I chose Russian because it was very different from English, but not so difficult that I could study it for a lifetime only to perhaps gain the fluency of a 4-year-old. Besides, the Iron Curtain was mysteriously appealing—could I somehow use my knowledge of Russian to peer behind it?

After leaving the service, I became a translator for the Russians on Soviet trawlers on the Bering Sea. Working for the Russians was fun and engrossing—but it was also a superficially glamorous form of migrant work. You go to sea during fishing season, make a decent salary while getting drunk all the time, then go back to port when the season’s over and hope they’ll rehire you next year….

I began to realize that while knowing another language was nice, it was also a skill with limited opportunities and potential. People weren’t pounding down my door looking for my Russian declension abilities. Unless, that is, I was willing to put up with seasickness and sporadic malnutrition out on stinking trawlers in the middle of the Bering Sea.


What I had done in learning Russian was to emphasize not just understanding of the language, but fluency. Fluency of something whole like a language requires a kind of familiarity that only repeated and varied interaction with the parts can develop. Where my language classmates had often been content to concentrate on simply understanding Russian they heard or read, I instead tried to gain an internalized, deep-rooted fluency with the words and language structure. I wouldn’t just be satisfied to know that понимать meant “to understand.” I’d practice with the verb—putting it through its paces by conjugating it repeatedly with all sorts of tenses, and then moving on to putting it into sentences, and then finally to understanding not only when to use this form of the verb, but also when not to use it. I practiced recalling all these aspects and variations quickly. After all, through practice, you can understand and translate dozens—even thousands— of words in another language. But if you aren’t fluent, when someone throws a bunch of words at you quickly, as with normal speaking (which always sounds horrifically fast when you’re learning a new language), you have no idea what they’re actually saying, even though technically you understand all the component words and structure. And you certainly can’t speak quickly enough yourself for native speakers to find it enjoyable to listen to you.


As I forayed into a new life, becoming an electrical engineer and, eventually, a professor of engineering, I left the Russian language behind. But 25 years after I’d last raised an inebriated glass on the Soviet trawlers, my family and I decided to take the trans-Siberian railway across Russia. Although I was excited to take the long-dreamed-of trip, I was also worried. I’d barely uttered a word of Russian in all that time. What if I’d lost it all? What had those years of gaining fluency really bought me?

Sure enough, when we first got on the train, I spoke Russian like a 2-year-old. I’d grasp for words, my declensions and conjugations were all wrong, and my formerly near-perfect accent sounded dreadful. But the foundation was there, and day by day, my Russian improved. And even with my rudimentary Russian, I could handle the day-to-day needs of our traveling. Soon, tour guides were coming to me for help translating for the other passengers. When we finally arrived in Moscow, we hopped in a taxi. The driver, I soon discovered, was intent on ripping us off—heading directly the wrong way and trapping us in a logjam of cars, where he expected us ignorant foreigners to quietly acquiesce to an unnecessary extra hour of meter time. Suddenly, Russian words I hadn’t spoken for decades flew from my mouth. I hadn’t even consciously known I knew those words.

I will say this, too: I’ve largely left the academic study of Russian behind for a career in an unrelated field, but I hope I never forget my Russian. I think I’ve been doing a pretty good job of maintaining it it, considering the circumstances. I read and listen to it every day, so that’s an accomplishment (I think). Now if only I could find a group of Russian speakers to practice with…

How Writing Is Like The Olympics

I read this comparison in a writing magazine or on a writing website—I can’t remember which. If you know the source, please tell me, as I want to give credit to this person. The comparison, as the title of this post suggests, is that writing is like the Olympics. If you want to go to the Olympics, you can train and train in your sport for years, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll get to go. You can come really close and still miss it.

Writing is the same way, according to this article I read. You can write and workshop your stories and submit your work—and still not manage to make a successful career at it. Getting published can be your dream forever, but you may not achieve it.

When I first read this, I’ll admit I felt a bit frightened. I love writing and I really want my work to be out there someday (preferably sooner rather than later!) but there’s obviously no guarantee that will happen. There is a positive in this situation, though: we writers have a lot more time to achieve our goals than aspiring Olympians do. In pretty much all sports, there is an age range in which you have to achieve your goal. It can be a wider range for some sports than others (think of how little time female gymnasts have to compete at the Olympic level before they’ve “peaked” and have to retire), but there’s still a range. At least with writing, you don’t have to get published by the time you’re twenty or else resign yourself to giving up on it forever.

No Words

It’s the fifteenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks and I’m not really sure what I can say anymore.


Towards the end of last year, I went to New York for the first time since the attacks took place. I stayed in a hotel near the site where the Twin Towers stood. The memorial there is very nice. So much time has passed that I feel like we’re a completely different country sometimes. There’s an entire group of people in school now—including my own cousin—who don’t remember the attacks at all and don’t fully grasp their significance. I can’t relate to that. I may not remember the Berlin Wall coming down or the Soviet Union collapsing, but at least I still recognize the significance of these events! It’s a bit demoralizing that some people don’t fully get what happened. Of course, this isn’t limited to young people. Some adults who remember the attacks still don’t get it, either. Will they ever get it? Time will tell, I suppose.

Вечная память.

Wednesday Music: Bach’s Suite No. 1 In G Major For Cello

I have a real treat for you today. Today’s piece is Johann Sebastian Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suite No. 1, BWV 1007. Here’s a bit about it.

  • Bach wrote six suites for solo cello. The first one is my favorite, but the others are really good, too, so I may post about them in the future.
  • I’ve been obsessed with this piece since I heard the prelude (that’s the very first part you’ll hear in the video) in the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World back in 2003.
  • Each suite has six movements, and each movement is a type of dance. This is normal for a Baroque musical suite.

You guys, my devotion to this music is so strong that I bought the sheet music for these pieces transcribed for violin. (Cello music is written mainly in bass clef and the cello has different pitches than the violin, so you can’t just read off the original cello part if you’re playing violin. Well, technically you could, but you’d have to transcribe as you go along, and my musical skills aren’t quite that good.) It’s kind of random thing to transcribe, so back when I bought it, only one publisher offered it and it was at least $40, which was fortune to me back then. If that doesn’t explain my devotion, I don’t know what does.🙂


Or click here to see on YouTube.

A Music-Filled Labor Day

It’s Labor Day here in the US, so no work for me (and many other people) today! It was nice to have time to just lounge and relax and lie on the couch. It was also nice to have time to play violin. I haven’t been able to play nearly as much as I would like to since I started working. If violin was my only hobby, I could probably manage to play every day. But, as I’m sure you know, I have other hobbies/things that I do: knitting and crocheting, studying Russian, writing. Violin can be hard to squeeze in there.

Writing is my priority right now because I want to get some decent manuscripts written and edited so I can send some stuff out maybe someday appear in print. Still, it’s not really possible to write all the time. I’d get too burned out and probably need to take months off and then never get anything done. Hence, my other hobbies like doing crafts while watching Russian videos. (I made an entire afghan that way and it was awesome.)

When I played today, I worked on the Beethoven violin concerto. (I’ve embedded one of my favorite videos of it below.) That was after I worked on scales for a while, of course. Back when I was younger, I used to think once you reached a certain level, you just didn’t need to do scales anymore. That isn’t the case. It’s so not true. I’ve read blogs by professional musicians and yes, they still do scales. So, to any young musicians out there, you’d better learn to love (or at least tolerate!) your scales, because you’ll be doing them for a while.

It’s all okay, though, because eventually all that work comes together beautifully and you can play Beethoven. And Beethoven is awesome, end of story.🙂

The Writing Reports Are Back! August Writing Report

As the title of this post says, the writing reports are back! I haven’t done one all year. I thought people didn’t like them. Then I decided I wanted to write them again because I enjoy it—and a commenter said she likes them too. (Thanks, Katya!) So here is August’s writing report, complete with a graph I whipped together in Apple Numbers, the spreadsheet program I use on my home computer. Its graphing functions are so confusing compared to Microsoft Excel, which is what I use at work, so the graph definitely isn’t the most beautiful thing you’ll ever see. Hopefully I will learn how to make graphs prettier in the future…

In August, I wrote a total of 18,979 words, which is an average of 612 words per day. That’s not too bad, especially considering I missed more days than I care to admit (13, if you’re curious). The graph below shows it in visual form. I couldn’t figure out how to get the date to show on the x-axis. Apple is totally failing me right now by making that so difficult to do!

August Word Count

As you can see, there are awkward gaps followed by some pretty decent spikes.

Now, onward to September!

Wednesday Music: Tartini’s Violin Sonata in G Minor

Today’s piece for this Wednesday Music series is Giuseppe Tartini’s Violin Sonata in G minor, Bg 5, more commonly known as the Devil’s Trill Sonata. No, it isn’t nicknamed this because it’s devilishly difficult to play (though I do think it is difficult). Here’s a bit about it, including the reason it has this nickname.

  • The name Devil’s Trill refers to a dream Tartini allegedly had in which he sold his soul to the Devil, who then played him a beautiful sonata. Tartini awoke from the dream and immediately set out to write down what he’d heard. Unfortunately for us, Tartini said the piece he wrote was not nearly as beautiful as what he heard in his dream.
  • Tartini claimed he composed the sonata in 1713, but it was probably closer to 1740 when he wrote it. It wasn’t published until 1798 or 1799, which was more than thirty years after his death.
  • The sonata is written in four movements. The fourth contains a cadenza with the trills referred to in the nickname.


Or click here to see on YouTube.