The Russian Experiment??


After eleven years of countless international trips, negotiations, and grand strategies, I’m expecting to leave the international relations department in January, which I currently head at the Brazilian Court of Accounts. And I plan to make a most peculiar choice: to work in the Court’s IT department as a novice programmer, something I’ve never studied or worked with seriously before. It’s even more unusual because it means turning down another post, which would pay much better, provide more flexibility, be less demanding, and carry greater prestige. Read on, and you will understand why this change, and my decision, are quite relevant to this post, to my future studies of foreign languages, and—if I may be so bold—why they might impact the future of language acquisition itself.

My last international business trip—at least for the foreseeable future—is coming up in about ten days. I will be going to an INTOSAI Governing Board meeting in a fascinating destination: Moscow!

Naturally, my mind turned to the exciting prospect of contact with a foreign language. Most of my work trips have been to Latin American countries, and I’ve taken full advantage of the opportunities to hone my mastery of the Spanish language, which, in turn, paid ample dividends in my ability to effectively pursue the Court’s interests. I brushed up on French during a recent trip to Cameroon, and the remaining missions have almost all been to countries where most people communicate well in English.

Russia, however, is like Brazil: a gigantic country whose sheer size makes it inward looking. As a result, as I understand it, the average Russian speaks little to no English. What a thrilling challenge it would be, then, to try to communicate a bit with the locals. And just two hours ago, I didn’t know a single word in Russian!

Of course, I have a slim chance of learning enough of such a difficult language (because it’s so unrelated to any that I speak) in the next 11 busy days before I arrive in Moscow—or in the 4 days or so that I spend there at work meetings in English and Portuguese—to engage in any real communication in Russian. And although I’ve slacked lately on my Mandarin, I plan to put in at least 30 minutes a day during this same period.

So, what’s my crazy plan with Russian?

I’m going to undertake a two-week “Russian Experiment”, completely antithetical to my Mandarin Experiment. No, I won’t be watching Russian cartoons or classic Russian movies—with or without subtitles—nor will I be listening to children’s music, and then making silly videos of myself dancing to them. No, no, I’ll leave all that to my Mandarin Experiment.

Instead, I will use technology to memorize the 100 most frequently used words in Russian and 20 common expressions. I will do so with one hour of studying per day and I would wager a bet that I’ll be able make real use of it while in Moscow. At the least, I will be able to break the ice with my Russian hosts! If I can put more time in, I will learn even more words and expressions. Further, if I find the whole experience sufficiently motivating, I will continue with Russian when I return to Brazil.

The technology I’m using is simple: virtual flashcards that use a spaced repetition system to recognize the spelling (using the Cyrillic alphabet), pronunciation, and meaning of words. What’s significant and wonderful is that these virtual flashcards were made for me to order by The Natural Language Institute by one of our programmers.

I founded “Natural” over 15 years ago, but in March of this year, I got more deeply involved again, this time with a focus on technology, and, in particular, the development of custom-made applications to power our highly effective approach to language acquisition. We’ve already developed and implemented the “Lessons App,” which saves time for teachers and structures custom data related to students’ learning. We are now finalizing the “Homework App,” which will allow our own teachers—and potentially teachers worldwide—to share and then search custom-made homework assignments based on authentic materials that meet students’ exact interests and needs.

We will develop many other apps and IT solutions to make language acquisition more efficient and enjoyable. Sometime next year, we will begin offering online classes in a unique package that combines personalized one-on-one language coaching with a data-driven, customized student learning center.

While our method will continue to focus on reading and listening to authentic materials, writing essays, and speaking with native teachers, when you’re just getting started with a brand-new language, you need a different approach. One way we currently tackle this beginners’ challenge with English and French is to teach students the 500 most commonly used words in the language, which allows them to then quickly get started on reading and listening to authentic materials. (This is probably what’s most lacking in my Mandarin Experiment, but, alas, one must bear great sacrifices for [quasi-]science.)

Technology can give this first step a real boost, such as with the use of virtual flashcards in a spaced repetition system (SRS) approach—precisely what I started doing this evening with Russian.

And technology will also make the second step—being able to understand the words strung together in sentences—a lot more effective and enjoyable. As in the Mandarin Experiment, we will use authentic video that is of real interest to the learners (such as the great Chinese movies I have watched, again and again). However, we will parse the videos and use virtual flashcards and SRS to help students transition smoothly from comprehension of isolated words to full sentences and rapid dialogue in authentic videos without subtitles.

So now, perhaps, you better understand why I want to deeply explore IT and programming, alongside my forays into seemingly inscrutable foreign languages. I intend to change language acquisition for myself and hopefully for thousands of other students, making it as fun, stimulating, and efficient as possible.

2 thoughts on “The Russian Experiment??

  1. Vraa Durub says:

    Good luck with that.
    Sounds like your app is re-creating/duplicating what’s already available (Anki, Supermemo, DuoLingo. Memrise). But whatever works for you….

    • Thank you, Vraa Durub. You’re right: it is essentially Anki. Anki is written in Python programming language, which is what we use at my institute. The “app” we developed is rudimentary and probably uses a ready-made library, so there wasn’t any intensive programming going on. But by doing it ourselves, we were able to use web scraping to create an automatic deck using content from the web. We also have total flexibility and can build functionalities on top of it in the future.

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