Expanding our limits by learning a language

The full transcript is here.

“how can you help a normal adult learn a new language quickly, easily and effectively?

Now this is a really, really important question in today’s world.

We have massive challenges with environment. We have massive challenges with social dislocation, with wars, all sorts of things going on and if we can’t communication we’re really going to have difficulty solving these problems. So we need to be able to speak each other’s languages, this is really really important.

The question is how you do that.

Well it’s actually really easy.

You look around for people who can already do it, you look for situations where it’s already working, and then you identify the principles and apply them.

It’s called modelling and I’ve been looking at language learning and modelling language learning for about fifteen to twenty years now.

And my conclusion, my observation from this is

is that any adult can learn a second language to fluency

inside six months.

Now when I say this, most people think I’m crazy, that this is not possible.

So let me remind everybody of the history of human progress, it’s all about expanding our limits.”

Learning Russian by listening to music

Idea #1: Listen to a lot of Музыка (music).

Check out the fun song Давай замутим by the two members of RASA. Repeat for as many hours as you can tolerate in a day.

I’m not sure if it works for or against you if you’re listening nonstop to Russian while you’re on a flight.

Pro AND Con: you won’t be able to get the song out of your head. I believe that’s called an earworm.

авай замутим means “let’s start something”

We could choose the spectacularly entertaining Vitas to obsess over instead.

I prefer to watch Vitas instead of listening to him, to be frank. But this has less to due with his voice and more to do with my admiration for his flamboyant clothing choices.

Ok, maybe only watch that video when you need a palate cleanser.

Idea #2: Learn the chorus of a песня (song).

Sample gems:

Уля – это ураган, полюбила дурака. Ой мама, o my god, o my god… o my god… Пуля – это ураган, полюбила дурака. Ой мама, o my god, o my god… o my god…

Julia, it’s (like) a hurricane. You fell in love with an idiot. OMG OMG OMG (Hit like by a) bullet (or a) hurricane. You fell in love with an idiot. OMG OMG OMG

and also:

Я пришёл дать эту песню Из мира грёз. Я пришел дать эту песню Из хрустальных слёз.

I came to bring this song / From the world of dreams. I came to bring this song / From the crystal tears.

Seems feasible, right?

Some additional songs:

Hand-selected by yours truly from the Russian Hits 2019 playlist

Barely learned

An excerpt from Everything You Thought You Knew About Learning Is Wrong:

Taking notes during class? Topic-focused study? A consistent learning environment? All are exactly opposite of the best strategies for learning.

I recently had the good fortune to interview Robert Bjork, the director of the UCLA Learning and Forgetting Lab, a distinguished professor of psychology, and a massively renowned expert on packing things in your brain in a way that keeps them from leaking out.

It turns out that everything I thought I knew about learning is wrong.

First, he told me, think about how you attack a pile of study material.
“People tend to try to learn in blocks,” Bjork said. “Mastering one thing before moving on to the next.”

Instead of doing that Bjork recommends interleaving.

The strategy suggest that

instead of spending an hour working on your tennis serve,

you mix in a range of skills like backhands, volleys, overhead smashes, and footwork.

“This creates a sense of difficulty,” Bjork said. “And people tend not to notice the immediate effects of learning.”

Instead of making an appreciable leap forward with your serving ability after a session of focused practice, interleaving forces you to make nearly imperceptible steps forward with many skills.

But over time, the sum of these small steps is much greater than the sum of the leaps you would have taken if you’d spent the same amount of time mastering each skill in its turn.

Bjork explains that successful interleaving allows you to “seat” each  skill among the others.

“If information is studied so that it can be interpreted in relation to other things in memory, learning is much more powerful,” he said.

There’s one caveat: Make sure the mini skills you interleave are related in some higher-order way. If you’re trying to learn tennis, you’d want to interleave serves, backhands, volleys, smashes, and footwork — not serves, synchronized swimming, European capitals, and programming in Java.

Similarly, studying in only one location is great as long as you’ll only be required to recall the information in the same location.

If you want information to be accessible outside your dorm room, or office, or nook on the second floor of the library, Bjork recommends varying your study location.

Interleaving and varying your study location will help whether you’re  mastering math skills, learning French, or trying to become a better
ballroom dancer.

A somewhat related phenomenon — the spacing effect, which was first described by Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1885 — will also help.

“If you study and then you wait, tests show that the longer you wait, the more you will have forgotten,” Bjork said.

But here’s the cool part: If you study, wait, and then study again, the longer the wait, the more you’ll have learned after this second study session.

Bjork explains it this way: “When we access things from our memory, we do more than reveal it’s there. It’s not like a playback.

What we retrieve becomes more retrievable in the future. Provided the retrieval succeeds, the more difficult and involved the retrieval, the more beneficial it is.”

You should space your study sessions so that the information you learned in the first session remains just barely retrievable.

Then, the more you have to work to pull it from the soup of your mind, the more this second study session will reinforce your learning. If you study again too soon, it’s too easy.

Along these lines, Bjork also recommends taking notes just after class, rather than during — forcing yourself to recall a lecture’s information is more effective than simply copying it from a blackboard. You have to work for it.

The more you work, the more you learn, and the more you learn, the more awesome you can become.

“Forget about forgetting,” said Bjork. “People tend to think that learning is building up something in your memory and that forgetting is losing the things you built. But in some respects the opposite is true.”

See, once you learn something, you never actually forget it. Do you remember your childhood best friend’s phone number? No? Well, Bjork showed that if you were reminded, you would retain it much more quickly and strongly than if you were asked to memorize a fresh seven-digit number.

So this old phone number is not forgotten — it lives somewhere in you — but recall can be a bit tricky. And while we count forgetting as the sworn enemy of learning, in some ways that’s wrong, too. The two live in a kind of symbiosis in which forgetting actually aids recall.

“Because humans have unlimited storage capacity, having total recall would be a mess,” said Bjork.

“Imagine you remembered all the phone numbers of all the houses you had ever lived in. When someone asks you your current phone number, you would have to sort it from this long list.”

Instead, we forget the old phone numbers, or at least bury them far beneath the ease of recall we gift to our current number.

What you thought were sworn enemies are more like distant collaborators.

Learning Russian for Russia’s women


“What does it mean?”

You ask when you encounter a new word that’s gibberish in your ear. After all, a word without meaning is, well, meaningless.

How on Earth do babies pick up words?

First, they listen. Not necessarily because they desire to. They don’t decide to pay attention or not, it’s more like they are hardwired to listen.

That “hardware” is called a language acquisition device.

Woman with a Fruit Basket, ca. 1820
Gardner Factory, Russian, Verbilki

Known as LAD.

It’s the theory that “all humans share a mechanism which allows us to comprehend, develop, and use language like no other animal”.

This instinctive mental capacity enables an infant to acquire and produce language.

Around three quarters of the babies in the world learn more than one language.

“They won’t realize that the words belong to different languages until they’re older.”

(Read more in this excellent book about language here: CRYSTAL, D. (2010). Learning how to understand. In A Little Book of Language (pp. 14-20). Yale University Press. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1np8zv.5)

How do you use this information to learn Russian?

Milkmaid, ca. 1820, Gardner Factory, Russian, Verbilki

First, focus on the most common sounds, letters, and words.

As for words, don’t worry at the beginning about studying from a book or another source about how to classify “nouns” “prepositions” “verbs”, etc.

Try to let your brain work to classify them.

Before you read “Milkmaid” in the caption to the right did you look at the image and guess what it was before being told the answer?

As always, make sure to click on the links as they are decent resources.

Many of the links will take you to google translate so that you can hear the pronunciation of the word.

My plan is to hear foreign sounds and shout, whisper, sing them. At the least this is an entertaining option.

The most common word in the Russian language:





and, though



Мальчик и девочка играют.

Pronounced: Mal’chik i devochka igrayut.

Sentence translation: A boy and a girl are playing.


Мы стояли и ждали.

Pronounced: My stoyali i zhdali.

Sentence translation: We stood and waited.


Я это и имею в виду.

Pronounced: YA eto i imeyu v vidu.

Sentence translation: That’s what I have in mind. / I mean it.


И как ты не понимаешь, что это интересно?

Pronounced: I kak ty ne ponimayesh’, chto eto interesno?

Sentence translation: How come you don’t understand that this is interesting?


Мы так и сделали.

Pronounced: My tak i sdelali.

Sentence translation: This is what we did / We did just that.


Я даже и не знаю.

Pronounced: YA dazhe i ne znayu.

Sentence translation: I do not even know.


Она и нам рассказала.

Pronounced: Ona i nam rasskazala.

Sentence translation: She told us too.

I’m tired.

Here’s a palate cleanser:

Russian Nun by J. Monstein, around 1865.
Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.