Why I Quit Russian

When we found out we were moving to Ukraine, one of the first things we did was buy the Level 1 and Level 2 Rosetta Stone Russian language sets. We also downloaded Duolingo, the popular language-learning app, onto our phones. But we didn’t have time to dive into anything until we arrived in Kyiv.

On one of our first days in the city, way back in August, I cracked open the Level 1 box and downloaded the software. I was determined to become fluent in Russian … and I was immediately discouraged.

The very first word in the lesson was Здравствуйте.

It means “hello.” The phonetic spelling is zdravstvuyte.

I could not get past the very first word of the very first Russian lesson I ever tried. In fact, I still can’t say this word, at least not very well.

Duolingo Russian

Clearly Rosetta Stone wasn’t going to help me speak Russian. I packed up the software and put it back on the shelf, where it sits to this day.

I downloaded an app to learn the Cyrillic alphabet, which has some similarities to the Greek alphabet. There are a few differences, of course, but understanding how to pronounce many of the letters immediately helped demystify lots of words I found around me because there are cognates with the English language.

In addition, I turned to Duolingo, where I was able to pick up a few random vocabulary words here and there. Unfortunately, the app also has a lot of shortcomings, one of which is not offering any insight into why certain words or placements of words existed. Ultimately, many of the lessons resulted in me making wild guesses about words, then memorizing the rules so I could regurgitate them and get through a lesson.

But nothing was sticking.

Cory’s school offered language lessons to teachers and trailing spouses late in the fall, and initially I was excited. But the call-and-response recitation only made me frustrated, especially when the instructor started emphasizing nuances of sound. I am hard of hearing, particularly in my right ear, and I can’t pick up these tiny vocal changes.

When I couldn’t respond appropriately, I felt myself sliding into a familiar frustration and on the verge of tears. When I was trying to learn Kikuyu (a tribal tongue) in Kenya, my language teacher kept repeating the same thing over and over again, speaking louder and louder. It was as if this somehow would make my brain pick up tiny fluctuations of tone that I literally can’t discern from one sound to another.

I left my final Russian lesson angry, annoyed and deflated. And before you suggest it, I have no interest in finding a private tutor and repeating the experience.

With Rosetta Stone and in-person lessons behind me, I turned back to Duolingo, which I hadn’t abandoned completely. It was my only pathway toward any sort of Russian language acquisition. I focused on understanding words and skipped the spelling exercises, which weren’t helpful for my daily survival.

You did see Здравствуйте, above, right? I need to know how to say that word, not spell it.

Things were going along … okay, I suppose. 

I know bits and pieces of other languages. I have a couple years of Spanish study under my belt, minored in German in college and did a pretty intensive study of Swahili while serving in the Peace Corps. Even though I don’t actively speak these languages, I can easily pull parts of them up on a moment’s notice. They all stuck with me, to some extent.

This is not the case with Russian.

Eight months into living in Ukraine, I still frequently access a list of common Russian phrases, phonetically spelled, that are saved on my phone. The only words on that list I can actually recite at a moment’s notice are yes (да, pronounced “da”), no (Нет, pronounced “net”) and thank you (Спасибо, pronounced “spasibo”).

And still I marched on with Duolingo.

I picked up a few more random words: apple (яблоко, pronounced “yabloka”), milk (молоко, pronounced “moloko”) and cat (Кошка, pronounced “koshka).

But then, last week, the app changed its algorithm and lesson requirements. Suddenly, I couldn’t skip the spelling exercises, and the app would circle back to them, forcing me to try to spell these foreign words, removing lesson credits I’d already earned from correct answers until my progress bar was completely empty and I still hadn’t spelled a word right.

What’s worse than not moving forward with a foreign language?

Moving backwards.

And that’s what Duolingo forced me to do in an attempt to learn Russian.

So, what did I do?

After more than 120 straight days of attempting to learn the language, I quit.

I discussed this with a few expat friends who are better speakers than me before I threw in the towel, and they all thought it was a good idea. It’s exhausting and draining to try to learn something when you’ve made no progress.

And, while it would be incredibly nice to speak the local language, it’s not absolutely necessary.

I have no idea what’s being said around me. I haven’t known since the day we moved here. But, between Google Translate and ridiculous hand gestures, I’ve gotten by relatively okay so far.

I hate to be that American who can’t speak the local language. I made an attempt, but it was a long, drawn-out, difficult, trying journey. The effort just isn’t in me anymore.

Speaking Russian just is not going to be my thing, and I accept that.

I’ve deleted the Russian lessons from Duolingo, and the Rosetta Stone boxes are collecting dust.

If I can get a few more of the common phrases to stick in my mind for easy use, I’ll consider it a victory. But I’ve given up the dream of truly communicating in the local tongue, and that’s okay.

6 Responses to “Why I Quit Russian”

  1. Ann

    Totally understand and sympathize with your frustration! Another expat friend who passed through Kyiv a year or so ago was developing a very different kind of language-learning approach, based totally on what you want and need to know to actually communicate with people. So many language programs are so useless for daily life! I studied Russian in college, and when I spent a semester studying in Russia, I realized Day 1 that I didn’t know how to say “fork.” I appreciate now the grammar I learned in college, but that Russian major didn’t teach me how to speak Russian. Only Peace Corps immersion made me able to communicate (eventually), and it was a freaking hard lesson. Lots and lots of tears. And I learned how to have a lot less to say everyday because I literally could not express myself to anyone around me. I totally respect your decision, and you can do a heck of a lot in Kyiv without Russian or Ukrainian, but if you ever want to tackle it again, I’ve heard that former Peace Corps language tutors are the best, and I totally understand why. They teach how to communicate, not how to learn a language.

    • JoAnna

      Hiring a former Peace Corps language tutor is actually a really good idea. Our language-learning courses in Peace Corps were so helpful and realistic compared to any other language-learning opportunities I’ve ever had, and I think it’s because they teach how to communicate, not how to learn a language, as you’ve said. Maybe I’ll try picking it back up again next year and go that route. For now, though, I need a little break.

  2. Sharon

    Здравствуйте isn’t even a hard word to pronounce. You don’t pronounce the first в. So you’d say it zdras voo tye.

    • JoAnna

      Yes, I know how to pronounce this word. But it has nothing on “hi.”

  3. John

    It sounds like you don’t actually put any real effort into learning languages and expect someone or something to spoonfeed everything to you.

    That’s not how it works, unfortunately.

    • Bogdan N.

      You’re right. Also, if one has no interest in learning that specific language, it will only become a burden.
      You need to have a purpose to learn it to begin with. For example I don’t need to learn Hawaiian since I have nothing to do with that language therefore I won’t put much effort in it.


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