Because of its rich culture, I decided 4 months ago to learn Russian. My goal: to be fluent by the end of the year! Here’s my method, even though it may not work. [Update 6 months later: it worked pretty well]
First, what does ‘fluent’ mean? For some, it means “native-level proficient,” including the accent. I don’t see it this way. If you can attend university in a foreign language, you’re fluent. And universities do not require native proficiency. Most universities require a B2 level. “B2” means “Vantage or upper intermediate” in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). Elite universities such as Stanford or Cambridge require C1, but they’re the exception. So fluent means CEFR B2.
To reach this level, I started with Pimsleur. In this method, you listen to native speakers and repeat what they say. No grammar. No reading. No word lists. It may feel stupid, but it works amazingly well because it mimics the way kids learn a language. Kids repeat what their parents say, even though they may not understand, and then naturally form simple sentences! This Reddit post explains why Pimsleur is awesome. In particular, because it’s entirely audio, you get a perfect pronunciation. Whereas if you learn words in their written form, you may pronounce letters as you would in your native language, which gives you a foreign accent. Pimsleur is so good that I’m told I don’t have a French accent in Russian, whereas I have one in English—even after 20 years of study. That’s why I love Pimsleur.
Pimsleur is available in 50 languages, from Haitian to French and Swahili. It’s the only method I know with Egyptian, Levantine, and Cantonese courses. 1 to 5 levels are available for each language. Each level has 30 lessons of 30 minutes each. Pimsleur used to be expensive but is now available for $14.95/month (only for languages with at least 2 levels). Pimsleur recommends doing 1 lesson per day, so 5 levels take 5 months and cost $75. Pimsleur claims that Level 3 is equivalent to B1. I’m surprised by this claim because the vocabulary taught is limited. I think Level 5 is B1, in listening and speaking only.
I was studying one lesson per day, but after 4 months, I realized I was still far from fluent. I had to accelerate!
I added Assimil to my learning program. When Assimil was founded in 1929, it was just a book. Even though it now has CDs and apps, it’s still mostly a written method, focusing on grammar and culture. So Assimil and Pimsleur are complementary. Assimil claims that its 100 lessons bring you to a B2 level. Based on my experience with Chinese, I would say B1. Anyway, it’s an excellent method, with clear and detailed explanations. Assimil also offers a 70-lesson advanced course to reach the C1 level. Both Russian courses are only available in French, but other languages are available in English. Assimil recommends one lesson per day, taking about 6 months to complete the course. I study 30 minutes of Assimil per day as well.
I also downloaded Duolingo. It’s impossible to learn a language with Duolingo, but it’s nice to learn new words and refresh your vocabulary. Duolingo gamified language learning and the app is addictive. I use it when I’m walking or waiting in a queue. Or in my favorite language learning location: the bathroom 😅. I tried Duolingo Events: it’s fun, but you don’t learn anything.
But how much vocabulary do you need to be fluent? Not a lot! In most languages, the 100 most common words make up 50% of all terms used regularly in that language. With the top 3,000 words, you understand 90% of what is said. 3,000 words actually correspond to the B2 level. With 10,000 words, you understand 99%:
Pimsleur, Assimil, and Duolingo all teach about 2,000 words: not enough to be fluent. But because they don’t teach the same set of words, you probably reach 2,500 words if you combine them. Still not enough. Frequency dictionaries bridge this gap: they list the most common words so that you can learn frequent words you ignore. You can find free lists for various languages on Wiktionary or Memrise. [Edit: Max Schumacher suggested the flashcard app Anki. You can create your own deck or download existing ones. Anki is the best way to learn the vocabulary you need to become fluent.]
I still have 2 months to become fluent in Russian. I’m confident that the combo Pimsleur (for speaking & listening) + Assimil (for reading & writing) is powerful enough to reach my goal. But I should have started Assimil earlier. Besides, Duolingo and Anki are fun (and free!) options to learn vocabulary. The total cost of this learning method is about €100. So let’s see if things work in December!
How do you learn a foreign language? Which apps do you use? Subscribe and join the conversation! :)
[Update after 6 months: Russian Fluency Challenge: the Results!]