Kevin, Russian

Kevin is an alum of the 2021 Virtual Summer Intensive Russian Program. Kevin is pursuing his bachelor's in Computer Science at the University of Maryland College Park. He's aspiring to become a software engineer but really enjoys learning languages in his spare time.

How do you manage learning several languages at once?

When it comes to learning several languages at once, I usually don't start from scratch for all of them. That is, after learning one language to a high level, I start learning another, while also maintaining my level of the previous language. For example, after receiving my Russian C1 certification, I started to embark on German due to many grammatical similarities between the 2 languages despite them belonging to different language families. I was able to reach a conversational or upper-intermediate level of German after 4 months of study, after which I picked up French and Serbian.

For the 2023 Language Challenge, my main languages of focus were French and Serbian, but I also found creative ways to accommodate Russian and German in my routine. For instance, I frequently listened to ZDFheute and Tagesschau (German broadcasters) during my morning routine, and I had a meeting with a Russian heritage speaker each week, in which we would read an article about a particular topic and discuss its content during our sessions.

Though I consider Russian to be my strongest foreign language right now, I actually learned Japanese beforehand. Now, a friend of mine is just starting to learn Japanese, and we have weekly sessions for conversational practice. Through this opportunity, I can not only help another avid language learner but also brush up on my own language skills!

In conclusion, I would say to learn several languages at once, while it's important to incorporate them into your daily routine, what can't be overlooked is the passion for a specific language or culture. Why are you passionate about this language? Why do you choose language X over language Y? How do you plan to use this language in the future? Those are some of the many questions I think one should ask oneself when it comes to learning any language. I find that although it may be a major time commitment to learn several languages at once, if I'm truly passionate about them, no matter how much of a time commitment it may be, I'm willing to go the extra mile to incorporate those languages into my study routine.

What makes a particular language stand out to you as interesting enough to learn?

This is a very interesting question and one that I'm frequently asked. While the number of speakers may be a contributing factor, I think what's equally if not more important is my passion or interest in a specific language or culture. For example, though Serbian may not be a widely spoken language compared to Mandarin and Spanish, I've put considerable time into learning it, since I'm very intrigued by the Balkans and international affairs in Southern Europe. Compared to other regions in Europe, there hasn't been much peace in the Balkans. From the Bosnian war from 1991-1995 to ongoing tensions between Serbia and Kosovo, I believe that learning Serbian is a gateway to better understanding the Balkans as a region and the various ethnic tensions there, since Serbian is recognized as not only an official but also minority language in many Balkan countries.

Since I was a child, I would say that I've always been quite attentive to the sound of languages. For instance, if I hear a conversation on the street between 2 people in a language I don't understand, I would listen closely to try to grasp some words or to observe the sounds of the language. Thus, when choosing to study a language, I frequently find myself asking the question(s): do I like the melody of this language? Does it sound "cool" to me? Would I like to reproduce that melody one day?

I actually was a competitive clarinet player for most of my middle and high school years, and whether or not I liked the melody of a piece or had chemistry with it primarily influenced my decision to choose a piece to play. I guess that also applies to language learning nowadays!

Do you lean on a particular medium when learning new languages?

Though each language is different, I think I have a learning strategy that applies to pretty much any of the languages I've studied. Regardless of the language, I think it's indispensable to start focusing on phonetics from the very start. Sounds are the building blocks of language, and when I can't hear a sound or pronounce it clearly, that likely means that I'll have a thick foreign accent and be unable to differentiate between words that sound similar. While this goal may vary from person to person, my end-goal for each language I learn is that I want to have a native-like accent. Thus, it's of paramount importance to properly learn how each sound is pronounced, where in the mouth it's produced, how sounds change, and how the intonation of rhythm of the language works.

Some languages like Russian and German are very grammar-heavy, meaning that they have a complex system of declensions and a plethora of exceptions to remember. My advice is to not have this intimidate you. Don't focus too much on grammar at the start, and instead, focus more on getting your point across. I find that when I make a mistake but am corrected, I remember and learn from my mistakes better than doing many grammar exercises. As you persist in your studies and continue "actively" using the language through speaking or writing, you'll find that you'll start to develop a better intuition for the language, and using the right verb conjugations or noun endings will be second nature.

This brings me to one of my most important points: when learning a language, don't just consume it, also use it! Aside from doing grammar exercises, writing short stories, and listening to audio, find ways to actively use the language in your daily life! For me, I found that keeping a written diary in German, French, and Serbian really put my vocabulary and grammar knowledge to the test. When writing about my day, I was able to identify the words I didn't know and the grammatical constructions I lacked. Also, try recording yourself speaking your target language and analyze it afterwards to see what you could've done better. Definitely also seek opportunities to practice speaking with native speakers, whether it's with online conversation partners or language clubs at your school!

How long have you been studying languages and what has kept you most motivated?

I've been interested in languages all my life, and when I traveled internationally with my family, I almost always made an effort to learn some of the language, even if it was just basic greetings and phrases.

However, I would say that I didn't start studying intensely until my junior year of high school. At the time, I had a friend who was a Japanese heritage speaker, and she was also interested in languages. That sparked my initial interest in Japanese. Afterward, I heard about NSLI-Y, through which my journey with Russian started.

Looking back to my language learning journey as a current junior in college, I would say that my passion for languages is the primary factor that's kept me most motivated. When I'm truly interested in a country or culture and set a goal to reproduce their melodious language, I'm willing to invest the time and effort to reach that goal. Language learning isn't simple; it's filled with ups and downs, and breaking the plateau is no easy feat and may be one of the most frustrating phases any language learner could experience. However, I'm sure that if you're willing to put in the effort, not be afraid of making mistakes, and be willing to get out of your comfort zone to actively use the language with others, although progress may not be apparent, you're always one step closer to reaching desired fluency or proficiency.

Think of language learning as a marathon. You may start off strong and motivated but after some time, you may feel burned out if not discouraged by your progress. However, the only way to reach your end goal of crossing the finish line or reaching your desired level is to persevere despite the blood, sweat, and tears.