My Adventure with Russian

I have been doing martial arts for over 30 years and during this time, the very best art I have come across is the art least popular.

It is called Systema and it is the art of Russian Spetznas (special forces). There are no belts, katas or memorized techniques. In fact, there are a grand total of zero techniques and zero stances. Everything is about free-flowing movement and every Monday night in Winter Garden, Florida, a group of us train in this wonderful art. (

The main instructors are of course, Russian and obviously, Russian is their native tongue. Though one speaks fluent English, there are terms and concepts in Russian (and every language for that matter) that simply do not translate properly. Or at all.

Enter the world of language learning.

As an adult, the idea of learning a language was challenging. Russian is supposed to be one of the most difficult though it is my belief that the language you are currently learning is considered the most difficult.

Humor aside, I took this challenge on as a solo act; that is, I decided to learn it on my own. A few days into this (mis)adventure, I recognized the error in thinking and began seeking teaching options.

Fortunately, it today’s connected world, there are many and I had the good fortune to connect and take lessons from two. I wanted not only 2 people, but 2 different styles. One was very detail oriented and one was fast; that is, he went at a pace much quicker than comfortable. To me, this was the ideal blend.

It has been about 12 total hours into the training and my progress has been steady. I can carry on a 30 second or so conversation and have accumulated 100 plus words and phrases. There are other big factors that I learned in the process too:

  1. The “learn in 3 months” approach is non-sense. IF you don’t work and IF you can devote 8 hours a day to study and IF you can live in the country or at least surround yourself with native speakers and IF you have little or no other responsibilities, it is possible. Those are a lot of “IFs,” too many for my blood.
  2. Focus on content that is relative to your area(s) of interest. Mine is martial arts so terms and phrases that I would be likely to hear in a seminar were the first ones that I learned. Next up are the common words and phrases that I am most likely to need in normal conversation. Contrast this with phrases related to say “snow” or “blizzards” when I live here in Florida are not very useful to me.
  3. Start to talk, even if you make 101 mistakes right from the beginning. Toss ego out the window and just dive in and take a risk by speaking. Most people are quite kind and will adjust, particularly when you tell them why you are learning this language.
  4. Absorb and understand the “message” before the details. What is the moral of the story, the meaning that is trying to be conveyed. Once you have this, go back and fill in the details (i.e. grammar, tenses etc.).  This is how we learned our native tongue. The neural net is already formulated.
  5. Practice calmness. Stressing out and trying to be perfect is the ideal prescription for failure. In fact, it is guaranteed. Be willing to fail or sound foolish. Find the joy in learning and breath it in as much as possible. If Tension comes for a visit, time to end the session.
  6. Frequency. You are better off doing 3-20 minute session versus 1-60- minute session. Why? We remember firsts and lasts, so create as many as possible.
  7. Listen a bunch, even if you have no idea what is being spoken. I have a Russian radio app that is constantly playing in the background. I can pick out a few words and phrases but am steadily getting used to the rhythm of speech and the tones. Our brains have to be trained to a new way of hearing.
  8. Learn cognates. These are the words you probably use that have their origin in the language you are learning. In Russian for example: компью́тер – computer, лифт – lift; elevator or меню́ – menu. The letters may not look familiar with the sound is nearly identical.
  9. Focus on phrases more than words. It will be easier to “reverse engineer” grammar and give you confidence when speaking.
  10. Have fun. What a novel idea! For those of us who live in the world of intensity, learning to relax and enjoy our language learning has a great effect on our life too.

Is this easy? Is it difficult?

Sorry but these are the wrong questions. At the end of the day, as it relates to language learning . . . . as it relates to life . . . the only question is:

Are you enjoying this?

If no, stop. Find something that brings joy.

If yes, congratulations! You have already mastered something valuable, the ability to add happiness to your life.


About the Author


David Orman is a Natural Medicine Expert, having treated 1000s of patients over a 25 year career. He is also a teacher, writer and lecturer. For more information, go to:

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