The Study Environment

A short time ago, Galia, my Russian teacher, asked me my thoughts about why I prefer to have my Russian lessons at Sagalingua rather than at a different location. Certainly having a lesson at home, or perhaps at one’s workplace, can be convenient; but I really don’t think that it’s the best way to approach learning a language. For me, studying at the Sagalingua school is important, and I believe that you’ll find the same. 

I’ll take you through my thinking, but first a little story, about a well-known fantasy epic. Most people are familiar with J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings; they appreciate the storyline, spectacular battles and fully realized world of Middle Earth. What many don’t realize, however, is how Tolkien came to write the books. He was a linguist, and enjoyed creating new languages. But he also believed that it’s impossible to understand a language without understanding its speakers; and so, to go with each new language, he created a race of creatures to speak it, and a history to explain it. With time, Tolkien’s stories and languages transformed into the epic we know as The Lord of the Rings.

I bring up this anecdote because there’s a parallel in that I don’t think it’s really feasible for you or me to pick up a new language in isolation. Even if it’s possible to learn a lot of technical detail, a student will simply get bored because nobody learns a language as solely an intellectual exercise. We learn new languages because we want to understand a culture and the people who speak it. This is why it’s so important to choose the best possible environment for your studies, a place where, for a short time each week, you can be immersed in the language and the culture to which it is so intimately tied.

So here goes. Why do I prefer lessons at Sagalingua? First, studying at Sagalingua removes distractions. The alternatives, like home, are not very good. There’s family coming and going. There are chores that need to be done. Simply looking in the direction of the kitchen or living room can remind me of all the stuff that’s waiting for me. Every buzz of my phone reminds me of work or a friend who wants my attention. Studying in a small room at the office can be even worse: my coworkers are always walking by, I’m embarrassed by people wondering what exactly I’m doing, and the very smell of the paint or carpet reminds me of the tasks that need to be completed. Yuck! So much better is a calm environment where I can focus on the task at hand: speaking Russian!

Second, studying at Sagalingua puts me in a different mindset. I’m here to study; I’m here to learn Russian; I’m here to understand the culture. The technique that Galia and the other teachers use really requires this approach. Each and every lesson is entirely in Russian and so I have to think in Russian. We’re not usually drilling grammar or pronunciation; rather, we’re covering topics and sentences so quickly that I have to think automatically, and there’s no time to mentally translate to English or back the other way. It’s a brain workout, and there’s no leftover computing power! In addition, I occasionally meet other students who share my goal of learning a new language. Their focus and excitement helps me out, much as my focus and excitement inspires them.

Third, studying at Sagalingua puts so many tools within reach of my teacher. She is able to create an environment that is interesting. Books and materials are never far away, nor are more awkwardly-shaped tools like whiteboards. We never lose time rooting around in bags or backpacks for the different props or objects needed to illustrate a point. It’s a great convenience that ensures that our time is well used.

Learning a new language is not a small endeavor! It will take years to ingest and practice everything. I think that that’s an obvious, but really key observation: if you want to make progress, you have to be dedicated and have a good place to study. In the last year that I’ve been studying Russian I’ve had so much fun. It’s also a ton of work, but totally worth it, and I’m looking forward to where the next years of study lead me. I hope that you’re able to enjoy your language learning process! Whatever your goals, remember that the peoples and cultures that go with the language are a key to understanding what’s actually going on. And do remember that the learning environment will play a key role in your success.