nevergiveup© Gaye Wilson 2013

Well, I finished my Russian diploma in 2011, and started a new language: Italian. As with the Russian, I am learning it by distance, which means that I do not attend classes.

The way distance learning works is that you log onto a web site where all the materials are, including recordings of the lectures. It is up to the student to listen to all the recordings, do all the reading, and submit all the assignments on time.

Is this hard? Yes it is, especially when you are learning a foreign language.

The first year of Italian gave me a good grounding in the language, approximately equal to matriculation level from high school. This year, Intermediate Italian, is proving to be harder. Why? Because the lectures are given in Italian!

At the end of my first year of Italian, I found that I could read simple Italian fairly well, or at least could get the gist of it. But I could not speak it, write it easily, or understand anything said at normal speed.

Hmm. Some more work needed.

As I said, this year the lectures are conducted in Italian. That will help with understanding the spoken word. I am finding that it’s not as hard as I expected, and I suspect that I have one advantage over the people who actually attend the classes: I can stop the audio and look up words or make notes, and not miss anything.

So I am pleased that this year will address one of my issues with the language: the spoken word.

One of the other major problems I have with this project is that I cannot write Italian very well. Or at least, not without spending ages looking up words, conjugations and grammatical structures.

This, too, is being addressed this year. This semester we are buddied up with other students and are required to conduct email conversations with them throughout the semester, with a minimum total of 200 words.

Now, I have a problem with this. Yes, it’s giving me practice in writing Italian. But no, it’s not giving me feedback from a native speaker and I don’t get my mistakes corrected. I have asked my buddy to correct my Italian if she sees mistakes, and I do the same for her.

But my BIGGEST problem with this course is the other distance students. They are whingers. They complain that it’s all too hard. My original email buddy decided it was too hard to learn the language by distance, even though she comes from an Italian family and can practise on them.


It really bothers me that there are people who embark on a new project, such as learning a language, starting a business, or doing a PhD, who then complain that it’s too hard.

Listen up, people.

It’s supposed to be hard.

A past Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Fraser, once said “Life is not meant to be easy.” Hmm. I’m not sure of the philosophy, but in a way he was right. Life is hard for many people, but the ones who accept it and forge ahead anyway are the ones who are successful.

Change your language. Instead of saying ‘It’s too hard!”, say “It’s hard! YAYYY! That means I get to stretch myself, overcome some obstacles, and learn a lot.”

Changing your inner language is important, because it is the only way you will be able to change yourself.

When something is hard, celebrate that you are attempting something that is hard for you, and work out how to accomplish it.

Make a plan.
Ask for help.
Stretch yourself.
And never ever give up.

© Gaye Wilson, 2009

questionGetting everything done isn’t easy when life gets in the way. You have shopping to do, paid work to do, the kids to take to sport, an essay due at university, the washing, the cooking, the ironing, catching the train … the list just goes on and on.

So how do you cope? How do you get everything done properly and on time?

By asking yourself one simple question:

What is the best use of my time right now?

I call it the BUT question.

This one question will guide you to victory. You can apply it to everything:

  • Whether to do this task or that one
  • Whether to make this choice or that one
  • Whether to eat, socialise, work, relax, exercise, sleep, clean up, see the doctor, outsource … you name it.

I have a client at the moment who is in the last stages of writing his PhD thesis. He hired me to get the formatting of the document right. This was a good move, because it freed him up to concentrate on the writing.

But he’s not writing. Although he has outsourced part of the job (the formatting), he’s still obsessing about the part he outsourced (yes – the formatting). He seems to be spending more time on how the final product is going to look than he is on the content of the final product. That’s fine, and every PhD candidate needs to obsess about both the content and the presentation.

But what this person is doing is the equivalent of having a dog and barking too.

He’s already outsourced the formatting. So why is he obsessing about whether the document should be double spaced or not? That’s my job. He hired me to format the document so that it looks outstanding and gives a professional, jaw-dropping first impression to the examiners. I’ve already given him my best professional advice, but he’s still vacillating.

He needs to ask himself what is the best use of his time: either cancel his contract with me to do part of the job; or allow me to do the job he hired me for, and get on with the actual meat of the project himself.

That’s what I mean when I say, what is the best use of your time right now? What is the one thing you can do that will have a positive impact on your project or your goal or your life right now?

Not next week.

Not tomorrow.

Not after lunch.


If you get into the habit of asking yourself that question throughout your day, you will become much more productive, efficient and accomplished than you are now.

Try it. You’ll be surprised at the results.

© Gaye Wilson 2009

What’s that you say? Practical Vladimir sits cheerfully preening seven vampires? WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT????

Let me explain.

As I’ve posted before, I’m learning Russian. When studying for my most recent exam, I realised that I still didn’t know the days of the week as well as I wanted to. I kept getting Monday and Sunday mixed up, and I wasn’t too cluey about Friday and Wednesday.

So I thought about what I’ve done previously to learn something that was elusive. I remembered the technique I used in this post, which is to create a sentence using the initial letters of the words I want to remember.

So I thought about the Russian days of the week, and quickly came up with a ridiculous sentence that is not easily forgotten. Practical Vladimir Sits Cheerfully Preening Seven Vampires.

Monday = Понедельник = Practical
Tuesday = Вторник = Vladimir
Wednesday = Среда = Sits
Thursday = Четверг = Cheerfully
Friday = Пятница = Preening
Saturday = Суббота = Seven
Sunday = Воскресенье = Vampires

Can you see Vladimir? Do you have a picture of him in your mind? I do. Actually, the initial draft of this mnemonic sentence didn’t have Vladimir being practical. It had him as something else which made the mental image even more unforgettable, but the dictionary says the word is ‘informal, rude’, so I thought I should probably not put it up in a blog post.

Anyway, as with the previous post about mnemonic helps for learning the Russian case endings, this sentence is based on the initial sounds of the Russian days of the week.

How can you use this technique for learning a new language, or a new subject? Leave a comment about how you have used this technique, plus your mnemonic sentences, so that other people can learn quicker.

© Gaye Wilson 2008
As I’ve posted before, I’m learning Russian.

The Russian language has six cases:

  • Nominative
  • Accusative
  • Genitive
  • Dative
  • Instrumental
  • Prepositional

Each case requires different word endings.

In order to make yourself understood in Russian, or to understand Russian, you need to know all the possible endings for all six cases for nouns, pronouns and adjectives (at least – that’s as far as I’ve got so far in learning the language).

I’ve been having trouble learning the case endings. We were introduced to two cases in first semester: nominative and prepositional. In second semester, we were introduced to the other four cases. Next semester we will learn all cases in the plural.

That’s a lot of case endings to learn in three months. Well, I think so, anyway.

So, here I was, studying for my end of semester exam, and having trouble remembering the case endings. I searched the internet, with no luck. I emailed Nathalie Fairbanks of SpeakEZ Languages if she had any tips on learning case endings. She did (thanks Nathalie!), but her method wasn’t going to get them into my brain quickly (the exam was approaching fast!).

Then I remembered a technique that I was introduced to when learning the order of the planets. Mnemonics.

When I went to school, we learnt the order of the planets from the sun using a silly sentence:

My Very Earnest Mother Just Sat Upon North Pole.

Mercury Venus Earth Mars Jupiter Saturn Uranus Neptune Pluto.

You might have learned it using a different mnemonic sentence, but the point is, mnemonics work.

So I wondered if I could learn Russian case endings using the same technique. Turns out, I can.

The first problem I encountered was that no-one seems to have written about this on the internet. If you search on Russian case mnemonics, you get ways of learning colour names in Russian (Wikipedia), or suggestions to use mnemonics to learn vocabulary by associating the sound of a word with a silly picture, such as associating the German word for lobster (der Hummer) with a mental picture of a lobster with a sense of humour (see German by Association (Link Word) by Gruneberg for this example).

That’s fine, and useful, but didn’t help me learn the Russian case endings.

So I decided to write my own Russian case ending mnemonic sentences. Apparently no-one has done this before.

Here’s what I did:

I wrote out the case endings for nouns, and looked at the patterns. I discovered that feminine nouns have fewer case endings than masculine ones, but that didn’t help me learn them quickly (although the same observation about Russian feminine adjective endings was a godsend!).

I decided that, since I knew when each case should be used, I should write one mnemonic sentence for each case. The next problem was how to make an English sentence using Russian letters. This didn’t work. For instance, the Russian letter “Я” is pronounced “ya”, but there is no English letter that is equivalent. So I had to devise a system whereby I used a word starting with a “ya” sound. The only one I could think of was “YAK”. As it turned out, this wasn’t particularly helpful, because I couldn’t necessarily fit the same word into each case sentence.

My first try at a Russian case ending mnemonic sentence was for the Accusative Case. It won’t make sense to anyone but me (but feel free to use it or change it if it helps you):

Nominative Case
Accusative Case
Angry (1)
Don’t (2)
Hoy (3)
Velvet (4)

 Notes to Accusative Case mnemonic:

  1. I used a word starting with A so I know I’m using the Accusative case
  2. The ending doesn’t change, so I used “don’t” to convey that there is something on this line of the table, but it doesn’t have a sound value
  3. I couldn’t think of an English word that starts with this sound, so I made up a word. Hey, it works!
  4. I told you this doesn’t make sense, but I was trying to convey the soft sound ь here.

The Genitive Case was a little easier, and uses the Russian sounds in English words:

Great (1)
Armies (2)
Ignore (3)

Notes for the Genitive Case sentence mnemonic:

  1. The “Great” at the beginning shows me which case I’m talking about, and it worked out quite nicely in this sentence.
  2. This one evokes images of armies in the frozen wastes of Mongolia, arguing (or not) about the military uses of yaks.
  3. The sentence reads: Great Armies Yak About Yaks We Idiots (presumably a not-so-great army) Ignore.

The Dative Case gave me more trouble and it took me a couple of weeks to come up with this gem, which I’ll NEVER forget:


Note on the Dative Case mnemonic sentence:

  1. This sentence is my favourite. It is an exclamation of frustration and reads:
    Dammit! Ooh you – ooh you – execrable elephant eeking inside! (as opposed to making eeking noises outside, I suppose)
    This sentence works on how the case endings sound.

 The remaining two cases I’m not bothering with, because they are easier to remember than the others.

The Instrumental Case is a series of oms, ems, oys and eys, with a byoo at the end. If I know the adjectival endings, I can extraploate the Instrumental noun endings.

The Prepositional Case endings are mostly -e.

So, that is how I learned the case endings of nouns in Russian. Now, when I am doing an exercise or writing a sentence, I simply think of the appropriate mnemonic sentence to remember which ending I need to use.

Please make a comment if you find this technique useful.


© Gaye Wilson 2008
I’ve already posted one strategy for learning numbers in a foreign language here.

This is another strategy that will help you become proficient in numbers.

Ask people you know to help you learn. Ask your children, your parents, your spouse, your friends, your work colleagues, to write several, non-consecutive numbers on an index card. If you need to practise particular number ranges, define what range.

Then, use the index card to practice saying aloud, or writing out, the numbers your helpers have written.

Do this every day for a month, and you will know how to say numbers in your target language!

Don’t forget to learn both ordinal (e.g. first, second, fifty-third) and cardinal (e.g. one, two, fifty-three) numbers.

© Gaye Wilson 2008
Most countries in the world use number plates to register their motor vehicles.

Yesterday, I blogged about how I use number plates to help me learn Russian numbers.

Today, I’d like to talk about other ways to use number plates to help learn a foreign language (actually, come to think of it, you could also use number plates to teach your kids the letters of the alphabet and the numbers in your own language).

Cardinal Numbers

Yesterday’s exercise was to say each numeral out loud in the language I’m currently learning, as individual single-digit numbers. So, ASM 387 became three, eight, seven in the target language.

Once you can do that without thinking, pausing or stumbling over any of the numbers, try saying them as whole numbers. So, ASM 387 would become three hundred and eighty-seven in your target language.

Ordinal Numbers

Now you can say numbers in their cardinal form, use the numbers you see on number plates and street signs, and put them into their ordinal form (a cardinal number, in language learnig contexts, is the counting number, e.g. one two three … forty-four; an ordinal number is the number attached to a word, e.g. the fifth element, the fourth dog etc.).

So, 387 would become the three hundred and eighty-seventh something.

Learn the alphabet

The next thing to do with number plates is to say the letters of the alphabet out loud.

So, using the example above, you would say ay, ess, em, or, in Russian (the language I’m currently learning), ah, ess, em.

Make words

Next, use number plates to make up words in your target language using the letters on the number plate.

So, for POT, if I was learning Russian, I would immediately say ROT, and translate it as MOUTH. For ONO, I would say the word ano (the Russian pronunciation), and the English translation IT. And so on.

There’s a story about a famous Egyptologist who reinforced his ancient Egyptian learning by doing this, and one day he observed to the person who was in the car with him that the number plate of the car ahead was very rude in ancient Egyptian!

Make sentences

Now that you can say numbers confidently, in both single digits and whole numbers, and can say the alphabet, and recognise short words in your target language, see if you can make the number plates into sentences in your target language.

Remember, if you are driving, make sure you do this safely!

Take the number plate we used above: ASM 387. You could create the sentence “Andrew sang Monster Mash three hundred and eighty-seven times”. Huh? That doesn’t make sense, I hear you say! Well, it doesn’t have to make sense, as long as the grammar and vocabulary are correct. For this example, I couldn’t think of a sentence in English that made sense using ASM, but I could think of a sentence that used one of the letters twice. That’s okay. We’re not looking for sentences of only three words, we’re looking for sentences that we can form with the vocabulary and grammar we already know.

[By the way, creating sentences using this technique is a recognised way of starting to write a story. It gets the creative juices flowing, and it can be as silly as you like, as long as you can create a story from it. Pick three words, and either use them to start the story, or make sure you use all three words somewhere in the story.]

You could also take the numbers first and add words from the letters: “387 alligators swimming …” I can’t think of a word starting with “m”, so I’ll substitute one starting with another letter: “strongly”.

Now, how do I say that in Russian?


© Gaye Wilson 2008
I drove to the shops yesterday to do the grocery shopping. Yesterday’s Russian lesson was about numbers – we were introduced to how to say the numbers zero to ten in Russian. I know those numbers in Polish, and can rattle them off without thinking about them in that language. I discovered that this was helpful to learning the Russian numbers, because there are similarities.

Anyway, as I was driving along, I started trying to translate the number plates into Russian. Since I’m currently learning numbers, I didn’t look at the letters on the number plates, but I did concentrate on the numbers. Every time I saw a new number plate, I said the individual numbers in Russian.

For instance, for the number plate ASM 372, I would say tre, sem, dva.

Every time I saw a phone number, I would say the numbers in Russian. So 024367985 became noll dva chetery tre shest sem devyat vosem pryat  (that’s not a real phone number, by the way).

Then, as I was driving or shopping, whenever I saw a written sign, I would rack my memory for the Russian word. Since I’ve only been learning the language for a couple of months, I don’t have a huge vocabulary yet, so there were only a few words that I actually had been introduced to. However, this technique did a couple of things:

  1. It kept Russian firmly in my brain – if I’m thinking about Russian and words in Russian, I’m actively reinforcing my learning.
  2. It told me which words I have been introduced to but have not yet mastered. When I saw a word in English that I knew had been on a vocabulary list, but I couldn’t remember the Russian word, I wrote it down in a notebook to look up and memorise when I got home.

Of course, there are a couple of potential problems with doing this while you’re driving, not the least of which is that your attention can be diverted from the traffic. Please, if you use this technique, do it safely.

In a future post, I will talk about how else to use car number plates to help with your language learning.

© Gaye Wilson 2008
I just enrolled in a university course to learn the Russian language. That’s pretty exciting.

I’m enrolled by distance, which means I don’t attend classes. The lectures are recorded, and the study materials are posted on the university Blackboard web system.

Obviously, this poses some problems in the learning, as I can’t ask questions during the lecture. Also, I don’t get the benefit of attending the tutorials (where new material is sometimes introduced, so I miss it), and the university doesn’t provide additional material for distance students.

However, I’m enjoying learning a language again. This will be the ninth language I’ve studied, apart from my native tongue.

I’m planning to write some blog posts about techniques I’m finding helpful in learning Russian. I’d love some comments on what techniques other people use for learning a language. I’d also love to get links to helpful resources, including books, software, audio programs, websites and blogs.