Interview: Learning Russian at the DLI

with 12 Comments

Imagine dedicating a year of your life to the Russian language.

You must eat, sleep, and breathe Russian.

Could you do it?

Meet my friend Chris, a graduate of the Defense Language Institute and Russian-language enthusiast who also lives right here in Oregon…

Obligatory Oregon winter picture. 😉
Chris, what’s currently your favorite word in Russian?

I’ve always liked the word спички. It’s easy to pronounce, and it sounds cute.


Do you use Russian for work, for play, or for something else?

I use Russian for enjoyment, for play you might say. It also helps for finding pirated software, but I do that less and less nowadays.


Have you ever had your level of Russian tested?

My level of Russian was tested every year in the military using the defense language proficiency test (DLPT). When I graduated from the language institute, my level was 2+ (listening), 3 (reading), 3 (speaking). Only listening and speaking are evaluated outside of the institute. Every year after graduation I scored a 3 (listening), 3 (reading). The test does not evaluate levels above 3.

Wikipedia: ILR Level 3 – Professional working proficiency
Professional working proficiency is rated 3 on the scale. Level 3 is what is usually used to measure how many people in the world know a given language. A person at this level is described as follows:

  • able to speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most conversations on practical, social, and professional topics
  • can discuss particular interests and special fields of competence with reasonable ease
  • has comprehension which is quite complete for a normal rate of speech
  • has a general vocabulary which is broad enough that he or she rarely has to search for a word
  • has an accent which may be obviously foreign; has a good control of grammar; and whose errors virtually never interfere with understanding and rarely disturb the native speaker

Individuals classified at level 3 are able to use the language as part of normal professional duties and can reliably elicit information and informed opinion from native speakers; examples include answering objections, clarifying points, stating and defending policy, conducting meetings, and reading with almost complete comprehension a variety of prose material on familiar and unfamiliar topics such as news reports, routine correspondence, and technical material in trained fields of competence.


Can you tell us more about how you’ve learned Russian?

I learned probably 80% of the Russian I know at the Defense Language Institute in 1991. I earned a Bachelors degree in the Russian language in 1998, but I learned almost nothing new at the university. In fact, most of my university credits for Russian were transferred from the language institute.

Studying Russian was a full-time job for one year at DLI, 40 hours per week, plus homework. Our instructors were mostly native speakers. My success at DLI is most likely due simply to the focused environment, the opportunity to study one thing intensely without external distractions, together with the military discipline imposed on us, the oversight necessary to keep us accountable. There was no possibility to skip class, and immediate consequences for not doing homework. Average students are almost guaranteed to learn the language. Excellent students are able to master the language. In short, the environment was more important than the method.

At DLI, the first six months of instruction followed a set curriculum. We used textbooks and workbooks and covered all the grammar, while quickly building our vocabulary. Every other day we learned 20-30 new words, so we knew 1000-2000 words halfway into the course, depending on one’s ability to retain the learned information. The last six months were less structured. We watched television and discussed the shows, listened to recordings, conversed, and took dictation. One activity I never encountered anywhere other than DLI is number dictation. We spent 2-3 hours per week listening to increasingly longer chains of numbers, in increasingly complex grammatical constructions, at increasing speeds, and had to write them down for later correction. Some of the number dictation was wildly difficult, which would leave us either frustrated or laughing, because almost no one could keep up.

Portland has a large Russian-speaking population. When I first moved here in 1999, I volunteered as a tutor in English for Russian speakers. I made one or two connections and had many opportunities to practice speaking. Later, I met a Russian speaker in my apartment complex. We spent a lot of time together and that exposure really cemented what I had previously learned.

I continue to study lightly, but the knowledge no longer remains as it used to. I have to repeat the same lessons over and over. I learn better just by using the language, taking note of my mistakes, and paying attention to how native speakers speak or write. These days my exposure to native speakers is mainly through audio books, music, and written correspondence. I seldom speak Russian anymore.


Is there anything that you still really struggle with, like grammar or pronunciation? Do you have a plan of attack for improving your skills?

I still struggle with choosing the most appropriate word order, and with choosing the correct verb aspect when both aspects are grammatically possible, but one is preferred in the given context. I have a couple good books that I read over and over again.

Note: I asked Chris to share pictures of some of his textbooks. (Also, Chris introduced me to the book The Russian Word’s Worth… what a great book!)


If you were offered a free trip to a country where Russian is widely spoken, which country would you chose? Why?

I would go to Russia, St. Petersburg in particular. There is the city itself, historical buildings, and the Hermitage.


If someone wanted to improve their Russian quickly and only had 15 minutes a day, what would you advise them to do?

It depends on the level one is at. For a beginner, I would recommend the Pimsleur series. For someone who already knows the basics, study high-frequency words. For an advanced learner, read or listen to books or the news.


Спасибо большое, Крис! ?

12 Responses

  1. J.T.
    | Reply

    Another interesting interview! Is this going to become a Friday feature?

    “Imagine dedicating a year of your life to the Russian language.
    You must eat, sleep, and breathe Russian.
    Could you do it?”

    Um, not yet. But maybe soon…

    TBH, I’d almost forgotten about the ILR scale – all the programs I’ve participated in are structured around CEFRL or TORFL proficiency levels.

    • Katherine
      | Reply

      Yes, I’m quite curious about other learners and their stories, so I’d like to do an interview every month. Would you be interested? “Meet J.T. Artist, bug lover, and super cool Russian Studies student who blogs at …” 😉

      • J.T.

        Actually, that sounds pretty cool. You can count me in!

      • J.T.

        Though my [relative] anonymity might pose a hurdle…

      • Katherine

        I’ll send you an email in the next few days with some ideas!

      • Katherine

        Just sent you an email, J.T. 🙂

      • J.T.

        Just sent you my responses.

  2. Lyttenburgh
    | Reply

    I use Russian for enjoyment, for play you might say. It also helps for finding pirated software, but I do that less and less nowadays.

    Our dude! 🙂 No need to be shy – we are all friends here!

  3. Jasilyn Albert
    | Reply

    You should definitely make this into a regular series. I think it would be fun to read@

    • Katherine
      | Reply

      Glad you like the interviews, Jasilyn. Actually, yes, I’m planning to do one new interview every month!

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