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How to start learning Russian

From Jon, published on 20/02/2018 Blog > Languages > Russian > Starting from Zero to Learn Russian

“The Russian language! For centuries people have created this versatile, sumptuous, intelligent tool, this poetic medium with an inexhaustible wealth of words to describe their social life, their thoughts, their feelings, their hopes, their anger, their great future.”

If Tolstoy’s words touch your heart, maybe you should learn Russian!

Easier said than done? Obviously, like all foreign languages, learning Russian requires dedication, finding the right Russian course online, motivation and discipline to get to a good level in the language!

Become one of the 280 million Russian speakers around the world! If want to find a tutor, searching for Russian courses London produces the most results on Superprof but there is a lot more choice if you learn Russian online.

In this article, Superprof shares our basic tips to acquire a basic level of Russian – and why not continue learning past the intermediate level to become truly bilingual, whatever level you’re starting from!

To your keyboards and start learning Russian!

Learn the basics

You can’t learn a language without starting with the basics, just like you need to learn to walk before you can run.

There’s no point in trying to learn everything at once because you’re likely to become quickly discouraged. Take your time to learn the Russian alphabet, a few vocabulary words and a bit of grammar, and after a while, you’ll be able to compose sentences in Russian on your own!

The Russian alphabet

When you begin learning Russian, the first step is to learn your new alphabet just like when you start studying Japanese, Greek, or Chinese.

The Cyrillic alphabet is pretty different from the Latin alphabet and it will take several hours of study before you’re able to master it.

Start by studying and memorizing the Cyrillic alphabet

If you are interested in learning the Russian language, the first thing to do is to start learning the alphabet.

Russian uses the Cyrillic alphabet which is completely different from the Latin alphabet used by English and many other Indo-European languages.

Other languages that use the Cyrillic alphabet are Ukrainian, Belorussian, Bulgarian, Serbian and more. (So if you’re learning Cyrillic, you’ll be able to read the written words in those languages too.) Cool, right?

The Russian version of the Cyrillic alphabet contains thirty-three letters. There are many good resources available online for learning the alphabet.

I recommend spending some time studying the alphabet before and at the beginning of all your Russian lessons.

A solid foundation will serve you well later in your studies. Although it is not too difficult to memorize the letters in order, being able to read whole words and sentences with them takes time.

Remember how difficult it was to learn to read in English (and that’s your mother tongue!). It’ll be just the same in Russian.

Fortunately, learning to read as an adult, and therefore, as someone who is already literate in another language, is easier than a child who has to learn to read completely.

Here are a few things to know about Russian:

  • The Russian alphabet is made up of 33 letters, of which 10 are vowels, 21 are consonants, and there are 2 silent letters which indicate the stress and accent for each word.
  • Handwritten Russian is written differently than the typed version of the language,
  • There are 7 Cyrillic letter which are similar to our Latin letters, and are even pronounced the same way: А, Е, З, К, М, О, Т,
  • Nine letters are similar to Greek, so if you ever studied Greek at school this will help you to master these letters: Б, Г, Д, У, Ф, П, С, Р, Л,
  • So there are just 15 letters left to learn, right?

It’s totally possible to learn Russian on your own.

The sounds of Russian and its pronunciation

The Russian language differs from English and some sounds will be completely new for beginners in the language. One of the most important things to do is to get used to the sounds and accents of your new target language with the help of Russian pop songs or podcasts.

It is true that we don’t often have the opportunity to hear Russian, so it’s up to you to find a good example!

Vowels are pronounced differently depending on where the accent is placed

Here are a few rules of pronunciation in order to improve your Russian:

  • In a syllable without an accent, the Russian letter O is pronounced as the letter A without an accent молоко́ (milk) as каранда́ш (pencil). But when there is an accent, you pronounce it [o]: помощь (help),
  • In a syllable without an accent, the letters Я, Е, Э are pronounced like the letter И,
    The letter Ё is always accentuated in Russian
  • Spoken Russian consonants are pronounced the same as their mute counterparts when they appear at the end of the word. обе́д- (dinner) – [abét],
  • Spoken consonants become silent when they are followed by other silent consonants. ю́бка – (skirt) – [ioúpka],
  • Silent consonants become spoken when followed by other spoken consonants. футбо́лка – (t-shirt) – [foudbólka].

How do you pronounce the Russian consonants?

In order to learn Russian as best as possible, here’s a video that goes through the pronunciation of the different Russian letters:

Russian grammar and conjugation

Now that we know how to pronounce words in Russian, let’s move on to the bane of many students: the rules of grammar and conjugation!

Grammar

It’s essential to know the Russian grammar rules so you can learn the language properly:

  • There are no rules to designate where the stress is placed on each word. It is different for each word, and can even change from the single to the plural. For example, hand is рука́ (singular) – ру́ки (plural),
  • Sometimes, changing the stress of the word can even change the meaning of the word: замо́к (the lock)– за́мок (the castle),
  • Russians do not use capital letters for the names of the days of the week and months, for words derived from proper nouns (such as Muscovite or Russian), for words designating nationalities (French, Italian, Spanish) …), or for titles (sir, doctor …),
  • The only two cases where a capital letter is used are when it’s at the beginning of a sentence or when it’s a proper name.

I firmly believe that studying grammar is essential for learning any language, even your own native language.

Of course, everyone learns in different ways, but Russian grammar is very complex and the sooner you start learning it in Russian class and begin to internalize it, the better.

The good news is that once you know Russian grammar, it will allow you to speak the language with a higher degree of accuracy, even when you encounter unfamiliar words.

For example, all verbs in Russian have certain endings and tend to follow a certain pattern of conjugation, so your knowledge of grammar will allow you to use the new verbs correctly in your Russian classes.

Conjugation

Conjugation can be a little complicated, so we will only go over a few simple rules.

There are many sites, however, who can help the learner improve their grammar, such as russianforeveryone.com or russianforfree.com.

  • The Russian verb in the infinitive is marked by its ending -TЬ (-TИ or -ЧЬ),
  • Russian verbs are made up of a root and an ending that indicates the time and the person,
  • Verbs can also include a prefix and/or a suffix,
  • Russian verbs are conjugated for time (past, present, future) as well as for two aspectual forms (perfect and imperfect).

Learn basic phrases in Russian

Immerse yourself in Russian in order to progress more quickly!

Speaking Russian quickly requires you to know some basic phrases which will make it easier for you to get to know each other. No one expects you to be an expert in Russian grammar, at least not at the start! The Russians will not refuse to speak to you because you mis-conjugated a verb during a conversation!

The key to improving your language skills and hitting the ground running is to practice and therefore speak the language in everyday life!

Here are some basic phrases and general niceties to help you make your way in Russia!

Have you heard of the Assimil learning method?

And to really get going, many websites offer an immersion in Russian through many useful phrases as part of a language course:

  • learnrussian.rt.com : a true guide to the Russian language! With over 100 lessons available for free online, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to pick up new vocabulary. The only downside is that the audio is limited.
  • Study-languages-online.com – this site offers fewer key phrases to learn but what it does have also includes audio. You will also find exercises after each lesson to help you work on your oral expression, oral comprehension, and written comprehension,
  • Wikibooks – some basic phrases that are useful for anyone traveling to Russia, accompanied by their pronunciation in phonetics
  • russianforfree.com: this website is chockablock with helpful information and videos for students learning Russian, including a whole section with helpful phrases for tourists in Russia.

Of course, it’s also worth investing in a good English – Russian dictionary like the Oxford English, or choose to download one for your phone so you can take it everywhere with you!

For a one-size fits all resource, Berlitz’s “Russian conversation Guide and Dictionary” is a good compromise!

And just like that, you can learn Russian for (relatively) free!

Some advice to keep improving at Russian

Before traveling to Russia, make sure you know the basics

If you are going to travel to Moscow, you will definitely need to learn to speak a few words of Russian.

Indeed, it is one of the few capitals in the world where you won’t be able to get by just by speaking English!

If you want to order at a restaurant or ask for directions in English, you might be waiting for a long time!

In addition, you will quickly be labeled as a tourist, something that’s generally best to avoid if at all possible. Here are some of our top tips to improve your Russian faster and integrate better when you arrive in Russia:

  • Make a point of watching and reading the Russian media: newspapers, radio and TV channels. To make progress, it’s no secret – you need to wake up to Russian, have a Russian breakfast, read a Russian metro, and sleep in Russian!
    • Re newspapers​, the internet is a great asset for those of us who do not live in Russia! Vek: Daily Press is a good example of a Russian newspaper. Its website focuses on economics, politics, culture, ​and sport,
    • It’s also easy to listen to the radio via the internet. This allows you to immerse yourself in Russian culture by listening to music as well as talk shows and the news. Russkoe Radio is a good mix of both,
    • For Russian TV, again, the internet is your best friend! Two of the largest Russian TV channels are great for Russian students: Rossia 1 and Rossia 2. The first deals with general information, while the second is more focused on culture, sport and recreation,
  • Immerse yourself in Russian culture: meet natives through local meetups​, go on a trip to Russia, change your computer or phone language into Russian … Once again, the goal is to be as immersed as possible into the Russian language,
  • Buy a dictionary: to look up all of the new words you’re learning and improve your vocabulary!
  • Work on your weaknesses: We all have our strengths and weaknesses when it comes to learning a new language, and especially for one as complex as Russian. Some people will have beautiful Russian accents almost immediately, but struggle with grammar, while others will find their strength in reading and writing Russian.

Spatial repetition is a learning technique in which flash cards are repeated at regular intervals.

To improve my listening skills, I focused on one element: listening.

Listen to the radio in Russian!

From this point of view, any kind of audio material is helpful: podcasts, radio, cd, etc.

It’s also a great idea to watch Russian films, they are excellent.

In summary: 

  • Start by learning the basics of the Russian language, especially the alphabet! This is a bit of a challenge for English speakers used to​ the Latin alphabet.
  • By learning a few basic phrases you can quickly learn enough to be able to get by in Russia.
  • In order to accelerate your learning even further, you’ll need to immerse yourself in daily life, by listening to Russian media, reading in Russian and speaking with native Russian speakers!
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