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The best way to learn the Russian alphabet

By Jon, published on 20/02/2018 Blog > Languages > Russian > How to Learn the Cyrillic Letters by Heart

“When you fall out of the water, you no longer fear the rain.” ~ Russian proverb

As a general rule, the most dreaded languages that cause students to break out in hives, are languages like Chinese or Russian with their seemingly incomprehensible alphabets. After all, the alphabet is the basis for most language learning, and without understanding it will be difficult to perfect your Slavic writing.

Faced with this challenge, many language students opt to study Spanish or French instead, both of which are much easier to understand than a Slavic language.

However, despite the end of the cold war (or perhaps because of it), the Russian language still seems to hold a large fascination for Americans. According to a 2015 survey, the top reason for learning Russian is often to meet Russians or travel in Russia!

In order to effectively communicate with Russians, especially if you’re doing so via correspondence, it’s essential for any English speaker to begin by learning the Cyrillic alphabet. In contrast to the Chinese alphabet, the Russian alphabet isn’t too far off from our Latin alphabet, and can easily be learned in a few weeks or months.

Here are our top tips for learning the Cyrillic alphabet!

The rules of the Russian alphabet

The Latin letters

First introduced in Russia in 988 AD, the Cyrillic alphabet is made up of 33 letters, 7 more than our Latin alphabet. Although this foreign alphabet can seem completely confusing to an English speaker, the two alphabets do share some commonalities – for example, the Russian language is also made up of vowels and consonants.

Fiodor Dostoïevski, Léon Tolstoï, Alexandre Pouchkine, Nicolas Gogol … Russia has been home to many famous authors! By learning the language, you can also read their works in the original form!

In the Cyrillic alphabet, there are 7 letters which come from the Latin Alphabet:

  • A – pronounced ‘A’,
  • E – pronounced ‘Yé’,
  • 3 – pronounced ‘Zé’,
  • K – pronounced ‘K’,
  • M – pronounced ‘M’,
  • O – pronounced ‘O’,
  • T – pronounced ’T’.

However, there are also several letters which look a bit like letters from the Latin alphabet, but which aren’t (there’s one that resembles an H) – be careful!

These letters are Russian letters and aren’t pronounced at all the same as their Latin cousins. When you’re studying, you need to be cautious of false cognates and forget about your native language.

It’s a good idea, when learning the Cyrillic alphabet, to start with these 7 letters, which as well as being common, will be easy for you to learn than the other Russian letters!

By learning to read in Russian, you’ll be able to discover a host of Russian authors in their native language.

The Greek letters

Every year, many classics students choose to learn ancient Greek in college. Although the language is considered ‘dead’, its letters live on in certain alphabets that are still in use today, including the Cyrillic alphabet.

If you’ve ever studied ancient Greek, it might be a bit easier for you to learn the Russian alphabet and vice versa!

The Russian alphabet includes 9 Greek letters:

  • Б – pronounced ‘B’,
  • Г – pronounced ‘Gué’,
  • Д – pronounced ‘D’,
  • У – pronounced ‘Ou’,
  • Ф – pronounced ‘F’,
  • П – pronounced ‘P’,
  • С – pronounced ’S’,
  • Р – pronounced ‘R’,
  • Л – pronounced ‘L’.

Once again, make sure you don’t get confused between the English and Russian pronunciations of some letters (like with the ‘P’ for example). Russian students must resist the temptation to make comparisons between their native language and this Slavic language, which although they share some similarities, have drastically different pronunciations.

One small anecdote – the USSR, the former name of the Russian Federation, was written ‘CCCP’ – not quite the same as what we used in English. What’s more, CCCP was pronounced ‘SSSR’ – a great example of why we shouldn’t let ourselves get led astray by things that seem the same…but aren’t!

The Russian letters

When you’re learning the Russian alphabet, the hardest thing to do will be to learn the new Cyrillic letters, which for most English speakers will be completely unknown. However, this new-ness can actually be helpful and easier for students as these new letters and their pronunciations don’t include any of the temptations of false cognates.

A native Russian speaker makes a great tutor – with expertise in teaching, they can guide you through their culture and all the challenges you’ll face in learning their native language. A great way to learn faster!

This section of the Cyrillic alphabet is made up of just 15 letters – the letters and their sounds can easily be learned after just a few hours of daily study! It’s also a good idea to practice writing out the Russian letters to help learn them faster.

Here are the Russian letters in the Cyrillic alphabet:

  • И – pronounced ‘l’,
  • Й – pronounced ‘Yeu’,
  • Ц – pronounced ‘Tseu’,
  • Ч – pronounced ‘Tsheu’,
  • Н – pronounced ’N’,
  • Ш – pronounced ‘Sheu’,
  • Щ – pronounced ‘Shsheu’,
  • Х – pronounced ‘Kha’,
  • Ы – pronounced ‘ɨ’,
  • Ж – pronounced ‘J’,
  • В – pronounced ‘V’,
  • Э – pronounced ‘Hè’,
  • Ю – pronounced ‘You’,
  • Я – pronounced ‘Ya’,
  • Ё – pronounced ‘Yo’.

With a good pronunciation of the Russian alphabet, the student can learn how to speak Russian fluently and prepare themselves for some time studying abroad in the largest country in the world!

The Russian alphabet: soft and hard signs

Once you’ve learned all the letters and their pronunciations listed above, you just need to learn the last two letters in the Cyrillic alphabet: the soft and hard signs.

Some students of Russian struggle to learn these signs because they are letters which aren’t vocalized, and so their study is sometimes reserved for students who are experts in Russian!

However, it is difficult to understand and learn how to pronounce the Russian language without taking these two symbols into consideration.

The two symbols are:

  • The hard ъ, which indicates that the previous consonant isn’t palletized.
  • The soft ь which tells you that the previous consonant is palletized.

Therefore, it isn’t really a question of reading and understanding, but of pronunciation. In order to get a good grade on the ТРКИ- TORFL, for example, students must be able to show that they understand all the intricacies of Tolstoy’s language.

In order to truly become bilingual English – Russian, you’ll need to have a firm grasp of all the symbols that modify pronunciation!

Techniques for remembering the Russian alphabet

Creating a Russian crib sheet

In order to work on your tonic accent, start learning a Slavic language and become bilingual in Russian, we’d recommend coming up with a few crib sheets to study between Russian classes with your professor!

With a good general level of Russian, American students can choose to enroll at a well known Russian university, like the University of Moscow.

In fact, learning the Russian alphabet ahead of your classes will ensure that you’re well prepared for your tutoring sessions and can help you space out your lessons, which will both help you learn and save you some money. The best thing to do is to break the letters down into several categories (like we’ve done below, or by consonants and vowels), in order to really master each letter.

Before moving onto another study sheet, the student should make sure they’ve truly learned each letter and its pronunciation, as well as constantly reviewing the previous lessons.

In order to master the Russian alphabet and its pronunciation, students can also use:

  • Russian study books
  • Russian – English dictionaries (with a phonetic transcription)
  • Online study guides
  • Russian podcasts
  • Russian videos on YouTube, etc…

In order to make studying as fun as possible, students can use different memorization techniques. For many students, mind-mapping techniques can be highly efficient in order to combine mental and physical elements for a holistic association for each letter and its pronunciation – by visualizing the Russian pronunciation, the student will find it easy to retain Russian vocabulary.

In order to further deepen their Russian knowledge, students might also choose to sign up for private Russian lessons!

Here, a bilingual or native Russian speaker will be totally at the disposition of the student to provide a structured framework in which they can learn the language. You can find Russian courses London wide, (and elsewhere in the UK), where the student will cover:

  • the Cyrillic alphabet
  • Russian culture
  • Russian grammar
  • Russian vocabulary
  • and even Russian literature!

Taking Russian classes is a great way to work on your accent and prepare to travel to Russia!

Study the Russian alphabet online

Learning Russian online is completely possible thanks to online Russian for beginners courses!

With a good linguistic foundation, it is totally possible to find a job and start working in a large Russian city, like St Petersburg. A great experience to add to your resume!

Whether on your computer, tablet or directly on your smartphone, students can spend just a few minutes daily studying the Russian alphabet. Online Russian classes are a great way to work on your oral expressions and easily learn the Russian language.

Electronic classes are often adaptable to any level – beginner, intermediate, or advanced. There are even apps for young children who can learn the Russian alphabet without even seeming to learn, thanks to games and fun interactive lessons.

Through their online Russian classes, students can also add a Cyrillic keyboard to their computer, or voice recognition software that will check their Russian accent!

To learn Russian online is a good way to learn how to write in Russian, work on the Cyrillic alphabet, and review syntax, personal pronouns, and prepositions before signing up for private lessons.

Here are a few resources that can help you learn the Russian alphabet:

  • Free educational apps for learning Russian
  • Websites for learning Russian
  • MOOC courses online
  • Films and TV series with subtitles in Russian
  • Free Russian exercises and worksheets
  • Online videos for learning Russian

Online Russian classes are a good way to begin exploring the language and develop a basic crib sheet for the language. We’d recommend you learn how to write the alphabet on paper in order to work on your motor memory and practice your Cyrillic handwriting and cursive.

So why not learn the Cyrillic alphabet without leaving your home?

What are the ideal conditions for learning the Russian alphabet?

Learning the Russian alphabet isn’t as difficult as you may think. In just a few weeks, it is totally possible to learn all of these letters and symbols which seem a bit terrifying.

The Russian alphabet is defined in this way:

A bicameral alphabet made up of 30 letters, created towards the end of the 9th century in Bulgaria by Cyrillic monks, based on Greek writing and the Glagolitic alphabet.

The Cyrillic alphabet is also used to read and write in other languages besides Russian, including:

  • Bulgaria
  • Belorussia
  • Ukraine
  • Serbia
  • Macedonia

In order to learn the language and its alphabet as easily as possible, some prerequisites can be a great help.

Have a perfect mastery of English

If you aren’t very skilled at correcting your syntax, spelling, conjugation, and grammar in English, you need to improve your skills in English!

In fact, learning English and all the intricacies of your own language will make it easier for you to learn Russian.

Not only will a firm grasp of English grammar help you work through your Russian lessons, but it will also help you learn the Russian alphabet faster.

Knowing English will make it easier to learn the Russian alphabet.

Like we’ve explained before, the Russian alphabet shares many similarities with the Latin alphabet used in Romance and Germanic languages.

So you need to have a firm understanding of the rules around vowels and their use.

Russian pronunciation is also quite similar to French pronunciation, which can be quite helpful for any students who previously studied French in high school.

Each letter in the Russian alphabet has its own unique sound, in contrast to East Asian languages like Chinese or Japanese.

What’s more, Russian pronunciation is sometimes much easier than in English, because, in Russian, all of the letters are pronounced.

In English, because the language was heavily influenced by waves of Norse, Germanic, and French invasions, the same letter can often be pronounced and used in a multitude of ways, depending on the origins of the word.

In Russian, in contrast, there are no silent letters, just like in Spanish or Italian. They also don’t have multiple pronunciations, so it’s impossible to make a mistake as you sound out a word.

All facts which should be reassuring to students of Russian!

Knowing other languages

Knowing how to speak other languages before learning Russian and its alphabet can also be almost as helpful as having a firm grasp of English.

If you already know the basics of another Slavic language like Polish, Czech, or Slovak, learning Russian and assembling Cyrillic letters into words will seem much easier for you.

The letters used in Slavic languages are very similar.

What’s more, if you’ve mastered one of the Slavic languages, that means that your brain has already proved itself capable of learning a language with letters that look very different from the ones we use in English and can still recognize those letters as a word.

Learning the alphabet for a Slavic language is still easier for an English speaker than learning an Asian language.

Learning a Slavic language can, therefore, help you progress much faster when you’re learning Russian.

Tips and tricks for learning the Russian alphabet

Russian is studied by many language learners around the world. Just like Chinese or German, Russian language skills are in high demand in the employment market today.

There are 14 million people learning Russian worldwide.

Therefore, there are several different tricks that have been developed to help students of Russian learn the Cyrillic alphabet as easily as possible.

The akamoto technique

Kesako ?

The Akamoto technique consists of learning 30% of the most useful letters of the alphabet in 10 seconds.

Earlier, you will have understood that the letters of the Cyrillic alphabet can be broken down into categories so that they’re easier to learn.

Now, we’ll go over how to learn the most useful letters in just a few seconds, in order to improve and begin speaking in Russian as quickly as possible.

These five letters (A,K,M,O,T) make up 30% of all Russian texts. That means that by learning and recognizing these five letters, you can begin to read and understand texts in Russian. Isn’t that good news?

And in order to remember these letters, you can put them together in a few different combinations: Akamoto, kamoto, aktom, tomak,…

Once you’ve learned them, there are already a few different words that you can use:

  • Кот: cat,
  • Так: so,
  • Атом: atom,
  • Там: there,
  • ОК: ok.

Practice your writing regularly

Learning the Russian alphabet also means learning to write the letters and combine them to create words. Just learning to recognize the letters on a computer screen isn’t going to help you anywhere near as much as writing and re-writing them.

Basically, your brain has a strong muscle memory function. It’s also known as procedural memory.

Here’s how it’s defined by Wikipedia:

Procedural memory is a type of implicit memory (unconscious memory) and long-term memory which aids the performance of particular types of tasks without conscious awareness of these previous experiences.

This is the type of memory where our brain stores information about riding a bike, making pasta, or starting a car. It’s also in this part of your brain where you learn how to write letters with your hand without thinking about how to do so.

Put your procedural memory to work!

However, it does take a good amount of time and plenty of repetition before Russian letters will be fixed in your brain.

It’s for this reason that it’s important to practice regularly so that your brain can begin to internalize your movements. Write each letter several times each day.

It’s also important to work on both uppercase and lowercase letters. Russian is a bicameral language (meaning the writing has two variations – capitals and lowercase).

Take advantage of applications

In order to learn the Russian alphabet, is there a better solution than to have fun while you learn?

Some applications offer Russian classes with lessons that include:

  • learning the alphabet
  • pronouncing the letters
  • grammar
  • Russian expressions
  • transliteration
  • etc

Whether you’re at an intermediate, advanced or beginner level, these apps will let you study wherever and whenever you want, so you don’t need to lose a minute!

The apps will also help you learn Russian easily thanks to interactive lessons and efficient English/Russian dictionaries.

It’s a great way for you to practice and brush up on your language skills before you speak to native Moscovites.

Take your time and study regularly

The best advice for learning anything is to take your time. This doesn’t necessarily mean to advance at a snail’s pace, but more to just study regularly.

It’s pointless to study hard for three days and then to do nothing in the days following. Your brain will quickly forget the alphabet and everything else you’ve learned if you don’t continue your Russian classes.

What’s more, you’ll lose motivation when faced with the amount of work catching up in your studies will take.

Vowels, accents, lowercase, uppercase…learning the Russian alphabet means mastering several different ideas.

Learn everything in what seems like just a few hours.

In contrast, by working for just a few minutes every day, you won’t really feel like you’re making too much effort.

Learning Russian only takes a few minutes every day.

Russian vocabulary, the Latin alphabet, Soviet culture, the Cyrillic alphabet, pronunciation, writing…mastering all of these require working on the language just as if you were with your Russian professor.

Be the teacher and the student

The Cyrillic alphabet, spelling, Russian grammar, Russian culture, transcription, Russian literature – Russian classes often cover many important topics.

So in order to improve, why not find a friend and study together?

Studying with a friend in order to learn Russian will let you be the student and the teacher at the same time. When your friend doesn’t understand something, you can help explain it to them.

And by explaining these concepts aloud, it’ll help you understand whether you have truly mastered a concept or not. If you can’t manage to explain something clearly, that’s a good indication that you haven’t totally understood or mastered that lesson either.

Working together also makes it easier to stay motivated!

Have fun!

Whether you’re learning Russian online, or in person in classes in New York, San Francisco, or Seattle, it is important that you’re doing so by choice and that you have fun learning the language!

Tackling your Russian dictionary, Russian translations, prepositions, and wading through lessons can often be less difficult than they seem at first.

Motivation and desire are two things which are key to get you through.

It’s important to take pleasure in mastering the basics – like the Russian alphabet – in order to retain information better.

It’s also a great idea to take an interest in Russian culture by watching some of their national cinema or taking an interest in Russian cuisine.

Head to Russia

St Petersburg, Moscow, Vladivostok, Sotchi,… what’s a better way to learn the Russian alphabet and master the language than to take a trip to Russia?

Going to Russia can help you learn the language and alphabet quickly.

Of course, it isn’t an option for everyone, but taking a trip to Russia is a great way to get motivated about learning the language.

It’s an opportunity to meet native Russian speakers and to speak to people who’ve learned Russian as their first language,

It’s also a great opportunity to motivate yourself and explore different aspects of Russian culture like songs, films, cooking, history, etc.

A trip to Russia is also an opportunity to learn to decode all the letters on the street signs into Russian words. Up to you to set yourself a new challenge!

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