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How to Learn Russian

From Jon, published on 20/02/2018 Blog > Languages > Russian > Learning Russian, Step By Step

An anonymous wit once said, “A Western communist is someone who loves everything about Russia, aside from the idea of having to live there.”

A breathtaking history, a very rich culture, and an influential role in world geopolitics: these are all general qualities we could attribute to Russia.

The Russian language counts more than 280 million speakers, making it the 7th most spoken language on the planet, just ahead of French. In fact, 146.5 million people speak Russian as their mother tongue, and about just as many – 135 million – speak it as a second language.

Russian-speaking people are mainly found in Russia, but also in the former Soviet Socialist Republics which, for more than 70 years, had Russia imposed on them by successive Soviet leaders: Kazakhstan, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Mongolia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, to the former Yugoslavia and the former GDR (East Germany), where Russian was taught in schools before the breakdown of the Soviet republic in 1991.

In fact, many European countries still use the Cyrillic alphabet for their national language, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Serbia, in Bulgaria, in Belarus, in Ukraine, and in the Baltic States.

In these countries, Russian and the Cyrillic alphabet is still important because of political forces of the 20th century. Moreover, Russian is still a lingua franca in the Caucasus and Asia Minor.

Russian comes from the Slavic languages and is one of the official languages of the UN, as well as Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The Cyrillic alphabet is also the third official alphabet of the European Union after Latin and Greek since the accession of Bulgaria on 1 January 2007.

Want to read Tolstoy in the original version? Want to go to Moscow for the 2018 Soccer World Cup? Planning a trip to Russia to get to know the Russian people? Have a job offer you just picked up with a Russian-speaking company?

In any case, speaking Russian can be a considerable asset. How can you learn the alphabet, construct basic sentences, pronounce words correctly and improve your Russian grammar?

Superprof gives you all the advice you need to start learning Russian and acquire a basic level of Russian so you can communicate with native speakers.

How should you learn Russian? Start with the basics

The notable thing about Russian is that it uses a different alphabet than English. For any beginner, learning the Cyrillic alphabet will be a necessary first step.

Dive straight into learning all the new letters for the Russian language!

Learn Russian and the Cyrillic alphabet

The Cyrillic alphabet will often seem like trying to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics in the beginning, just like the Chinese alphabet and the Arabic alphabet for that matter.

It is made up of 33 letters – eleven vowels, twenty consonants and two mute letters which are used to indicate whether or not you need to emphasize the pronunciation of a word.

To study it requires a few hours of work, just like when a child learns to read! The advantage for an adult who’s trying to learn Russian is that they already know how to read, in English at least.

This makes it easy to learn even if you have to start from scratch and learn a new alphabet in order to succeed in deciphering Russian words.

It is said that the Russian language is a phonetic language: every letter corresponds to a different sound, and only one sound.

The first step to learning the language then is to memorize each letter to be able to spell and pronounce Russian words.

Once you’ve learned the alphabet, it is essential to become familiar with all the letters’ sounds and pronunciation in Russian.

Again, it’s very different from the English language or any other Latin language. The sounds are completely different and to learn how to cope, it’s a good idea to listen to songs or podcasts in Russian.

Learning Russian – basic phrases

Like with any language, you’ll need to progress step by step. Once you’ve learned the Russian alphabet and have learned all the vowel sounds, it’s then a logical next step to learn a few basic phrases in Russian and their pronunciation:

  • Добрый день : Hello, “zdra-stvouaï-taïi”,
  • Да : Yes, “da”,
  • Нет : No, “niet”,
  • Спасибо : Thank you, “spassiba”,
  • До свиданья : Goodbye “da-svi-da-ni-yé”,
  • Пожалуйста : Please “pozhaluysta”,
  • Я не понимаю : I don’t understand “ya ne ponimayu”.

A good dictionary like the Oxford Russian-English dictionary is essential when you’re trying to learn the Russian language and navigate all its vagaries. Alternatively, you can also take advantage of online tools like WordReference or even Google Translate.

Learn basic Russian vocabulary

After you’ve mastered a few basic Russian phrases which can serve as a basic travel phrase book, it’s time to expand your Russian vocabulary with a few new words.

When you’re in the streets, hunger can help accelerate your learning.  “PECTOPAH” means ‘restaurant’.

A good place to start is by translating each object located in the room where you are (bedroom, living room, kitchen) or in the street, mastering the vocabulary for everything the eye can see.

It’s a good way to learn Russian vocabulary without having the impression of studying.

We recommend learning about 10 new words a day.

Learning Russian grammar

In order to not get too discouraged, we do not recommend starting your Russian studies with grammar. It would be like trying to build a pavilion by starting with a new frame before you’ve learned how to pour the foundations…

However, any learner will quickly realize that it is essential, even fundamental, to know some simple rules in order to manage and write correct sentences.

Websites like The Polyglot Club or Russia Today Grammar Tables will help Russian students improve their grammar and master the basic of verb conjugations in Russian.

These websites will help you understand the cases and different variations of Russian grammar, which includes some concepts that will be a bit new to English speakers. Like in Latin language, Pushkin’s language has six variations: the nominative, the accusative, the dative, the genitive and the locative.

And the Russian word is divided into three genres: masculine, feminine and neutral, as in German.

As for Russian conjugation, beginner learners will be pleased to learn that Russian uses only three tenses: past, present, and future.

In other words, the grammatical structure and syntax of Russian sentences are all at once much poorer, purified, and simple than English.

It’s also worth noting that Russian verbs in the infinitive end with -TЬ, -TИ or -ЧЬ. Russian verbs are conjugated for different temporal tenses, as well as two aspectual forms.

How to teach yourself Russian

The first thing to figure out when you decide to teach yourself a new language – define your level!

Audit a Russian course at your local college or go incognito and try to pass as a student

Are you a beginner? Near beginner? Have you ever studied Russian before? Do you want to improve your oral expression in the language? Or improve your written Russian skills? Do you already know how to speak other languages?

One way to assess your level in Russian is to take an assessment exam that is completely free and includes thirty questions. It will help you assess your level according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR): from A1 to C2.

Multilingual people have, as we know, more opportunities to learn modern languages because their pre-acquired language skills help them bridge from one language to another.

And the study skills that they developed in order to learn their​ first language will also serve them well as they study any new language, including Russian. They’ll still have an advantage even if the Russian alphabet – the Cyrillic alphabet – is incomprehensible for an English speaker who’s used to the modern Latin alphabet.

And then you need to define: what is your goal?

Are you trying to become bilingual? Hold a conversation with a friend? Travel to Russia? Learn how to ask for directions and the time? Rent an apartment?

Once you have determined your objectives and the level that you’re starting from – beginner level or intermediate level, (A1, B1, or B2) – you’ll be free to start!

Find the right strategy for learning Russian

In order to learn a foreign language, books can be your best friend!

We particularly recommend the Assimil method, which combines writing, visual recognition, ​and playback with audio format and speech recognition, in order to help students make faster progress, improve their listening comprehension and speaking skills, as well as Russian pronunciation.

The learning methods have been proven to be effective and the principle of spaced repetition is a must in language learning!

How does the Assimil theory work for those who are new to it?

You need to work through your textbook step by step, chapter by chapter: the best thing to do is to listen to a chapter every morning ​because it is at this time of day when the brain is most able to learn new languages.

When you wake up, your brain hasn’t already been stuffed full with stresses and other rubbish – positive and negative – from the day. Therefore, it’s a perfect time to work on your Russian vocabulary and Russian grammar rules.

The Assimil method inflicts a gradual process on our brains – the materials each day are a bit more advanced than the day before, but the increased difficulty encourages the learner to repeat after the computer recording, which is a very stimulating exercise for your memory.

Speak Russian!

Do you speak Russian?

Independent learners, by definition, will not be surrounded by other language learners. They’re studying without a teacher from a language school, an organisation or a private tutor!

Finding a native Russian speaker as a language partner and with whom you can improve your Russian speaking skills is a good way to progress quickly!

If you can’t find anyone in your city, think about Skype! There are many online forums and Facebook groups that are full of people willing to share their Russian vocabulary in exchange for learning the basics of English.

Try to plan a meeting, virtual or physical, with your language partner weekly, just like you would if you were going to a Russian class in New York. It’s a great way to improve your language skills quickly!

Finally, here’s our top tip – from time to time sneak into a Russian class at your local university. Many colleges still don’t have security measures in place, and teachers rarely conduct roll call for lectures in amphitheaters…

Surf the internet

There are many different websites where self learners can find Russian language resources. Hundreds of thousands of web pages are created every day in the world.

The Russian language is no exception. The advantage of learning Russian online is that it can be done from anywhere: on the computer, tablet or smartphone, the choices are endless!

Having trouble motivating yourself and sticking with it? We understand.

Why not sign up for a language partner online? According to the website Tandem.net, “verbal practice is the fastest way to language fluency.”

Whether it’s totally true or not, finding a native Muscovite or a Russian from St. Petersburg can be a good way for you to help each other progress: one of you will learn Russian while the other improves their English through a win-win exchange.

And all of this is totally free.

On the other hand, it’s worth immediately disregarding all the sites promising to learn Russian in ten lessons or one week. Learning a language requires discipline, discipline and time!

And above all, learning Russian will require motivation!

How to learn Russian quickly

There’s no secret to learning Russian quickly! The best thing to do is to sign up for Russian language courses with a Russian tutor. You can even find intensive classes.

Sign up for private tutoring

Of course you can sign up for group classes but online Russian tutoring will be much more effective! In private tutoring sessions, the learner is alone with the teacher, with whom he can build a real exchange, and develop a rapport.

The good thing here is that the teacher – one of our tutors, for example – is there specifically to help his student reach a more advanced language level, and correct their imperfections: intonation, spell check, grammar exercises, irregular verbs, etc.

The rapport is very important when you choose your teacher! Because you will spend many hours studying with him or her, the important thing, beyond their language skills of course, is that they’re someone with whom you can get along well.

Learning with a tutor can be much more motivated and you can accelerate your learning process.

Do not hesitate to try out several different tutors before making your choice.

On our platform, most of our teachers offer the first class for free. It’s a good way to gauge their skills, their teaching background and see if you get a good feeling from them.

Start by learning the basics before diving into the details.

Participate in a language exchange to improve your Russian

In order to truly master Russian and learn to think in Russian just as well as you do in your mother tongue, there’s only one thing to do: talk to everyone you see ​and practice!

Find Russians and speak with them, whether it’s to discuss finding a cheap place to rent in St. Petersburg or comparing New York and Moscow metropolitan areas.

Since the fall of the USSR, many Russians have moved to the US. And thanks to the internet, there is no border whatsoever and it is easy to find a Russian speaker in just a few clicks.

Using a language is how we learn it best.

In addition to practicing your verbal and listening skills with your new friend, you can also ask them all your questions about Russian language and culture, to better understand the origins of certain dishes or the Russian mentality.

It is also a great way to explore the wonders of Russian literature (Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev and why not Kropotkin, Bakunin and Lenin too for those who are attracted by anarchism and socialism) or to learn Russian expressions and new words to enrich your vocabulary.

Study abroad

Of course, for those who can afford it, traveling to Russia is a great option. What better place to learn Russian than in Russia itself?

The red square in Moscow: majestic, and just around the corner from a language center.

The Russian Federation is the largest country in the world (17.1 million km²!), so it will be necessary for you to narrow down where you hope to go before you leave. We’d recommend staying towards the western and European segments of Russia, in one of the major cities like St. Petersburg or Moscow.

Of course, you can also study Russian in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Belarus. Ukraine is also an option, and has the advantage of enjoying a more southern climate and a lower cost of living than that of Russia and the Baltic countries …

Traveling alone is the best way to learn a language. We learn to cope in everyday situations (like asking for directions, ordering at a restaurant, taking the subway, etc.), without relying on the love and support of a parent, a brother or sister, partner or friend.

A great option is to book a homestay or an Airbnb: as a language course, it is a great accommodation option that allows you to take a Russian language course just by talking with the owners or roommates present in the house.

When I travel to an English of Spanish speaking country, Airbnb allows me to get in touch with the local population, to learn their mother tongue as part of a total immersion and to discover a part of the culture of the country and their own personal history. It’s a great opportunity to pick up new vocabulary in the course of a discussion and practice using some difficult words.

Have fun!

Whether you’re learning Russian online, on YouTube, by watching films or reading books, the most important thing to do is to have fun.

Confucius said “choose a job that you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”

This maxim can also be easily applied to language learning. Replace the word ‘job’ with ‘language’ and you’re ready to go!

Some applications like Duolingo can help!

The application nudges you to practice your Russian for 5 minutes everyday. The learning is fully personalized, and the student receives rewards like in a game. And all for $0, the application is completely free.

Another good idea is adding Russian subtitles to your favorite tv series so you can relax while learning.

You can also change the language of your software and web browsers. For example, you can choose to read Wikipedia in Russian, or even change Google Chrome into Russian…

Learn Russian for free

Students will know this better than me, when you want to learn and memorize a lesson, the best thing to do is to make yourself note cards.

And you can do it for free: just go to your local university or library and borrow Russian books. Then make cards with writing in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, focus on the tonic accent in the word or practice your prepositions.

Get yourself to your local library!

Using flash cards

The Leitner system is developed based on using flashcards. The principle is simple and works pretty well for the memorization of the vocabulary: on one side you put the word in English ​and on the other side the word in Russian.

The cards are sorted into three boxes according to the level of memorization required for each.

Well, that’s for the paper version.

If you are more oriented towards the digital solutions, the popular Memrise software mixes flashcards and quizzes and even offers mnemonic means to retain the words you’ve already learned.

The top YouTube channels for learning Russian

The advantage of YouTube is that it’s free. What’s more, there’s a multitude of different videos available to help you learn many different languages, including Russian. Here are some of our favorite YouTube channels for learning Russian:

  • Learn Russian Language
  • Russian for Free
  • Weekly Russian with Natalia
  • R for Russian
  • Maria Zdorovetskaya
  • Antonia Romaker

YouTube videos are a great way to start learning the Russian language and cover several different topics with varied vocabulary according to themes.

How to learn Russian by watching movies

It can be a bit hard to bite the bullet and sign up for beginner Russian classes!

Whether you’re passionate about the history of the USSR or not, when you learn a language, you also need to learn about its culture. And Russian cinema is not made just to stay within the borders of the Russian Federation.

Who hasn’t already seen the film Stalingrad, filmed in Volgograd? In order to improve your Russian, imagine yourself on the Volga during the bloody battle that lasted from 1942-1943 between the Nazi Germans and the USSR…

Here are some other movies to help you learn Russian:

  • Moscow does not believe in tears, 1980, directed by Vladimir Menshov,
  • The irony of fate, 1965, directed by Eldar Ryazanov,
  • The Return, 2003, directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev,
  • Рассказы, 2012, directed by Mikhail Segal,
  • Стиляги, 2008, directed by Korotkov Juri,
  • The House of the Sun, 2009, directed by Garik Sukachov.

There are of course plenty of other Russian films out there, and everyone can choose which ones to watch depending on their own personal interests. But these are perhaps the most approachable films to watch to start improving your Russian.

Watching TV news and listening to Russian radio is now facilitated by the internet and it is also a great way to practice Russian every day​ by training native speakers.

In summary

  • Before you start learning Russian, you need to know what level you’re starting from and define your goals to know where you are and where you want to go,
  • It’s essential to start by learning the Cyrillic alphabet. It is the basic founding block of learning Russian. Then come basic phrases and conjugation and grammar. Add on information little by little without skipping any steps to avoid becoming discouraged,
  • Many books are available to learn Russian but to avoid paying anything, it’s worth checking out the different websites that offer online courses, all of which are very well designed for people trying to learn Russian on their own,
  • Learning while having fun isn’t just for children! If you can have fun while studying a language, so much the better as it will make things easier for you to memorize,
  • There are many different ways for you to improve your Russian – websites, YouTube channels, newspapers, television, radio, movies, language partners on Skype …

Just don’t skip any steps! If want to find a tutor, searching for Russian lessons London produces the most results on your internet search but you can also find Russian language lessons on Superprof.

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