How to Learn Russian: My Favourite Resources and Tips

In this post I share my favourite resources and tips on how to learn Russian.

If you’re a Russian learner you will definitely find this useful!

Before I begin dishing out of my experiences I think it’s important to underline that it took me a long time to get anywhere in Russian.

It’s a tough language!

Russian as a first self-taught language is extremely difficult and complicated, and it’s not something you learn in a few weeks or perhaps even months.

If you dedicate yourself to the task and work some every day, you can learn how to learn Russian efficiently and make a lot of progress in a year.

First things first

Learn the alphabet. I see so many learners wallow around in a romanised version of the cyrillic script and in my opinion it’s just a waste of time.

It’s like you’re learning something slightly easier as a place holder for when you can learn the real thing.

If you are serious about learning Russian you will need the real thing sooner or later.

Learning how to type cyrillic on a non-cyrillic keyboard can be tricky, but I’m living proof that you can definitely learn it just through muscle memory.

It takes a lot of trial and error, but eventually the positions of the keys will be firmly rooted in you unconsciousness.

Alternative you can buy stickers for your keyboard. I didn’t use them, but I’ve heard good things.

How to Learn Russian Vocabulary

Vocabulary in Russian can be quite intimidating, because the words look so alien. It also has very long words with many new sounds, that make it hard for new learners to memorise.

The first thing you need to learn in Russian is that there are fixed spelling rules that dictate precisely how words should be spelt.

Many grammar books or Russian courses start with these rules because if you remember them, spelling becomes a lot easier.

Mind you there will still be words where you just have to memorise the spelling, the spelling rules won’t solve all your problems.

I learned vocabulary through Memrise, because it is my favourite flashcard interface. I really put in a big effort and learned over 1000 words in rapid succession. After that I felt I could easily communicate and understand basic conversation.

Mind you, there was still a long way to just reading books or understanding television. Just because they speak incredibly fast.

Learning over 1000 words on Memrise was huge for me, but it also burned me out out flash-carding completely. So be careful and spread out your learning in a way where maintaining (or reviewing) doesn’t discourage you due to too high loads.

It’s all about consistency.

There are also some merit to making your own flashcards, but for me it was too much work and I ended up spending hours and hours making the flashcards and then did not have any energy to actually use them.

This is a personal experience, and I encourage everyone to try and make their own. It’s a great boost, as the process strengthens the memories.

If you’re interested in learning more about a way to do this, you can check out Gabriel Wyner’s book: Fluent Forever, where he talks a lot about making your own flashcards.

Grammar

The Russian grammar is notoriously difficult. It’s so difficult it actually turns off people wanting to learn the language.

It’s especially difficult if you have no prior experience with case based languages, as the concept of cases will be completely foreign to you.

I was fortunate to have extensive experience in German, that uses cases to modify endings in a similar fashion to that of Russian. Without German it would’ve been very hard to grasp the concepts.

However, even without this prior experience there are ways to make the cases more manageable. One thing I quickly understood was, that like German, Russian cases are often governed by words. Meaning some words automatically trigger a certain case.

This can make it easier to swallow, as you’re not really evaluating the cases on a sentence base – which is probably the best way, but you are instead just looking at a word like “много” and realising that any word immediately after this will be in the genitive case. Easy right?

Not really.

It’s just an extra thing to memorise. It’s like when you are learning gender-based languages it’s helpful to memorise whether a word is neuter/masculine/feminine. So instead of memorising “Auto” meaning car, you memorise “Das Auto” – the car. This way you won’t miss the gender later.

The Memrise course I used for Russian includes a lot of case hints. Try to memorise some of these case hints as they will come in handy later. Like German many of these useful words are prepositions.

There are a ton of endings in Russian, and as they are crucial in understanding what a sentence means they are important to learn. My recommendation on how to learn these endings is to make up a sentence for each ending and then practice them. Once you have an anchor sentence, it’s easy to refer back to it.

Once you have made the sentences you can use the handy mobile app called “Yazh” which is essentially an ending trainer. You can select which cases and examples you will be tested on and then just test away in easy to digest quiz format. It’s also free, which is a nice bonus.

Tutoring

I wanted to mention tutoring specifically here, because I find it absolutely essential. I hesitated a lot getting tutors because my introvert self was nervous about it. I’m not sure what exactly triggered it, but it’s the combination of a completely new language and absolutely murdering it in the presence of a native speaking stranger.

I was surprised at my first lesson how much I could understand and communicate. Mind you my tutor slowed down a LOT and asked very simple questions, but that huge win propelled me to start taking regular lessons and the results were very apparent.

You can read about my first tutoring lesson here in this blog post, where I go into details about the emotional rollercoaster tutoring is.

By the end of the challenge I was speaking with my tutor about all sorts of topics for 60 minutes at a time. It wasn’t flawless and I wasn’t as fluent as I could’ve been.

But think about it. A year ago I knew nothing more than yes and no in Russian. Now I can actually SPEAK THE LANGUAGE. Isn’t that awesome?

My suggestion is clear. Get tutoring as soon as possible. I recommend iTalki to find a tutor as they have a huge selection of high-quality tutors at affordable pricing.

Now that that is over, let’s look at some of the resources that I used to learn Russian.

How To Learn Russian: Resources

In no particular order.

Tutoring

iTalki – Just do it!!

Books

Audio Services and Courses

  • RussianPod101 – Hundreds of downloadable lessons in an affordable monthly membership.
  • Glossika Russian – Over 3000 sentences that teaches you Russian in context by using a sentence-based spaced repetition method.
  • Michel Thomas, Total Russian – GREAT beginner course that takes advantage of cognates and similarities to English and allows you to start speaking and understanding Russian very quickly.
  • Pimsleur Russian – Listen and repeat, you know how it works. Some people find it more valuable than others. Good listening and pronunciation practice.

Apps

YouTube Channels

  • Russian Grammar – Video representations of a grammar podcast done by a university professor. Very educational and he has a great voice for narration.
  • Easy Russian – Maria moved to the US from Russia and started her Easy Russian series. Tons of videos with her speaking (somewhat quick) Russian with subtitles about various topics.
  • Easy Languages: Russian – The host (Anya) is super cute and giggly as she goes around interviewing people on the streets of Sct. Petersburg. Another good way to get some practice in listening to native level Russian.

A few more tips and tricks

Russian is very regular and consistent and usually the exceptions can be counted on one hand.

It’s also very logical in it’s construction, meaning that you can identify words you don’t know based on other words you do know.

This is quite exciting. You can even take it one step further and deeply study the roots. For me it was a bit too boring, but in-depth knowledge of the roots – aka the building blocks of the language will greatly enhance your understanding of it.

You can also make one verb into other word forms based on common endings. If you know that необходимость is the noun of “need” you can easily establish how to make the adjective or adverb variants: необходимый – необходимо

Can you do the same for: независимость (independence)? Hover the mouse over here to see the answer: независимый / независимо

Now, this doesn’t work on every word. Obviously. But when it does it’s a helpful and fast way to double, triple or sometimes quadruple the amount of vocabulary you learn.

You’ll see it all the time in Russian. It also helps you read in Russian, as you can identify words you haven’t learned just based on their roots and endings. That’s pretty cool right?

Cognates

The concept of cognates is a language learner’s best friend.

Basically it’s a fancy word for words that are the same in more languages.

On first glance you might not assume Russian has a lot in common with English, but actually this is far from the truth.

There are thousands of cognates. If you can’t think of the Russian word, try to use an English one with a Russian accent.

Example: Method – метод (metod)

More specifically English words ending in -ion will often translate to Russian with a -ия

Example: Tradition – традиция (traditsiya)

As you learn more vocabulary you will instantly see it and they will be easier to remember.

Leveling up the language

There isn’t a best way to learn Russian. You simply just have to keep going at it.

My plan for moving beyond the beginner levels in the language is simple. I want to be able to watch TV, read articles and books in Russian.

So the obvious way is to simply start watching and reading.

I’ve been watching a few episodes of a comedy show called Pozledniy iz magikyan (last of the magikyans) and even without understanding a lot, it’s still been very enjoyable to watch.

What I need to do to level up my Russian with this show is to watch it and pause it every time there is something I don’t understand. Write it down and then look it up.

If I’m really ambitious I could add the results to a new Memrise deck.

For reading a similar plan works.

Actively reading and if there is something I don’t understand add it to a list, look it up and move on. After I’ve finished the story with this method read it again, to see the effects. Rinse and repeat as necessary.

Thank you so much for reading my how to learn Russian post. I hope you found some of the tips and resources useful and I wish you all the best in learning Russian on your own.

It’s a great language that opens a lot of doors and with the current political situation there probably is no better time getting into it.

I’d be happy to hear from you as well, what resources did you use learning Russian?

  • Thanks for these tips Chris. I have just started learning Russian (I am learning the alphabet on Memrise for now).

    I still hesitate between Assimil, the Penguin course and Michel Thomas.

    I have already had a few short conversations in Russian, but I really have a hard time pronouncing some words correctly. It’s just too different from any language I know. But, I guess this will become easier as my vocabulary expands.

    • neofight78

      I would recommend just listening a lot (even if you understand very little) and let your brain get used to the sounds. For pronunciation it’s a case of listen and imitate lots of times over. (See my links above for audio resources). Also it helps to get a little corrective feedback from a native speaker as well.

      Good luck and enjoy learning Russian!

      • Sorry, your links got stuck in the spam filter I’ll add them to the original post as soon as possible.

    • For pronunciation there are some extremely tricky sounds. The way I improved mine was to get instant feedback from an iTalki tutor, but to this day I’ve still got flaws here and there. A good question to ask your tutor is; How do you hear me saying it and what is the correct way? Sometimes we don’t even realise how we sound.

      Best of luck!

  • Great tips Chris! This is an incredibly thorough resource guide for Russian. So glad you posted this and I’m definitely saving it for later.

    • Thanks Shannon! Look forward to Russian. It’s a very fun and rewarding language to learn.

      • Thanks Chris – I appreciate the encouragement. Good luck on your next challenge.

  • Nick Adams

    Great post, Chris – do you have a structured plan for maintaining / levelling up your Russian or is it just a leisurely consumption of Russian media? I’m trying to maintain and level up my Thai language at the moment, and it’s something which I’m struggling to be consistent with!

    • Hi Nick, sorry for the delay. I don’t have a structured plan at the moment, but I attribute that mostly to the fact I’m settling in here in Budapest. Once I have my own long-term flat I will be able to take the time to focus on what the next logical steps will be. I do have 2 sources in mind though.

      1. Watch my favourite TV-show and pause when I don’t understand something
      2. Read a bilingual book of short stories actively (looking up words I don’t understand)

      I think those two should fill the gap nicely. Additionally one could add the missing words to a memrise deck and affirm them that way.

      • speekolango

        I watched a few episodes of Последний из Магикян and I love it, thanks for the tip !

        Did you ever find subtitles for it ?

        • Sadly not, but please do let me know if you come across!

  • Arnaud

    I can share my view on maintaining/levelling up in russian, as I’m currently in the process.
    First, I have to say it’s difficult: when I read “I’ll pause when I don’t understand something” I think you don’t know yet how russian is difficult, you’ve just seen the tip of the iceberg 🙂

    My little program by order of difficulty:
    – Luntik: nice cartoon for children, rather easy to follow.
    – Игрушки: stupid sitcom, but one big plus: the actors articulate !!! so it’s rather easy to follow the story.
    – Two major ressources that you’ll find on the Polydog forum: кухня and интерны. The texts of all the episodes are transcripted. A gold mine to improve your listening ability and gain vocab.
    – Another interesting source on YouTube: The channel Star Media (https://www.youtube.com/user/starmedia/playlists): you have about 100 videos subtitles in russian (movies and series): also a gold mine (but the quality of the programs is not always on top. A good source anyway, imho: you can produce transcripts from the subtitles with the program Subtitle Edit)
    – For advanced learners: the tv serie Физрук: full of teenage slang, colloquial language, criminal jargon. Very demanding.

    • Awesome resources, Arnaud- thanks for sharing! I just subscribed to Star Media 🙂

  • Congrats on your hard work with this language mission, Chris!! I’ve been loving/cursing Russian for 10 years now (mainly loving) and you’re totally right- it opens A LOT of doors : )

  • Thank you so much for sharing this post! I was searching for online learning resources and this article is very helpful.

    As you mentioned, HelloTalk is recommendable. I use it and I practice my target language every day. You can get a free membership from them by texting “M3L” to HelloTalk Team. They’ll send you a gift card.

    Anyway, good article! Thank you for sharing all! 🙂