How to Learn the Cyrillic Alphabet for Russian in no time

How to learn the Cyrillic alphabet is one of the challenges I faced when I started to learn Russian. This post is my complete walk through on how I did it in very little time using mnemonics.

This post is a complete walk through on what memory devices I used to help me remember the alphabet quite easily.

I would say you could learn it by heart in a matter of 2 hours or less!

Although I give my own very specific ways of remembering, the technique of association works a lot better if you use concepts that is familiar to you. Below is just an inspiration. It is up to yourself to find whichever memory image works best for you.

Once you have come up with any fun associations, don't hesitate to share them in a comment below!

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Learn the Cyrillic Alphabet

1. The Same as English

А К М О Т
In this case I identified using several resources that the letters: AKMOT were, generally, exactly the same as in english. For me the mnemonic AKMOT is fine, but you may find that any of the combinations is better for you. Maybe you remember a phrase like: “Tom ka” better than my AKMOT, but it is up to you.

Congratulations – You just learned 15,15% of the Russian alphabet!

2. Looks like English, but has different sounds

э е в з н р с у ч х
This is how I personally remember this subset of the russian alphabet:

Э = (Е) very similar to the /e/ sound from English. I remember it because it looks like the currency sign for the euro € reversed. Note that Russian spells Europe with the next letter, and not this one so don't use this tip for spelling! 🙂

E = (Ye) Hear YE e, Hear YE e! This letter is often pronounced with a y sound before it like /je/ but can also be pronounced like the previous letter in some combinations of letters.

B = (V) braVo

3 = (Z) I imagine 3 Zebras sleeping (zzz's are coming out) The shape itself is also quite similar, and the famous Zorro uses 3 slashes to draw his trademarked Z.

H = (N) For this I have no clever trick, I just simply use the word for no to help me out, this is нет. 

P = (R) I remember this because PR = public relations, so the letters are easily recognised together.  If you grew up in the 80's you might use the cartoon Power Rangers in the same fashion 🙂

C = (S) Again, I must retort to my personal experience playing video games. I played a lot of COUNTER STRIKE when I was younger and so this association comes completely natural to me.

Y = (U) This one is a bit harder, but the way I did it was to use a popular internet abbreviation from instant messaging where the personal pronoun you is often written: U as in “What R U doing?”  Also I remember a funny, kinda meaningless phrase “Why you?” This one has tons of options, you can also use the name YURI to get the association.

ч = (CH) This is an interesting one. The sound CH is identical the english sound of the word Church, so I thought I'd use that association and imagine 4 church goblets (like those in Indiana Jones) when I have to think of the sound for ч. If you prefer, it looks a bit like a candle as well, just be sure to incorporate 4 into it, so you know the visual as well as the sound.

X = (KH) Not an easy one either. For this I always turn to the way the spanish say MeXico – MeHiko.

We now know over 42%! of the Alphabet 🙂

Step 3 – Letters that look ‘weird' but sound familiar

б г д ё ж п ф и й л ц ш щ ю я
Note: From here on some of the letters are quite hard to imagine and associate, but put your mind to it and you will come up with your own unique ways of remembering them!

Б = (B) One of the easier ones, because it looks like a B. This is very important though, because the Russian B does not mean B,  so make sure to remember this distinction.

Г = (G) To me this letter looks like how you would start to write a g in small letter, but I also use word association like RiG to further remember it, which could be an abbreviation of ‘R' is ‘G'.

д = (D) Well, this letter looks like an A. But its not an A. So I thought about a deceitful A, almost like advertisers try to use tricks to make you buy stuff you do not need. So the sneaky A+D = advertisement, and I emphasise this with imagining a big billboard with FAKE A + D  on it.

Ё = (YO) It's an E with 2 dots on it, so i use each dot to represent Y and O and i imagine an E acting like a rapper going YO!

Ж = (ZH) To me the letter looks a bit like a chinese character and I therefore associate the “chinese character” with the ZHou dynasty and other uses (to me ZH seems quite a chinese way of spelling anyway!)

П = (P) This was one of my first associations i made with the Russian Alphabet. To me the reverse, square U looked like a POT that was turned upside down and this makes me remember that П is P.

Ф = (F) I have to be honest, I have not come up with a clever or easy way to remember this funny letter as being an F, but the uniqueness of the letter itself makes it hard not to remember. If you have any ideas about how to associate this rounded thing with F – please add a comment below!

и = (I) visually, this looks like 2 “i” that have been joined. The word “NICE” also seems to help me as it almost sounds like “NIIS” That is to say “N = iis” if that makes any sense, it's hard to explain on paper.

й = (Y) For this I imagine that the added element on top is the top of a Y, the curved bit. This way you can actually imagine й almost spells out NY or NEW YORK.

л = (L) The first part of this letter actually, if mirrored, looks like an L and is the point I focus on to remember it. If you are into popular culture then it almost looks like JL(O) also known as Jennifer Lopez.

ц = (TS) I'll admit, this was a hard one for me. I ended up going off the flower pot theorem and interpret the little doodle in the right hand corner as  rooTS. This is a harder one though, again because it represents a sound of 2 letters, and not just 1-1.

ш = (SH) This is actually quite awesome. When I first learnt the alphabet the example given was “sounds like the SH in SHIP” and what better association than imagining the 3 lines as masts or chimneys on a ship, perhaps 3 out of the 4 chimneys of the titanic from the White Star Line.

щ = (SHCH) This is quite hard for us english speakers, because it is very unique and thus it is hard to distinguish. To remember it I think of the ship from before with something added (the CH). I might come back to this later when I get more practical experience in using this particular letter.

ю = (YU) To me this, if flipped 90 degrees, looks like a person's head and shoulders, so for me its easy to remember ‘you'.

я = (YA) This should be fairly easy to remember for you, as я on its own means “I” as in the personal pronoun. A funny association I thought of was a pirate saying YARRRRRRRRR which kinda ties the letter to the sound in a hilarious way.

We are now 88% There! The finish line is in sight for our little Learn the Cyrillic Alphabet-exercise.

Step 4 – Letters that look ‘weird' and have unfamiliar sounds

Ы, Ъ, Ь
Ы = (ui) This is probably the hardest example to give, but I use the personal pronoun you to help me. It is spelled: вы (VUI) and countless tries to practice the VUI pronounciation has made me remember that bl = ui.

Note: The following 2 letters are rare and are not representing sounds as such. Instead they modify preceding or antecedent letters. Since I'm still a rookie I have enlisted the help of others to explain exactly what happens with these letters.

ъ =  The “hard sign” has no sound value. It occurs only between a consonant and a vowel as in the word “въезд” (entry). It is used to show that the consonant should not be palatalized and that the consequent vowel is preceded by the the “y” sound as in yes.

(source: http://masterrussian.com/russian_alphabet.shtml)

ь = This letter is called the “soft sign” and has no sound value. It is used to modify the pronunciation of the preceding consonant by making it soft (palatalized). A consonant becomes soft when it is pronounced with the middle of the tongue raised towards the roof of the mouth.

(source: http://masterrussian.com/russian_alphabet.shtml)

Conclusion and Further revision

That's it! We successfully managed to go through one way to Learn the Cyrillic Alphabet and used word association to help us memorise. Now there is just one thing left to do and that's to practice and revise.

RussianLessons.net has a nice little trainer where one can select the “Alphabet” and practice:

http://www.russianlessons.net/trainer/trainer.php

The below is a course on memrise that not only teaches you the written alphabet, but also the cursive (handwriting alphabet)

http://www.memrise.com/course/85443/russian-alphabet-9/

Good luck and Great job getting to the bottom of this page!

Was it hard to learn the Cyrillic Alphabet for you? – be sure to leave a comment below!

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  • […] hard language for people like myself to get into. For one the alphabet is completely different (which I wrote a long blog post about here) along with completely new sounds. Secondly the grammar has a few more levels of intermediate to […]

  • […] by syllable. I also wrote about my tactic of memorising the entire alphabet in a blog post called: How to learn the Cyrillic alphabet for Russian in no time. I used mental images to attach the new unknown letters to shapes that were easier to manage in my […]

  • Hisuin says:

    Post saved for future references! You’ve done a really nice work to summarize it and give mnemotecnic rules.

  • Karl Alarcon says:

    Thanks a lot, nice and simple mnemonics. For the Ф = (F),It reminds me of an eye with a vertical pupil, like Fox’s eyes. Flying Frogs also have narrow pupils -but horizontal. Anyway, just remembering the F’s of Fox or the Flying Frog works fine for me.

    P.S. famously, crocodiles have vertical pupils as well, but that’s more difficult to associate, I think

  • Jonathan says:

    Thanks – this has been really helpful. One that I use for Я, which sounds like “ya” in “yard,” is to think of the back yard because this is a backwards R. It works better (for me) than it sounds when I describe it in writing.

  • Great post Kris! Thanks 😀 That Memrise course you mention is great!

  • melinda says:

    Thanks so much for this page! I am visiting my daughter in Russia in June and learning the cyrillic alphabet is not simple! At first I was dismissive, but then when I tested myself all of your ideas were coming up and I got 95% on the test! Your effort to put this together is very appreciated.

    • Kris Broholm says:

      Thank you Melinda! Really happy to hear my funky mnemonics were of good use to you 🙂

  • Leslie says:

    For the one that is F, it looks like the word of when you put the two of them, the Russian and the F, together

  • Russell says:

    Absolutely amazing! Unfortunately, Russian language is not as easy and many people get confused at the very beginning. For the little ones I could recommend board games with Russian alphabet printed on them or even coffee mugs.

  • Erik says:

    Ф = (F) should be easy enough. “Ф” is very much the same shape as the Greek letter phi. As PH = (F) so does Ф = (F)

  • Mark Coleman says:

    Thanks sir, but you are missing a letter. I was watching a You-tube video on how to say the Russian alphabet. I made up flash cards for them and there were 33 letters. However, when I used your site to see what sounds those Russian letters have, I discovered you did not have one of the 33 letters. It’s name is pronounced as the “AY” in the word “hay”. It kind of looks like a 3 but is not the one you identified as sounding like a “Z”. It looks more like a “0” cut in half from top to bottom. It only has the right half and there is an horizontal line added to the center which makes it look similar to a 3.

    Also, regarding the “F” character and how to remember it, I saw on the same video that “F” is the only letter where the little letter is bigger(taller) than the capital letter so it is “F’d” up!

    Thanks again for your help!

    Mark

    • Kris Broholm says:

      Well spotted Mark! I have no idea how I left the basic e sound: э out when I made the article!

      Best of luck with your Russian

  • Jacob says:

    the Omega symbol for “F” for me I remember Alpha and Omega, Alpha is spelled PH but sound F so for me “Alpha and Omega, Omega= F”

  • Jacob says:

    I think the other guys mnemonic of PHI works better though, I don’t know just when I see it I know its a greek letter so i always think of Omega, and I didn’t know that symbol was Phi until reading his comment.

  • Kevin says:

    I love your system of learning the Russian alphabet. Thank you so much. You asked for a suggestion to memorize ф. I think of it as an accounting zero. If you got a zero on a test, you would get an F. I hope that helps.

  • Lesllie says:

    F sound symbol
    … looks like a “fried egg with bacon on top of it”.
    Thank you for your great ideas on how to memorize the alphabet!

  • Omid says:

    Good job!
    Thanks!
    Tajik Persian is written in Cyrillic too.
    It was useful.

  • Cal says:

    ф = f(ish). It looks like a fish swimming away; the vertical line being its back tail fin.

  • Me says:

    Very useful guide. I’ve been told by my doctor to try new kinds of brain exercises to try and improve my memory and have always wanted to learn Russian and Chinese so I figured I’d give it a try. Thanks for putting it together.

  • Tiffany says:

    I remember the ф sounds like an F because of the word for coffee/cafe – кофе

  • helena says:

    to remember the “f” ф, i always use this trick i learnt when i was young..
    if you make the line through the middle longer , you can add petals to the drawing and make is a ‘F’lower ! the symbol represents the leaves of the flower haha. it’s just a silly trick i used, might be useful to someone .

  • Brian says:

    ф Looks like two letter f’s laying in bed being very, very friendly. Makes me think of the word Fu… oh never mind.

  • Peter Rafat says:

    bro u r awesome, thanks for helping me its so easssyyyyyy!!

  • wiktorjohnson says:

    very well composed. Learning a new language always helps one in their academic as well as personal growth. That too if the language is world’s one of the most spoken languages like Russian then learning Russian language is a must.

  • Trigger says:

    ц = (TS)

    This looks almost like a stick figure seated with their legs crossed.(T)ake a (S)eat

  • Curtis says:

    To all the Monty Python fans, The backwards N could be more like the ” Nights that Say…. NI!!!

  • Venom says:

    ф = Football
    it looks like football

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