Fact-Check & Editorial Responsibility: Kris Broholm
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.
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?
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.
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.
All-Stop introduction to Russian
I Will Teach You a Language Published a very extensive post that gives a ton of information for any new Russian learners. Check that out first!
iTalki – Just do it!!
- The New Penguin Russian Course: A Complete Course for Beginners – A great book course that combines texts, grammar and vocabulary for beginners.
- Essential Russian Grammar – Compact and has what you need for reference.
- Russian Stories: A Dual-Language Book (English and Russian Edition) – When you want to start reading in Russian this billingual book will help you ease the progress.
- Assimil Russian for English Speakers – The well-known assimil system focuses on 100 dialogues and exercises, which all include grammar and cultural notes.
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.
- Memrise – My favourite flashcard service. Recommended courses: Learn Basic Russian, 10,000 words in frequency order, New Penguin Complete Russian Course (for use with the book previously mentioned)
- Yaszh – App for practising endings. Android only.
- HelloTalk – Language exchange app with tons of functions. Basic functionality is free while the premium function costs a minor amount.
- 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?
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?
Kris is the founder of Actual Fluency, and has spent the last 8 years becoming an expert in language learning software, methods, and techniques.
Originally from Denmark, he now lives in Portugal and speaks 5+ languages at varying levels. His other interests are Wine, Online Marketing, and Travelling.