Time for a pop quiz!
What’s based on Greek, originated with a couple of monks and is used by more than 250 million people worldwide?
No, it’s not vodka. (But good guess!)
It’s the Cyrillic alphabet!
For the most part, the letters of the Cyrillic alphabet look different from English letters and are used by more than 50 languages worldwide, Russian included.
This means that the first step in learning Russian is—you guessed it—learning Cyrillic.
And because there are some major differences in the letters, learning Cyrillic isn’t always a walk in the park.
In fact, many would-be Russian students have dropped Russian on the spot after learning that the word PECTOPAH is pronounced “restoran.” (Yes, it means restaurant. See, Russian isn’t so hard!)
While learning Cyrillic is, unfortunately, just the first of many challenges in studying Russian, there are some ways to make the process less painful. The tips and resources below will have you mastering Cyrillic in no time!
How to Learn Cyrillic in 4 Easy Steps
1. Divide and Conquer the Letters
You’ve probably already noticed there are more letters in the Cyrillic alphabet than in the English alphabet—seven more, to be precise (for a total of 33).
You’ve probably also noticed that a lot of the letters look familiar: A, B, H, P, O, Y—just to list a few—while some of the letters look downright odd: Щ, Э, Й, anyone?
Complicating matters, some of the familiar letters sound the same in English and Russian, while others are pronounced quite differently (see PECTOPAH above). So what’s a Russian language learner to do?
Answer—divide and conquer.
- Start with friendly letters. These are the letters that look and sound the same in Russian and English: A, E, K, M, O and T. These letters are your friends—you can count on them to sound (basically) the same when sounding out Russian words.
- Move to friendly sounds next. These are the letters that have sounds that are familiar to English speakers, but they’re represented by unfamiliar characters: Б, Г, Д, Ш, З, Ф, П, Л, Э, Ч, И and Ю. Once you learn to associate the unfamiliar Cyrillic character with its familiar English sound (tips on this below!), these letters will be your friends too.
- Tackle brand-new letters. These letters both look and sound odd to English speakers: Ё, Ж, Й, Щ, Ц, Я, Ь, Ъ and Ы. There’s no way around it—you’ve just got to memorize the letter and corresponding sound.
- Leave the tricksters for last. You may think you know how B, H, P, C, Y and X are pronounced, but think again. Study the breakdown of every Cyrillic letter and its pronunciation, which will help keep you from getting fooled by these Russian tricksters.
Looking for more ways to divide and conquer? The University of Chicago has an even more detailed breakdown of the Cyrillic alphabet.
Now that you’ve gotten a handle on the different types of Cyrillic letters, how do you go about committing each letter and its pronunciation to memory?
2. Be a Kid (Again)
- Pick up a children’s alphabet book. Just like the book “A is for Apple” helped us learn the letter “a” and its sound, a Russian alphabet book, or Азбука, will help you associate each letter with its corresponding sound. Plus, it’s a great way to pick up some additional vocabulary. There are Soviet-era books if you’re feeling kitschy or more modern variations available for those who are curious about what Russian youngsters are seeing in classrooms today.
- Find a children’s alphabet poster (or make your own). Pick up an alphabet poster on a site like Etsy or Amazon, or find a site that lets you print out your own alphabet chart. Hang it somewhere you look daily and you’ll be reminded of the Cyrillic letters on a regular basis.
- Learn a Russian alphabet song. Most of us still rely on the alphabet song when putting things in alphabetical order, right? (Oh, that’s just me…) There isn’t an “official” alphabet song in Russian, but there are some alternatives that are catchy and educational, too. Check out this video to see if it helps you remember the alphabet. It’ll come in handy when you need to alphabetize in Russian too.
- Learn from the professionals. By professionals, I of course mean Stepashka, Khryusha and the other characters on “Спокойной Ночи, Малыши” (“Goodnight, Little Ones”), Russia’s answer to “Sesame Street.” Stepashka and Khryusha have taught generations of Russians their алфавит (ABCs) and you can find their videos on YouTube. Some of them are lengthy, but the repetition will help with retention and you’ll pick up lots of good vocabulary.
3. Don’t Sweat the Small (or Cursive) Stuff
It’s probably safe to say that you weren’t even introduced to the idea of cursive writing until your understanding of the English alphabet was well-established. Otherwise, you might’ve been really confused. The same idea applies to learning Cyrillic:
- Focus first on printed letters. Just like in English, many Russian letters look quite different in cursive than in print. Don’t complicate learning the Cyrillic alphabet by trying to learn print and cursive letters at the same time.
- Mastered print? Now you’re ready for cursive. To be truly proficient in Russian, you’ll eventually need to learn the cursive variants of Cyrillic. Bonus: it’s easier to write! Start with a chart of both the printed and cursive versions of the Cyrillic alphabet to see the differences. Then use the practice strategies in the following section to master the new cursive letters.
4. Practice, Practice, Practice
There’s no way around it—learning the Cyrillic alphabet requires practice. Finding different and fun ways to practice is the key to mastery.
In the old days, we had to write the Russian alphabet on flashcards by hand. Luckily, nowadays there are tons of apps that let you practice the Cyrillic alphabet on your smartphone (no index cards needed!). Here are a few of the most popular Cyrillic alphabet apps out there:
- Russian Alphabet — This free app shows you each Cyrillic letter, presents the proper pronunciation and provides a common Russian word that begins with the letter. An in-app purchase lets you quiz yourself on what you’ve learned.
- Learn Russian Alphabet — This is a free app for learning the basics of the Cyrillic alphabet. It shows you the Cyrillic alphabet, gives the phonetic representation of each letter and lets you tap on the letters to hear how they’re pronounced.
- Russian Alphabet + Audio — My husband used this app to pick up Cyrillic quickly before our first trip to Russia. It uses a system similar to flash cards, which helped him master the letters and their proper pronunciation quickly. The only drawback is that it’s not free—it costs $1.99.
The internet is loaded with resources for Russian-language learners. From overviews of the Cyrillic alphabet to comprehensive Russian language courses, you can find it online. The following resources are well-suited to practicing the Cyrillic alphabet:
- FluentU — FluentU takes real-world videos and turns them into personalized language lessons. The videos are captioned and annotated, allowing you to match the sounds of the words you’re hearing with the written word on the screen.
- Master Russian — Master Russian has bite-sized lessons that walk you through the basics of the Russian alphabet and its pronunciation. You can move at your own pace and repeat the lessons as many times as needed.
- Learn Russian Step by Step — Perfect for anyone with limited time, this website specializes in five-minute lessons that walk you through discrete aspects of the Russian language. Check out the alphabet lessons under the “Lessons” tab for detailed descriptions of Russian letters.
Get creative around the house
You retain more when you write things by hand and see them consistently. Combine both methods by taking the following suggestions:
- Write a label for everything. Practice writing everything you can see in Cyrillic! Label items in your house with their Russian equivalent: chair, table, door, sink, closet, etc.
- Use visual aids. Posters or other visual aids help keep you immersed in Cyrillic material. Create some of your own and post them around your house to sneak in some passive learning.
- Practice and learn “grapefruit” words. Grapefruit (ГРEЙПФРУТ) is the same word in Russian and English. For some reason, one of my Russian teachers turned this into a code word for all Russian-English cognates. We’d ask her how to say “airport” in Russian and she’d say, “Grapefruit!” meaning not that grapefruit was how to say “airport,” but that airport (Аэропорт) was a cognate.
Citrus fruits aside, cognates are a great way to master the sounds of the Cyrillic alphabet, especially those tricky letters that look the same but sound different. Check out this list of common Russian cognates and write out some of the pairs yourself for practice.
With these tips and tricks, you’ll pick up the Cyrillic alphabet in no time!
Although it may not be the hardest part of learning Russian, keep practicing and you’ll be well on your way to fluency!
And One More Thing…
Want to ensure a smooth start to your Russian learning well beyond the alphabet? Try FluentU.
FluentU takes all kinds of real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into language learning experiences, as you can see here:
Didn’t catch something? Go back and listen again. Missed a word? FluentU makes native Russian videos approachable through interactive captions. Tap or click on any word to see a definition, in-context usage examples, audio pronunciation, helpful images and more.
Access a complete interactive transcript of every video under the Dialogue tab. Easily review words and phrases with audio under Vocab.
Don’t stop there, though. Use FluentU’s quizzes to actively practice all the vocabulary in any video. Swipe left or right to see more examples of the word you’re on.
And FluentU always keeps track of vocabulary that you’re learning. It uses that vocab to give you a 100% personalized experience by recommending videos and examples.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Russian with real-world videos.