You just decided to learn Russian.
Savvy go-getter that you are, you’ve found yourself in need of a sure-fire way to get where you want to go.
Read on to learn ways around common Russian-learning pitfalls, find comparisons between traditional and modern ways of learning and get more tips to get you started in a grand fashion.
- The Many Reasons for Learning Russian
- Biggest Challenges to Learning Russian
- Traditional Methods for Learning Russian
- Independent Methods for Learning Russian
- Russian Immersion Techniques
- How to Find Someone Who Speaks Russian
The Many Reasons for Learning Russian
Studying any language is a valuable use of your time. You learn a new way of communication, you learn a new culture, you learn about different people and you learn more about yourself.
However, there are several excellent reasons for learning Russian specifically.
Are you interested in foreign policy or national security? Russia is playing a larger role in the world, and if you want to understand why Russia is acting the way it is in Crimea, Syria or Ukraine, learning Russian can help.
Are you interested in science and technology, maybe in becoming an astronaut (космонавт)? Did you know that a Russian devised the periodic table? That a Russian was the first human in space? That Russian is the second most popular language for scientific journals? That the only way to get into space is with Russia? Learn Russian, and you can travel to the International Space Station!
Do you want to work for your government? Nearly any agency, and not only those which deal with foreign policy, will need someone who knows Russian. Commerce? Agriculture? Health? Environment? Learn Russian, and you can serve your country!
Maybe you want to read Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Bulgakov, Akhmatova or Esenin in the original? Poetry is particularly difficult to translate, so learn Russian and understand Pushkin! Maybe take in an opera as well?
Or maybe you just want to travel to Russia and see some of the most famous ballets and art in the world? If you travel to many places in the world, it’s pretty easy to find someone who speaks at least rudimentary English, but this isn’t always the case in Russia. If you want to travel around Russia, you really need to learn Russian!
Biggest Challenges to Learning Russian
People always say how hard it is to learn Russian. But how hard is it really?
Language difficulty is relative to what other languages you already know. If you speak Spanish, then French might be “easy.” If you speak Chinese, then French will be “hard” but Japanese will be “easy.”
Likewise, Russian can be easier or harder depending on what language you speak as a native and what other languages you know or have studied.
But there are certain features about Russian that can make it more challenging, especially for native speakers of English:
- Cyrillic alphabet: Russian has a different alphabet. If you’re familiar with Greek, it won’t be too hard to recognize, but you’ll also have to get used to some new sounds represented by those letters. Don’t worry though. Once you know the alphabet and some basic pronunciation rules, you can pronounce almost any word. That’s not the case with English: have you ever wondered what “ghoti” spells? See, Russian won’t be so bad after all!
- Inflection: Russian has grammatical endings. This means that nouns will have different letter combinations at the end of them, depending on the role that they play in the sentence, and the adjectives that modify them will also change. Likewise, verbs will change form depending on person, number and gender.
- Verbal aspect: English has a lot of verbal tenses; Russian has three—present, past and future, but Russian also has aspect. For now, think of it as the difference between how you have been, are or will be spending your time as opposed to what you accomplished or will accomplish.
- Verbs of motion: For English, you can almost always get away with saying some form of “to go.” In Russian, it will depend on how you’re going: on foot, by ground vehicle, by air, not to mention swimming, running and many other means. And if you want to “go in” then you need to add a prefix to each of these verbs!
Traditional Methods for Learning Russian
If you really want to learn Russian, little could be better than finding a traditional brick-and-mortar class. You’ll have an instructor to teach you, classmates to work and study with, plus daily homework that will really make you put in the time and effort to master Russian.
But what if you don’t have the time or the money for a traditional college course? After all, you might be working all day, exactly when they meet, and they can get expensive.
Don’t worry! There are other options.
Your nearest university might not have the most convenient schedule, but there might be an evening class through a continuing studies program, and community colleges also often have classes at night just for those returning learners who have to balance work, school and life.
There’s still another local option: many larger cities have a Russian Cultural Center that offers classes, whether for small groups or even one-on-one sessions. In these you can often structure the curriculum as you wish.
Likewise, there might be a local Berlitz Center, which can provide individual instruction at your convenience.
Independent Methods for Learning Russian
To get started, you could buy a traditional textbook and work through it on your own.“Golosa” is an excellent choice, and all of the listening and video exercises are available free of charge online.
There are a number of commercial products and online programs that can help you to learn Russian. They’re designed for the independent, self-paced learner, and concentrate on building vocabulary into sentences through repetition, drills, writing and speaking.
FluentU features a great, self-paced online course that you can use for independent study. (FluentU actually goes a few steps beyond your traditional online learning options, but we’ll go into that in the next section.)
Want to learn like the natives do? Rosetta Stone teaches you as naturally as an immersive software program can, having you pair words with images, sights with sounds. This approach is not necessarily for everybody, and the program is pricey, but if you’re in need of solid structure and guidance it may well be worth the investment. The full course can lead you through every step from complete newbie lessons to fluent conversations on advanced topics.
Ready to speak fluent Russian as fast as possible? Pimsleur is hands-down the way you should go. The program is a full-on audio experience—you can either go for the course that comes a textbook to accompany your audio discs, or you can go with exclusively audio. The audio-only courses are ideal for commuters and anyone who loves spending time tooling around in their car. Either way, the goal of Pimsleur is always to have you listen, absorb, repeat and respond, getting you to fluency one piece at a time.
Feel like you need more in the way of accessible, detailed explanations? Lingualift is an online, subscription-based course that walks you through new information with clean and straightforward text and audio, then allows you to test your knowledge before moving on to the next lesson. It’s beginner-friendly, but will take you all the way up to the advanced level.
Need to learn the Cyrillic alphabet? Try Russian Alphabet. It will help you with basic letters and sounds.
Do you want to learn the most frequent Russian words and phrases? Learn Russian – Free WordPower will teach you the top 100!
If you’re concerned about becoming overwhelmed, try learning just the Russian Word of the Day.
If you want to increase your reading comprehension skills, take a look at this excellent resource available through “Russian Life” magazine! Each lesson is designed around a specific important cultural or historical fact, something that all Russians know, and that you should therefore understand as well. Content-based instruction is an effective way of learning any language, as you learn language and culturally-relevant content at the same time.
Russian Immersion Techniques
What about Russian camp? You could spend a weekend or a full week of your hard-earned vacation at Lesnoe Ozero, the Russian camp at the Concordia Language Villages, where you’ll be surrounded by Russian life and language 24 hours a day!
Something closer to home? Do you like Russian songs? Movies? “Hаша Russia,” one of the most popular Russian TV comedies? You’re not going to understand every word, but you’ll start to get a feel for how the language sounds and flows and, as time passes, you’ll begin to recognize a few words, even at the beginner level!
One way to get there is using a virtual immersion program. They often have tools to prepare you for watching native-level content more easily by first teaching you with smaller snippets of media. The language learning program FluentU, for example, has interactive captioning on all of its videos, and provides adaptive flashcards for vocabulary review.
What about something more traditional? You know all those vocabulary words you’ve been trying to learn? Write them on cards and tape them to the appropriate items in you house! Hang холодильник on your refrigerator, place книга on every single book that you own and tape окно over your window. Not only will it help you to remember certain words, but, if you live with someone, you might inspire him or her to start learning Russian as well, and then you’ll have someone to speak, study and learn with!
How to Find Someone Who Speaks Russian
If you’re not in a class, finding someone to talk to and practice your Russian can be a real challenge! Of course, talking with a more advanced learner or a native speaker is really the only way that your Russian can reach the highest levels, so the effort to find a conversation partner is well worth the effort.
Remember the Russian Cultural Center? Hang out at their events, and find someone to talk to. Does your city have a Jewish Cultural Center? Many Jewish immigrants hail from the Soviet Union, and you might find someone there to talk with.
Is there an organization such as PAIR in your hometown, where you can volunteer to help Russian immigrants settle into your city? They’ll want to learn the local language, of course, but they’ll also be happy to have someone to speak their native Russian with as they get settled into their new lives. Maybe there’s an opportunity to teach English to Russian immigrants somewhere nearby? Maybe you could even trade language lessons with them: you help them with your native language while they help you with Russian.
If you can’t find someone in your town to speak Russian with you, there are a number of online options where you can find conversation partners: italki, MyLanguageExchange and Conversation Exchange to name but three.
All give you the opportunity to engage with native speakers, who can talk about what you want to talk about at a level you’re comfortable with. If you’re interested in finding a true friend who can help you, try InterPals Penpals, where you just might be able to make a Russian friend before heading off to Russia! italki is unique in that it also allows you to hire a private Russian tutor at a very affordable rate, which can be a major help when progressing with Russian.
And, of course, you could always marry a Russian and have 24-hour contact with the Russian language, especially when your in-laws come to town from Russia.
Ultimately, learning any language is about grabbing on to the opportunities around you and making them work. So, find a Russian book, subscribe to a Russian TV channel (or at least watch “The Americans”!), buy some Russian music, find someone in town who knows Russian and go ahead and take the time to sign up for that class!
Work with all these tools and soon you can be speaking and reading, understanding and using Russian… and then you can head off to Russia!
Jonathan Ludwig has 25 years of foreign language teaching experience. He has successfully directed language programs, taught and mentored current and future teachers, and is always looking for new and exciting ways to engage and educate his students.