A Step-by-step Guide to Improving Russian Listening Skills
So maybe you’ve started watching Russian movies, listening to Russian music and tuning into Russian radio.
But despite all you’ve learned, you’re still not understanding as much as you’d like.
If you want to accelerate your learning—and start enjoying an authentic Russian experience sooner—it’s time to get proactive about your listening skills.
- The Two Main Reasons Why It’s So Hard to Understand Russians
- The Essential 4-part Mindset for Better Listening
- Your Quick-Start Guide to Active Listening Resources
- How to Radically Improve Your Listening in Russian: The Ultimate Guide
- 1. Become a Gluttonous Passive Listener
- 2. Put Those Vocal Cords to Work
- 3. Too Fast? Use Technology to Slow ‘er Down
- 4. Embrace the “Let It Pass” Strategy
- 5. Train Your Ear with Scripts and Subtitles
- 6. Challenge Yourself to a Summary
- 7. Become a Ruthless Interrogator
- 8. Talk to People Face-to-face
- 9. Listen in 3D
- 10. Don’t Do All of This at the Same Time
- 11. Diversify!
- 12. Use a “Surround and Conquer” Plan of Attack
- And One More Thing...
The Two Main Reasons Why It’s So Hard to Understand Russians
It’s not your imagination—Russian isn’t an easy language to just “pick up.” Besides the fact that understanding a foreign language is always difficult, here are some special things to be aware of with Russian:
Russians don’t talk like your textbook.
In most textbooks, what you’re learning is a standard, relatively formal Russian. But in the real world, Russians use slang, nonstandard speech patterns and regional pronunciations that you won’t find in texts for language learners.
A word as small as что (what) may appear in conversation as something like чё (pronounced like “cho”) and throw you for a loop. On top of that, even what you think should be a fairly straightforward exchange—ordering a meal, buying a ticket, etc.—can quickly go beyond your comfort zone when Russians use variants of words and questions other than the ones we’ve learned in phrasebooks.
Russian is a far more “synthetic” language than English.
If your native language is English, this is an important point. The fancy linguistic term “synthetic” doesn’t mean that Russian is artificial, but simply that it’s a language with a lot of inflection.
A word you know in its dictionary form will appear in different forms—sometimes very different—because of the case or other grammatical factors.
In comparison, English has become more “analytical” over time, meaning it has less inflection and more emphasis on correct word order. (That’s another challenge, by the way. When you’re used to a certain word order from English, you can get lost in a sentence that totally mixes it up.)
Don’t let all this scare you away, though. You can get better at listening to authentic Russian, and it all starts with the right mindset for the journey.
The Essential 4-part Mindset for Better Listening
1. Muster Up Can-do Confidence and Focus
The first thing to do is to look at your learning as a project or mission, and then to get pumped up about it. It’ll take some work—but you can handle a little hard work, can’t you? Sure you can. The more positive you are about your ability to learn and improve, the better you’ll be able to focus and not get distracted by disappointment and self-doubt.
2. Be All Ears
We learn best when we’re focused, and we listen best when we’re relaxed and open. You need to be listening with your whole self and giving it all your attention. Sometimes—and this is going to sound a little silly, but it helps, especially when I’m nervous—I imagine I’m literally all ears, listening even with my skin.
3. Celebrate Victories, Big or Small, and Let the Rest Go
When you understand something, rejoice! When you don’t, let it slide… or try again, if you can. Just be patient with yourself, focus on your victories and stay positive.
4. Love the Language Like It’s the Motherland
I’m going to assume you’re already a highly motivated Russian learner, because you’re here… but even so, it’s important to keep that fire stoked. Continually remind yourself why you’re learning Russian in the first place and what you love most about the language and culture.
Then, once you’ve got the inner work done, you’re ready to put the pedal to the metal.
Your Quick-Start Guide to Active Listening Resources
Before we dive into our tips for improving Russian listening skills, it’s important to have some resources for actually listening to Russian! There are so many great ones out there, it’s hard to do them all justice here—I’ve highlighted some favorites below, but be sure to check out this list of 10 audio resources and this Russian listening resource guide as well.
This is a highly professional Russian-learning podcast for beginning to advanced levels. From experience, I can say the dialogues are fun and realistic and the podcast does a great job at going in-depth with the language and culture notes.
That said, RussianPod101 can be a bit pricey if you want to take full advantage. If podcasts are your thing, check out this list of other podcasts for Russian learners, many of them free.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
YouTube is full of fun Russian-language channels, especially if you move beyond the ones directed only at language learners. One example is Научпок (transliterated as “Nauchpok”), which answers common questions through animated drawings and a voiceover. On the more entertaining side, there’s the channel This is Хорошо (“This is Good”), in which a fast-talking Russian guy gives you the rundown on the most ridiculous videos on the internet.
Ayguo is a great place to get (free) audio recordings of classic Russian literature, along with texts you can use to read along. But if the classics aren’t what you’re looking for, you still have plenty of options. Check out these Russian audiobook suggestions here on FluentU!
Finally, if you’d rather just listen to a native speaker in conversation, you’ll have lots of opportunities on language partner websites such as italki. Russian learners aren’t exactly a dime a dozen (go you!), so if you speak English and set your primary learning language to Russian, you’ll have a lot of requests for exchange. Give it a try!
How to Radically Improve Your Listening in Russian: The Ultimate Guide
Here’s how to put all your Russian audio resources to work and get the most out of your listening practice.
1. Become a Gluttonous Passive Listener
Okay, I know I said earlier these were active ways to improve your listening… so what’s this about being passive? Well, by consuming lots of radio, music, films and TV, you’re proactively immersing yourself in a Russian-speaking environment.
Even while you’re passively listening—tuning in and out while exercising, cooking or relaxing—you’re getting exposure to new Russian vocabulary, grammar concepts and pronunciations. It’s a low-key but important complement to the more focused listening practice we’ll cover in the rest of this list.
2. Put Those Vocal Cords to Work
It sounds strange, but you can improve your listening skills by speaking—even if you’re just repeating what you hear. In particular, practicing your Russian pronunciation will help sharpen your ear to distinguish words from the string of babble it might sound like otherwise. You might feel silly talking to yourself, but it works. Bonus: if nothing else, it improves your accent.
3. Too Fast? Use Technology to Slow ‘er Down
If you have a copy of a Russian-language audio file, audio editing programs such as Audacity (free software) allow you to slow down the playback to a more manageable pace. That means you can enjoy all kinds of authentic Russian content at the best pace for your individual proficiency level. Isn’t technology great?
4. Embrace the “Let It Pass” Strategy
When you’re trying to improve your listening skills, you won’t understand everything… and you don’t have to. Don’t get hung up on what you don’t know, unless it seems to be a key point. Instead, as you listen, take what you understand of the context and try to make inferences on what you’ve missed. (To be on the safe side, you’ll also want to verify your comprehension—we’ll get to that in tip number seven.)
The benefit of “let it pass” is that it keeps you focused on what you do understand, which helps you stay confident and motivated. Otherwise, it’s easy to lose that essential four-part mindset we talked about above.
5. Train Your Ear with Scripts and Subtitles
Why not listen and read at the same time? It’s not cheating. When you watch a Russian movie with same-language subtitles or listen to an audiobook while reading along with the print version, you can compare the words as they’re written to the words as they’re actually spoken.
That’ll train you to recognize full sentences even when some of the words get under-stressed or “swallowed.”
6. Challenge Yourself to a Summary
To improve your focus while listening to a given audio or video resource, assign yourself a summary of the main points and/or details afterward.
You can do this by writing or speaking, although saying the summary aloud also helps you practice tip number two. Knowing that you’ll have to summarize will force you to listen attentively. On top of that, however, you’ll get practice mentally organizing and recalling what you hear. This is a very important skill if you need to take a proficiency test in Russian (especially for academic purposes).
7. Become a Ruthless Interrogator
If your listening resource comes with comprehension questions, great—do those! Otherwise, you’ll have to ask yourself questions.
During and after your listening, keep notes on words, phrases or ideas that you didn’t quite understand. Try to pinpoint what exactly blocked your understanding—maybe it was a specific word or phrase, a speed issue or a nonstandard pronunciation. Once you’ve identified the problem, take care of it by looking up meanings or repeating the difficult parts aloud.
8. Talk to People Face-to-face
The nice thing about talking to real people is that you can ask them to slow down, without resorting to software. On top of that, you can check your understanding in real time by asking questions, discussing specific meanings and observing your language partner’s facial expressions and gestures.
Look for local Meetup groups or other language exchanges that might be happening where you’re located. You might also check out your local schools and universities to connect with students interested in Russian conversation or a language exchange. As mentioned above, italki is a great place to find Russian language partners online (video calls are a good substitute when face-to-face conversations aren’t an option).
9. Listen in 3D
Most active listening resources encourage you to listen for content—that is, information. That’s important, but there’s a lot more going on when people talk than just the relaying of information.
What emotions are they conveying? What unspoken meanings lie between the words? Very often, picking up on these subtleties is the difference between understanding the words and understanding the meaning. That’s why you should practice listening not just for information, but also for the speaker’s emotions and implied messages.
10. Don’t Do All of This at the Same Time
In case you needed a reminder… focus on one technique at a time, even if you use several techniques in a single session. Doing too much at once can hurt your focus. The more you practice and develop your skills, the more comfortable you’ll eventually become at employing multiple techniques at once—don’t force yourself.
Don’t just stick to one type of input. Branch out! Have fun with podcasts for learners, podcasts for native speakers, films, TV shows and real conversations with language partners, online or offline. Enjoy information and entertainment, pre-recorded and live speech, learner-directed and authentic materials.
12. Use a “Surround and Conquer” Plan of Attack
Diversifying your resources is great, but you should also diversify your approach. Even if listening is the one language skill you want to improve the most, you should come at it from all sides, building all four traditional language skills simultaneously. That means listening, speaking, reading and writing. You may find that all your skills overlap and boost one another, rather like in tips number two and number five.
Now… this may seem like a lot of information, but don’t let it intimidate you! Remember that can-do confidence?
Start with what interests you most, build up momentum and pretty soon you’ll be sailing down that imaginary highway of Russian language, wondering what all that talk of bad road conditions was about.
And One More Thing...
If you love learning Russian and want to immerse yourself with authentic materials from Russia, then I should also tell you more about FluentU.
FluentU naturally and gradually eases you into learning the Russian language and culture. You'll learn real Russian as it's spoken by real Russian people!
FluentU has a very broad range of contemporary videos. Just a quick look will give you an idea of the variety of Russian-language content available on FluentU:
FluentU makes these native Russian videos approachable through interactive transcripts. Tap on any word to look it up instantly.
Access a complete interactive transcript of every video under the Dialogue tab. Easily review words and phrases with audio under Vocab.
All definitions have multiple examples, and they're written for Russian learners like you. Tap to add words you'd like to review to a vocab list.
And FluentU has a learn mode which turns every video into a language learning lesson. You can always swipe left or right to see more examples.
The best part? FluentU keeps track of your vocabulary, and gives you extra practice with difficult words. It'll even remind you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You'll have a 100% personalized experience.
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