In Soviet Russia, language speaks you.
At least, that’s how it feels sometimes.
Russian can really throw you for a loop if you’re unprepared.
Many a wide-eyed language learner has reached for the prize of Russian fluency.
Maybe they had a quick victory in a Romance language like French or Spanish and think that the most popular language in the Slavic family will be just as easy to tame as its European neighbors.
Well, unfortunately, that’s not always the case.
Often against fair warning, beginners march full force into Russian, certain that victory will be theirs.
If you’re one of these brave souls, you’ll find that there are quick gains at the very beginning—you start with the simplest stuff, learning stock phrases like “как дела?” (how are you?) or “Как Вас зовут?” (what is your name?). But early wins can be overshadowed as you begin to encounter some more challenging elements of the Russian language.
You might become discouraged by the cold and unrelenting case system. Your motivation could get bogged down in the mud of grammatical exceptions. Your will may fold before the endless barrage that is Russian pronunciation. Your speedy advance might suddenly be stalled by the late-beginner or early-intermediate stage.
But that’s only for the unprepared. That’s not going to be you!
In this article, I’ll share six of my favorite learning Russian tips—all coming from my own personal experience with the language—so that you can not only get through the initial steps of studying the language but thrive on your way to Russian fluency.
The truth is that Russian can be difficult, but it’s not all that bad. You don’t have to be one of the learners who get discouraged and quit. You can have fun getting through these challenges and then some.
When you study Russian, as with any language, a lack of preparation—and a lack of a positive attitude—could come back to bite you. The good news is that the right preparation will help you navigate the pitfalls and find success in this mysterious but beautiful language.
6 Boss Learning Russian Tips I Wish I Knew When I First Started
1. Go for the easy wins
Russian often gets a bad rap for having little to no to connection with the English language. Even though Russian isn’t as close to English as some of the more popular foreign languages like Spanish or French, there are still more than enough similar words between the two languages to boost your Russian learning.
In the fields of technology and business, many modern English words have found their way into the Russian language. For example:
менеджер — manager
директор — director
маркетинг — marketing
компания — company
Интернет — internet
компьютер — computer
лаптоп — laptop
You’ll also see a similar phenomenon with food-related words, though not all are direct loan words from English.
меню — menu
ресторан — restaurant
кафе — cafe
хот-дог — hotdog
бургер — burger
There are many more similar words between Russian and English covering a range of topics—especially topics related to modern life. Some of these words will be more useful than others, but why not learn them all? Having a few extra words in your Russian vocabulary never hurts.
The benefit of learning Russian and English cognates far outweighs the cost. They’ll be the easiest words in the Russian language for you to learn!
2. Break down the grammatical cases
Have you ever heard the saying “eat the elephant one bite at a time?” Of course, I think we all have. It’s a smart idea to break down massive, arduous tasks into digestible bites.
When I started learning, mastering the Russian case system felt like a monumental task on par with eating an elephant. With each Russian case, there’s a separate set of rules dictating the spelling and pronunciation of nouns and any adjectives that modify them. It can all be pretty dizzying.
Don’t freak out. Mastering the Russian cases is much easier than eating the world’s largest land mammal, but you’ll still want to take the same gradual approach.
Focus on learning each case one by one. Don’t move on to the next case until you’re reasonably comfortable with the previous one. I recommend that you start with the nominative because it’s the most basic “dictionary” case from which you’ll learn all others.
The word “dog” in its nominative form is собака, as in:
Собака счастлива. (The dog is happy.)
After that, you might want to focus on the accusative since it’s probably the second-most commonly used case.
The “dog” in its accusative form is собаку, as in:
Я глажу собаку. (I pet the dog.)
Whichever case you choose to practice, do your best to practice writing out basic sentences (as shown in the examples above) or talk with a native speaker and say them out loud, in context, for real-time feedback.
Learning one case at a time will cut out much of the chaos that ensues when a beginner tries to juggle all six cases at once. Take your time. You won’t regret having a solid foundation in the Russian case system. It will support you through the rest of your learning journey.
3. Crack the Russian pronunciation system
After you learn Russian cognates and similar words and start to get a handle on grammatical cases, there’s still one aspect of the language you’ll have to wrestle with: Pronunciation. Russian pronunciation can seem like a big, vicious bear to wrestle in its own right.
Russian words sometimes stack two, three or even more consonants together. Click the below example words to hear how they’re pronounced:
Встретить (to meet or encounter)
Hard and soft consonants can be difficult to pick out. There’s also a small collection of letter sounds in Russian that simply don’t appear in English, most notably the Russian letter Ы.
That being said, Russian pronunciation isn’t as daunting as it seems. Take time to break down the individual sounds of the language, concentrating on the ones that are the most difficult. Practice pronouncing these sounds a little each day, doing your best to imitate native speakers.
One of my favorite podcasts for beginners is the Slow Russian Podcast, where the host, Daria, discusses a topic in Russian at a reduced pace. You can also check out the Fluent Forever Russian pronunciation series on YouTube.
Once you have a handle on the individual sounds start to combine them in longer words. Again, focus on the words that are the most difficult for you.
It might not seem like it at first, but with consistent and concentrated practice you’ll be able to conquer Russian pronunciation. Even if you only practice 10 or 15 minutes a day, you’re likely to see marked improvement. Try to start getting accustomed to accurate and authentic Russian pronunciation right from the get-go—building your Russian speaking skills on a bad accent is hard to recover from later on.
4. Practice with native speakers
Practicing with native speakers in the secret sauce of language learning. Nothing beats the instant and accurate feedback that comes when you talk with a native.
If you don’t live in a Russian-speaking country, there are still several excellent options available for finding and connecting with Russian natives.
The first is to find a local language club or exchange in your area. Universities, colleges and libraries often host these sorts of things, so begin your search there. Meetup.com is another way to search for nearby language exchanges or to create one of your own. If you live near a mid-sized or larger city, you may be surprised to discover that there’s a sizeable Russian-speaking community there.
If you’re unable to find natives in your area, then it’s time to turn to technology, such as an online language exchange via Skype, an exchange site or a dedicated app. These online services are often free, and they pair up language learners based on their native language and the language they’re learning—among other details such as time zone, interests and preferences. They make it easy to text or video chat with a Russian speaker.
Just be prepared to help them practice their English conversation skills as well—that’s why it’s called an exchange!
5. Remember that perfect Russian is the enemy of good Russian
When you start practicing with native speakers, fellow students or even on your own, you’ll start making mistakes.
You’ll probably drop the ball the first few times you try to take off running with the Russian language. You’ll forget a conjugation, use the wrong ending or simply use the wrong word.
Rather than spending all your energy on trying to say a perfect sentence, simply try to say a sentence that your speaking partner can understand. If you’re wrong, they’ll correct you. If it’s a particularly funny mistake, then you can laugh about it and move on.
The important thing is that the conversation stays in Russian—rather than switching back and forth between Russian and English—and keeps moving forward. This helps keep your brain in “Russian mode” so you don’t get into the harmful habit of always thinking in English, or falling back into English when you’re stuck.
You’ll get the hang of all the nuances later. Simply speak to communicate at the beginning, not to be perfectly correct. Perfection can be yours someday—for now, do what you can with the knowledge you have.
6. Keep a Russian-language journal
A journal can be a powerful tool for mastering a foreign language.
It will allow you to use the grammar and vocabulary you learn every day, without the real-time pressure of a spoken conversation. You’ll have time to organize your thoughts in Russian.
You’ll also be using a first-person, narrative style of writing—that’s the traditional way to write in a diary or journal, right? You’ll be talking about me, myself and I, which translates really nicely to how you’ll be talking in most casual conversations: sharing opinions, expressing feelings, describing first-hand experiences.
This is the equivalent of weight training in the Russian language.
Writing in Russian will also reveal your weaknesses and blind spots. While journaling, you’ll inevitably think of a word or phrase you can’t remember or don’t know at all. Do your best to find the right words to express yourself in a dictionary or online whenever you bump into gaps in your Russian knowledge. A word you learn this way will stick with you for a long, long time. And you can always look back on your journal entries to review what you’ve learned (and admire how much you’ve improved over the days, weeks and months).
You can keep a physical journal or you could post entries online. Lang-8 is a great site where you can upload a post in Russian and have it corrected by native speakers. When you receive feedback, be prepared to use those corrections in your next entry!
Learning Russian isn’t always an easy journey, but it’s most definitely worth it.
Do your best to enjoy every step.
Keep your head up and use these learning Russian tips to help you navigate the language successfully.
Before you know it, you’ll be on a trip to Russia with enough linguistic confidence to navigate the streets of Moscow like a local.
Jesse Reyes is the founder editor of Livefluent.com, a blog with tips and resources for native English speakers learning foreign languages.
And One More Thing…
If you want to really rock your Russian learning from the get-go, you’ll definitely want to check out 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.