Some people are born with an independent streak.
But when it comes to finding the right language learning skills, you might find yourself in need of a little help to know where to start.
There are a lot of options out there, that’s for sure! Where do you even begin?
If you’re trying to teach yourself Russian, read on to see how to get started in eight straightforward steps.
- Why Teach Yourself Russian?
- How to Teach Yourself Russian in 8 Simple Steps
- 1. Learn the Cyrillic alphabet
- 2. Learn a few basic nouns and adjectives
- 3. Learn present tense verb conjugations
- 4. Put together simple sentences
- 5. Learn to pluralize words
- 6. Build your verb vocabulary
- 7. Learn past and future verb conjugations
- 8. Study the case system
- Additional resources for guided learning
Why Teach Yourself Russian?
Russian is a very useful language. It is considered an “area of need” or “critical language” by the US government, so learning to speak it can open up job opportunities.
It can be hard to find formal Russian courses in some regions. This means that, for some people, if you want to learn Russian, learning by yourself is your only real option.
Even if you want to take a formal course down the road, learning basic Russian on your own can help prepare you for success in formal courses. This independent learning might simply make future courses easier for you, or you might be able to skip some coursework altogether.
Learning Russian opens up a lot of cultural options. You can visit Russia, read classic Russian literature, enjoy Russian movies, watch Russian TV shows or listen to Russian music.
How to Teach Yourself Russian in 8 Simple Steps
1. Learn the Cyrillic alphabet
The Russian language employs the Cyrillic alphabet. At first glance, it may look intimidating. However, it is actually quite easy to learn.
The Cyrillic alphabet shares several letters with the Latin alphabet that the English language uses. Additionally, many letters that are not the same between the alphabets still look similar. Because of this, the Cyrillic alphabet is relatively easy for English speakers to learn.
Why learn the Cyrillic alphabet:
- It will make pronunciation easier. Each letter has a specific sound. Knowing these letters makes pronunciation a lot easier than does looking at a pronunciation guide, or attempting to sound out phonetic spellings in the English alphabet.
- It will enable you to sound out words. Once you know Cyrillic, you can look at a word and sound it out. While this might seem minor, there are quite a few cognates (words that sound the same between languages) between Russian and English, so merely knowing the Cyrillic alphabet will allow you to identify the meanings of some words when you see them in writing.
- It will allow you to use a Russian-English dictionary. Without knowing the Cyrillic alphabet, you can’t effectively look up words in a Russian-English dictionary, so learning the alphabet is important for finding the meanings of words you see and hear.
How to learn the Cyrillic alphabet:
- Use online programs.
The University of Chicago offers a great lesson on the Cyrillic alphabet.
Russian Language Guide offers a YouTube video which promises to teach you the Cyrillic alphabet in 10 minutes.
- Write the letters down. It has been shown that the very act of writing something helps you enter it into your memory.
- Practice spelling words phonetically using the Russian alphabet. At this stage, it doesn’t even need to be Russian words that you are writing. Think about English-language words you know. Think about your name. How might you spell that in the Cyrillic alphabet to replicate the sounds? If you want to do this on your computer, you might want to use a free online Cyrillic keyboard.
2. Learn a few basic nouns and adjectives
The next step in the learning process is to learn some nouns and adjectives. This will help you describe and identify things.
Why learn nouns and adjectives:
- It will help you practice the Cyrillic alphabet. You finally know the letters, but seeing them in context will help cement them in your mind.
- It will start to build your vocabulary. Focus on these words at the beginning so you don’t have to worry about grammar. When you start learning verbs, you are also going to need to think about conjugation and sentence building. Not so with nouns and adjectives—at least not to start. And even once you know the rules of the language, vocabulary is still key, so you will continue to use even these basic words once you are fluent.
How to learn nouns and adjectives:
- Focus on basic nouns and adjectives that describe things you encounter regularly, like “cat,” “dog,” “fridge,” “desk” and so on. This will make your new vocabulary easier to remember, because you will be seeing these things and recalling the Russian words all the time.
- Pay careful attention to gender to ensure your adjectives and nouns agree. While it might be challenging at first, the more you get used to it, the easier it is.
- Focus on cognates. These are words that sound alike in both Russian and English. Due to their similarities, they are much easier to remember than other vocabulary words.
- Use online resources.
Master Russian offers helpful lessons on gender of nouns and adjectives.
There are also helpful YouTube videos like “Learn 20 Russian words at once” and others from RU-LAND Virtual Russian Language Club that will help teach you common Russian words.
To focus more on cognates, you might want to check out the Speak Russian list of Russian-English cognates.
3. Learn present tense verb conjugations
Russian only has one present tense, so conjugating is often simpler than in other languages. Even though present tense is not the simplest type of conjugation, it is the most widely used, so it is important to learn this before other conjugations.
Why learn present tense verb conjugations:
- Learning the present tense will allow you to put together basic sentences.
- You will be able to describe everyday activities. Every time you do something simple during your usual, daily routine, you can start to think about how to describe that in Russian.
How to learn present tense verb conjugations:
- Study conjugation rules. Going over them time and time again will help you remember them.
- Use online resources.
IE Languages offers a Russian present tense verb tutorial to teach you the basics.
Antonia Romaker — English and Russian Online offers a useful YouTube video to help you learn present tense.
- Practice conjugating verbs. Look up a verb and list its present tense conjugations, then check to see if you are correct.
4. Put together simple sentences
Finally, the step you’ve been waiting for.
Putting together simple sentences is one of the most exciting things an early-stage language learner can do. You can finally start to communicate in Russian. Plus, putting together simple sentences is very useful.
Why put together simple sentences:
- It will help you combine your previous learning sessions. Putting together sentences will help you cement your knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet, basic words and present tense conjugations.
- It will help prepare you to hold conversations.
How to put together simple sentences:
- Using the vocabulary you know, put together complete sentences. The sentences do not need to make sense or be true—just focus on grammar.
- To ensure the sentences mean approximately what you think they mean, try entering the Russian text into Google Translate to see its English translation. Tip: If you don’t want to install a Cyrillic keyboard just yet, you can cut and paste from an online keyboard like TypeIt.
5. Learn to pluralize words
In the Russian language, whenever a noun is plural, the adjective must be plural too. Practicing pluralizing both nouns and adjectives together is an important way to ensure your nouns and adjectives always agree.
Why learn to pluralize words:
- It is an essential building block to communicating clear ideas.
How to learn to pluralize words:
- Use online resources to study pluralization.
Russian for Everyone offers a guide to basic plural nouns.
The Fun Russian YouTube video on basic plural nouns gives an excellent, multimedia introduction to the topic.
RussianLessons.Net offers a terrifically thorough guide to everything you need to know about adjectives. Just focus on plurals for now.
- Practice pluralizing words and using them in sentences. Practice makes perfect. The more you practice, the easier it will be to pluralize in a conversation without having to think about it.
6. Build your verb vocabulary
Now that you are able to put together basic sentences, you will need more verbs in order to more accurately convey your ideas.
Why build your verb vocabulary:
- Building vocabulary is key to fluency. You will need accurate, specific verbs to get your ideas across.
- The more verbs you know, the more ideas you can communicate.
How to build your verb vocabulary:
- Use online resources.
Master Russian offers a list of the 500 most used Russian verbs.
FluentU uses videos made by Russian native speakers to teach you verbs (and other vocabulary words) in context, and offers tools to boost your retention of what you watch.
CoolJugator offers a list of common Russian verbs complete with conjugations and usage examples.
- Keep conjugating. Continuing to practice conjugating will not only make conjugating easier for you, it will also help you remember your new verb vocabulary.
7. Learn past and future verb conjugations
Good news! Basic past and future tense verb conjugations are surprisingly simple. For many learners, they are actually easier than the present tense. Be sure to send a thank you note to the creators of the Russian language for this one.
Why learn past and future verb conjugations:
- This will help you communicate more complex ideas. By being able to communicate a time frame, you can better discuss actions.
How to learn past and future verb conjugations:
- Use online resources.
IE Languages offers a guide to past tense verbs and future tense verbs.
Fun Russian offers a YouTube video to teach you past tense verbs.
Russian Plus has a helpful video on future tense verbs.
- Practice those conjugations. You might be sensing a theme here, but practicing conjugations really does help you learn them better. Select a verb. Try conjugating it in past, present and future. You will be a pro in no time.
8. Study the case system
If you’ve studied German or Latin, perhaps you are already familiar with case systems. If not, they might come as a rude awakening.
Basically, in the Russian case system, the ending of a word might change depending on the role it plays in a sentence.
The case system adds a lot of meaning to sentences without adding actual words, so it is highly efficient, but it can be confusing for new learners.
Why study the case system:
- It is essential to clear communication. The case system adds a lot of meaning to sentences, so it is a must-have item in your learning arsenal.
- It is arguably the hardest aspect of the Russian language, so once you have it down, it gets easier from here.
How to study the case system:
- Fortify your constitution. The case system is hard. Since the English language doesn’t have anything like the case system, it might take you some time. Don’t be too hard on yourself. You will get it. It just takes time.
- Use online resources.
Antonia Romaker — English and Russian Online offers a helpful YouTube video on the case system for nouns and when to use each case.
Alpha Dictionary offers a guide to the case system for nouns.
The Russian Lessons guide to adjectives that we discussed above in regards to learning plurals has your back with a helpful guide to the case system for adjectives.
- Practice composing complex sentences applying these rules.
These eight steps will get you through the basics. To be fluent in Russian, you will obviously have a lot more work to do. As you grow, you will need more vocabulary and practice. Here are some helpful additional resources.
- Master Russian’s Basic Expressions list provides many common phrases that you might use.
- Learn Russian’s vocabulary lists cover all kinds of topics, from the absolute basics up to more advanced, thematically-grouped words.
- Feqwix’s “1000+ Common Russian Words with Pronunciation” is a YouTube video that will provide you with a huge variety of more advanced words.
- Russian for Everyone offers vocabulary games to help you reinforce your learning.
Additional resources for guided learning
While the above can help you get started, it’s also worth looking into flexible courses that you can use to learn independently with guidance. Here are a few to consider:
- Russian Accelerator is designed to grow your vocab and get you speaking and understanding with enough confidence to be able to navigate a Russian-speaking country in a short period of time. It’s a video course that you can easily fit into your schedule, with the recommendation being that you use it for 20-30 minutes a day.
- Lingualift is another practical course for beginners that’s intended to take you up to an advanced level. It’s heavier on written explanations, which can be great for those who are learning independently and need some extra clarification and support.
The road to fluency is long and sometimes bumpy, but with these steps, you will be well on your way.