How to Speak Russian: A Step by Step Guide
My Russian language learning journey started out with my father asking if the Russian alphabet was anything like the Greek one. Despite the fact that he worked on a computer and regularly used the Internet, he couldn’t figure it out and and asked me to find out. I did a cursory search of Wikipedia and found a comparison of the two.
It turned out that my father was right and the Cyrillic alphabet was actually based on the Greek with some letters added in. His interest in the topic passed, but looking at those letters, I suddenly became infatuated and started to take my first steps towards learning Russian.
Before You Think About How to Speak Russian, Learn the Cyrillic Alphabet
If you’re serious about studying Russian, then the very first thing you have to do is buckle down and learn the Cyrillic alphabet.
With 33 letters, it might look intimidating at first, but it’s a lot easier than you’d expect once you dive into it. After all it is an alphabet just like English, so the rules aren’t so different. Even better, Cyrillic is mostly phonetic, so you don’t have to learn a whole list of strange exceptions to the spelling like people learning English do. And if you can read this, then you know about half the Cyrillic letters already.
There are a lot of resources you can use to learn Cyrillic. Heaps really. Plenty of introduction books dedicate the first chapter to it. Online, you can find YouTube videos and there is a great lesson on LingQ that takes you through the letters one by one so you can get the pronunciation down. After a week or two of reading and writing, you’ll be ready to move on to the real meat of the language. I managed to get it down in six days and spent a lot of time writing out random words in the alphabet I’d just learned.
Learning the Basics
After getting down the Cyrillic alphabet, I was thoroughly excited. Everything seemed less daunting now that I had broken through the intimidating looking curves and swirls of the Russian alphabet. However, this was where the real challenge began as now I had started learning some basic conversation.
My father, now thoroughly entertained with my new hobby got me a book called Teach Yourself Beginners Russian. At the time I wasn’t actually aware that there were language learning apps around and had never bothered to think of them.
So after some quality time with Beginner’s Russian, I started to feel really comfortable with those essential basics needed for everyday life.
Здравствуйте (formal) – Hello
Привет (casual) – Hello
Меня зовут… – My name is…
Как Вас зовут? – What is your name?
Как дела? – How are you?
Спасибо – Thank you
After chapter 2, I continued on and started learning some basic conversation and slowly added on to my vocabulary. If you’re learning the basics, then you have your choice of online resources like DuoLingo, Memrise and of course the huge library of Russian content on LingQ as well as so many different YouTubers and blogs you can follow with great information.
Looking back with more experience I can safely say that you shouldn’t start worrying about grammar yet. At this point you should just try to master the sounds of Russian and learn entire phrases. It’s going to be a lot more useful than reviewing large tables of noun declensions.
Build up Your Vocabulary
After getting a better handle of basic sentence structure and the general ‘flow’ of Russian I was eager to start building up my lexicon so that I could start actually speaking Russian.
Now is the ideal time to be a language learner in the world, especially for learning some fundamental vocabulary. You can learn from anything: YouTube videos, TV shows, blog posts, movies, whatever. LingQ lets you turn any content of interest into a lesson. If Netflix shows or movies are your thing for example, check out the video below and try turning your favourite show into a lesson.
By this point my Russian had advanced to entire sentences.
Где находится хлеб? – Where is the bread?
Где находится туалет? – Where is the toilet?
Идет дождь – It’s raining
Я хочу больше кофе – I want more coffee
Мне нравится слон – I like the elephant
Я играю на пианино но я не – I play the piano but not the guitar
Of course, knowing a lot of words isn’t too useful if you don’t know how to put them together. In Russian, grammar is very important and changing the end of a word can change the whole meaning of a sentence. At this stage I was mostly mimicking the phrases that I heard on YouTube or read in my beginner book. At the same time, I was getting a vague understanding of some of the grammatical rules and picking up on some of the different word endings.
Somewhere after your first two months of study, your head will be swimming in a sea of new words and phrases. You might learn the word for ‘avocado’, but constantly forget how to say the number ‘eight.’ I speak from personal experience here.
This is also when people start to lose motivation. It’s easy to understand why. Learning a new alphabet was cool, but constantly being confronted with just how many words you don’t know can be mentally exhausting. And even worse it can drain away some of your motivation.
If you really want to keep studying and learning Russian then this would be a good time to remind yourself why. It’s also OK to take a step away from the language for a little while. Just make sure you come back! Otherwise all the Russian you’ve been studying will be all for nought. Polyglot Steve Kaufmann gives some great tips in this video to keep you motivated too.
Input is Essential When Learning Russian
I think that the hardest part of studying Russian for some people is accepting that in terms of language, you are a child once again. There are going to be a lot of words and expressions that you won’t be able to understand, but that doesn’t mean that you should shy away from them.
You have to understand that keeping a steady stream of input is the key to learning Russian. Even if you don’t understand everything (and you almost certainly won’t) your brain is doing a whole lot of work that you don’t even notice.
Listening is especially helpful as it does double work to help you learn Russian. Firstly, it helps train your ears to the sounds of the language. Simply put, the more you listen, the easier it’ll be to parse out sounds and individual words. Secondly, listening helps train your brain to the patterns of the language. Once again, it’s hard to notice right away, but just listening to one Russian song a day helps your brain get used to listening to Russian.
All this talk of listening brings me to one of the tools I used regularly learning Russian – pop music. You might not like pop music in your native language, but pop songs are a boon to language learners. Top radio hits are written to be receptive, simple and catchy, all of which are great qualities in learning material.
I understand if you have reservations, but if you can’t get a Russian song out of your head, it also means that you can’t get the Russian itself out of your head. It’s a great way to learn new phrases, words and of course, get yourself more familiar with Russian culture. If you like slower, melodramatic stories then look up some chansons. Otherwise you can stick to the top 100 list. Either way, you’ll learn plenty.
Learning Russian Grammar
Now we come to the everlasting question about learning Russian – when should you start learning grammar?
Some people think that you should never try to simply learn grammar, just absorb it through sentences. However, this doesn’t work for everyone. Personally, I’m a huge grammar nerd and I like to have an understanding of the grammar that I’m using. But I also recognize that most people don’t want to read about verb tense and noun declensions.
That being said, I think it’s important to understand the grammar of a language, especially if you really want to master speaking Russian. My advice is to wait until you’ve already given yourself a lot of exposure to different input material. This way, when you look over the grammar it’ll feel more like giving a name to the structures you’ve already been exposed to. Otherwise, the long lists of verb conjugations and noun declensions might be discouraging.
When Will You Be Ready to Speak Russian?
So by this point in my language learning adventure it’s been about two and a half or three months and I knew that I really wanted to start actually speaking Russian, rather than just studying it.
Admittedly, I went about this the wrong way. I started my search on MeetUp where I found a Russian expat group that lived in my area. This did not work out. I could understand little of what was being said around me and my speaking speed was comically slow. Not having the time or the patience to wait for me to use a direct-object correctly, people just spoke to me in English. Other than learning the word шашлык (meat skewers) my first attempt at speaking Russian was a failure.
This is when a friend recommended that I find a tutor. Someone who was paid was a lot more likely to put up with my atrocious verb conjugations. They recommended finding one through LingQ, so I signed up and found someone whose schedule matched mine. I was admittedly nervous for my first lesson, but my tutor Yulia was very encouraging and understood how to guide my shabby Russian speaking.
At first we talked about simple things – where we’re from, family, work and weather. Then in the middle of poorly describing Florida’s humidity, it hit me. I was actually speaking Russian. I was speaking it quite slowly and with a limited vocabulary, but I was in fact communicating and understanding information through the Russian language. That alone would have been enough to keep me motivated to stick with Russian; having a human connection with my tutor was another incentive.
Don’t Stick to Just One Method
Please learn from my mistakes. If you want to learn how to speak Russian, you’re not going to do it just by listening to pop songs. You’re not going to learn it just by watching YouTube videos. And you definitely won’t learn a whole language just by playing on Duolingo.
You have to put variety in your practice. Set aside a half hour to an hour every day (or every week day), but do different things for every day of the week. Mondays are hard, so make that the day you listen to a new song. Pick a day for grammar review and another for watching your favorite Russian soap opera. Just make sure that you keep a wide variety of input. If you only listen to old Soviet chansons, then you’ll have a very limited vocabulary, so keep your materials diverse.
The Intermediate Place
After a few months, I felt like I had a good grasp of sentence structure, verb conjugation and tenses, and noun declensions. I felt pretty comfortable with any material if I knew all the words of a sentence and there were no idioms or colloquial expressions. I was also building up a decent sized lexicon and could describe situations with more nuance than хороший (good) and плохой (bad).
Now I needed some more advanced vocabulary so I had to leave beginner programs like Duolingo and the easier YouTube channels. This is when I entered what I call the “Intermediate Place.”
This is when you know all the fundamentals of your target language, but still can’t take in materials meant for native speakers without a lot of dictionary consultation. The intermediate place is probably the most awkward spot to find yourself in when you’re learning Russian. So much of the material for studying Russian out there is meant for beginners. So after you’ve left the beginner level, you might find it hard to find materials that are appropriate for your language level.
When I got to this level I was stuck for a while until I found two things really helped – Comics and LingQ. I really can’t recommend comic books enough for intermediate language learners. They’re fun, relatively short and you have pictures to back up and reinforce what you’re reading. Online I found a place where I could read Japanese comics in Russian and started to re-read Тетрадь Смерти (Death Note). I found this particularly helpful. Since I already knew the story, my brain could focus on taking in the new words and expressions.
LingQ has a surprisingly large library of material for people right at my level, so I started reading stories recommended to me in the LingQ Russian Library and started on another phase of my Russian learning. The site makes a database of words you do and don’t know so that when you encounter them, it will give you the definition of new words. I found this extremely helpful since it meant that I didn’t need to constantly look up another word to enjoy a story or news article. It also meant that I could easily go back to words I wasn’t entirely confident with. What was great about all of this was it worked to continually reinforce what I already knew and give me new material at a manageable rate.
Find Material That Keeps You Interested
Of course, I was still pairing my comic books with plenty of Russian language media to keep me listening to Russian regularly.
This was when I learned the importance of watching something that actually interests you. If you start watching bad movies or reading uninteresting books, then learning becomes a chore. However, taking in media with stories or subject matter you actually enjoy will keep you engaged even when the language can be frustrating.
I for one am interested in history and cooking, so I found some Russian Youtube channels that talk about history. Likewise, I started to follow several Russian food bloggers. I tried to make sure to have a number of Russian language materials on hand for my different moods which kept me from getting too bored with one topic or author. I create lessons on LingQ with my favourite food bloggers posts, like this one from Crazy Cucumber on how to make vegan peach melba with cashew cream.
Using Media to Your Advantage
Today we live in the age of Netflix and YouTube and high-speed internet. That means that geography has little bearing on what we watch anymore. As such, you can find Russian language media with just a quick browser search and a little persistence. And you should absolutely use that fact to your advantage.
If you really want to learn Russian, then you should try watching Russian movies and shows with Russian subtitles. This works for a lot of reasons. Firstly, it keeps your mind focused on the language. It also allows you to pick out which words you don’t know, and since you have them spelled out, you can jot them down for later if you want.
I started with a melodrama series called Кухня (Kitchen) which centers around the kitchen-staff at a high-end restaurant. This let me combine my interest in food/cooking with my interest in learning Russian. Slowly as my Russian got a bit better, I started to try out more and more films.
The cerebral thrillers of director Andrei Tarkovsky are master-pieces of cinema in their own right, but just like with reading it’s better to start out with something simple. When my Russian got to that odd intermediate level, I watched the fantasy action film Ночной Дозор (Night Watch) and then quickly found its sequel Дневной Дозор (Day Watch). The plots of these movies aren’t hugely complex and have well-defined archetypes, but that’s the point really. By having a (somewhat) familiar story-line and a lot of action, I stayed engaged instead of giving up because I couldn’t understand some of the dialogue.
Persistence is Everything
Learning a new language is a challenge. Learning Russian in particular can be hard, but so very worth it. The most important thing about learning a language is to keep doing it. Some days it’ll be less fun than others. And some days you’ll be able to understand an entire conversation of your favorite series and feel elated at the progress you’ve made studying Russian.
Just remember to give yourself enough time and to not expect too much too quickly. Start small and build on what you already have as you go. Keep a journal and look back on it from time to time and see the words that used to give you trouble but are now at your command.
Find a good tutor and of course, listen to some bad pop-songs. Hopefully my own journey learning Russian gives you some ideas on how to do it yourself. Удача из удач (Best of luck) !
Learn Russian Faster Using the LingQ App
Immersing yourself in Russian doesn’t require you to travel abroad or sign up for an expensive language program.
However, it can be a bit tiresome to find interesting content, go back and forth between sites, use different dictionaries to look up words, and so on.
That’s why there’s LingQ. A language app that helps you discover and learn from content you love.
You can import videos, podcasts, and much more and turn them into interactive lessons.
Keep all your favourite Russian content stored in one place, easily look up new words, save vocabulary, and review. Check out our guide to importing content into LingQ for more information.
John Melnyk is a freelance writer and translator from Florida, USA living in the Netherlands. He has a masters degree in Linguistics and Communication and is currently working on his first novel.