Tips for Learning Russian

My name is James, and I am a Russian student at Sagalingua. I’m stuffing myself with Russian, and it’s great fun! It’s also difficult and time-consuming, but what worthwhile thing ever came easy? How I ended up studying Russian is a long story, but suffice it to say that right now I’m married to a wonderful Russian woman and her family doesn’t speak English. Fortunately, I love Russian and Russians. When I someday visit Russia I’m sure I’ll love it too. And so I’m studying русский язык, the Russian language.

I’ve decided to put together a few blog posts for the Sagalingua web site to give help and encouragement to other language students. Most specifically, Russian language students, but maybe these posts will be interesting or provide useful tips for students of other languages. I’ve been taking lessons with Sagalingua for about six months now, and the instruction has been invaluable.

Here are my top tips. And so, without further ado…

Tip #1: Find some aspect of Russian culture that you love

It’s often easier to learn something by studying something else. For example, if I read great literature, it has positive side effects on my vocabulary, spelling, and grammar. I think that studying Russian is similar. It’s not until I try to do something else with the language that it begins to stick. To accelerate your Russian progress, find something about Russian culture that interests you and use that as a tool to help your learning. Maybe it’s the food, and you want to read Russian cookbooks. Maybe you’re like the great grandmaster Bobby Fischer, who in the 60s learned Russian in order to read the best chess journals. Maybe you want to speak to your in-laws; don’t practice in a vacuum hoping to eventually speak, but instead find situations where you must speak, where the language is just a means to an end! It’s at that point that your studies will make the most progress.

Tip #2: Listen to Russian music

I like Russian music. A lot. And so I listen to it. Fortunately, no matter what style of music you prefer, there’s some Russian artist somewhere making it, and you just have to find him or her. The best way to do so is get an app for your phone and listen to Russian radio stations. As you listen, don’t be passive. Try to pick out the words that you already know. Even if you catch one in thirty words, it’s still a start, and you’ll get better.

Tip #3: Memorize the Cyrillic alphabet ASAP

Being able to read Russian words is critical to self-study. Without knowing the alphabet, you’re inherently limited in what you can do outside of the classroom. Invest a little time to learn it and don’t look back. If you already know the alphabet, memorize the tables of pronouns in all the cases. And then the possessive pronouns. These are words you need to know anyway, and there aren’t that many of them.

Tip #4: Find news or other sites in Russian containing material that interests you

This relates to my first tip. If you can find material that interests you that also happens to be in Russian, you can use it as a learning tool. For example, I like chess, and would spend some time each week reading about the latest chess matches anyway. Fortunately, Russians like chess too, and many of the top chess players are Russian. This means that I can get my chess news and also practice my Russian. I’d stay away from generic news sites. The reason is that the vocabulary will be too big and you’ll know too few words. Chess for me is good because much of the specialized vocabulary is very similar to English. Perhaps you’re interested in футбол; it’s amazing how much more fun it is to read about the World Cup in Russian than about random goings-on in St. Petersburg. Find something you like and read about it in Russian.

Tip #5: My thoughts on flashcards

I like flashcards, but don’t often use them. I just don’t have time to sit around and memorize reams of isolated words or artificial sentences. That said, if they help you learn, go for them. Avoid having dual English/Russian flashcards; this will just get you in the habit of translating between the two languages. Instead, construct cards with either pictures matched to words or sentences missing words (e.g. one side is “У меня нет _____ (ручка)” and the other the noun in the appropriate declension). Get apps for your phone to simplify the process. Check out; it allows easy creation of flashcards and many apps can download them.

Bonus Tip: Stress!

A number of Russian words have entered the American vocabulary. Some of them have very different stress patterns than in English. Here are few words that surprised me when I learned the correct pronunciation.

  1. бабушка (BAbooshka). Americans automatically say baBOOSHka. However, Russians stress the first syllable. This word will come in handy when you want to ask someone for бабкины семечки-brand sunflower seeds, the gold standard amongst Slavic immigrants everywhere.
  2. колбаса (kalbaSA). Too many visits to Safeway for kielBAsa, i.e. Polish sausage, results in too much stress on the second syllable. Russian колбаса comes in many types, different in flavor but not in stress; be sure to slice thinly and accent the final syllable.
  3. Владимир (VlaDImir). No matter how CNN or Fox says Vladimir Putin, make sure that you stress the second syllable.

OK, that wraps it up for now. Come back later for more!