The Russian language is spoken by more than 280 million people worldwide and for many is an intriguing language that mystifies and fascinates.
It’s a relatively unpopular language among Americans, at least since the end of the cold war, and most students in high school today often choose to study Spanish, French, Latin - even Chinese - instead! However, if you want to travel to Russia, learning at least some Russian is a must.
And people certainly are - in 2013, this Slavic country was the 9th most visited country worldwide!
So if you want to be one of Russia’s many tourists sometime in the near future, here are our top tips for dipping your toes in this Cyrillic language.
Learn the Cyrillic alphabet
What’s the Russian alphabet?
One of the main challenges for anyone just starting to learn Russian is mastering the Cyrillic alphabet, which often seems entirely incomprehensible for an English reader. However, it is totally possible to learn the Russian alphabet in just a few lessons.
With it’s different writing, confusing pronunciation, and unknown symbols, the Cyrillic alphabet is necessary for anyone trying to learn a Slavic, Turkish, or Uralic language. Learning all the new letters of the Russian alphabet will also be helpful if you decide to go on and learn many of the varied Eastern European languages.
The Cyrillic alphabet in numbers:
- It’s an official alphabet of the European Union
- Has had 33 letters since it’s modification in 1917 (before it had 37 letters!)
- Is a bicameral alphabet, made up of consonants and vowels
- Has two written forms: upper case and lower case.
- Places an emphasis on individual words, just like english (think of the way you would say CLEver or HAPpy, enJOY or compLAIN)
- Each letter has its own unique phonetic pronunciation.
Overall, the alphabet isn’t all that different than what we use for English, despite the different writing!
How should you go about learning the Russian alphabet?
In order to make sure you’re pronouncing the Russian letters properly, you’ll need to learn about the signs for soft ь and hard ъ, which, respectively, indicate whether the previous consent is palletized or not.
We’d recommend learning the Russian alphabet in this order:
- Latin letters
- Greek letters
- Russian letters
This way the challenge will be gradual. For latin letters, the main thing is to be careful not to confuse the English and Russian pronunciations. Greek letters will be easy to learn for anyone who’s joined Greek life or once studied ancient Greek. And finally, you’ll move on to the final challenge of the Russian letters, where you’ll need to learn an entirely new system of writing.
The best thing to do is to study the alphabet a bit every day and after a few weeks you’ll have mastered it!
One last piece of advice - it is better to study the alphabet on paper instead of via the computer, so that you can also work one your handwriting and engage your muscle memory.
Whether you’re learning with the help of a Russian tutor or on your own, learning the Cyrillic alphabet will make it easier for you to travel to Russia without a language barrier!
How to learn the basic Russian vocabulary
Basic greetings and niceties in Russian
If you’re planning to go and live in Russia, it’s essential to learn a few basic greetings and formula for conversations in Russian!
In Russia, it isn’t really necessary to use too many niceties and generic phrases - for example, it would be considered really unusual to smile at someone you don’t know. Smiling is something you only do to close friends and family in Russia. Therefore, instead of a general friendly attitude, it’s much better to arm yourself with a Russian vocabulary that c an be deployed in a range of situations.
Like many other European languages, in Russian there’s a formal and informal version of personal pronoun ‘you.’
- “Вы” is the Russian formal ‘you’ and is used when speaking with strangers, elders, or you superiors in a hierarchical work structure. Once you’ve gotten to know them, the native Russian speaker can suggest that you move to the informal ‘you’
- “Ты” in the informal ‘you’ for Russian speakers. It’s used when speaking to a friend, a child, or someone of a similar age. Your elders may also use ‘Ты’ to speak to you, but you cannot do the same for them.
When you want to be as formal as possible, for example in a letter of motivation or a job interview, you can use “господи´н” (Sir) or “госпожа” (Madam) followed by the person’s last name.
Finally, if this is someone with whom you’re especially close, you could also use the last name of the person with whom you’re speaking (for example, ‘Masha’ instead of ‘Maria’). Calling people by their last name is something that’s only done for people of a similar age. Your elders would not appreciate being called by their surname.
Creating a crib sheet for Russian vocabulary
Before you create a list of your key Russian vocabulary, you’ll need to define your goals and needs!
For example, students who are interested in learning about Russian history will need to study the formal range of the language, while students who are planning to go live in Russia for a while will probably be more interested in colloquial Russian.
Some Russophones prefer to organise their vocabulary studies by theme - travel, work, animals - with some standard phrases to memorize, but in order to become truly bilingual, it’s much better to study the Russian language and its vocabulary in all of its depth until basic Russian vocabulary just trips straight off the tip of your tongue.
A good order for studying Russian vocabulary might be:
- Personal pronouns in Russian
- Common Russian greetings and salutations
- Russian verbs
- Russian adjectives
- Russian prepositions
- Russian adverbs
- Russian particles
- Common Russian expressions
- Telling the time and talking about the weather in Russian…
After you’ve mastered the basics, it’s a good idea to focus on different spelling and writing skills that would be useful while you’re traveling in Moscow or St Petersburg.
A crib sheet with basic vocabulary and grammar will be your best asset while trying to learn the Russian language!
Learning to write in Russian
How can you improve your Cyrillic handwriting?
It’s difficult, but totally possible to learn a Slavic language without signing yourself up for night classes in Russian!
In order to become an expert on Dostoïevski in the native language or Russian culture, you’ll need plenty of patience and motivation. The hardest step is to completely block out the Latin alphabet and your native language to resist the temptation to simply translate from Russian to English - you need to really assimilate Russian writing into your repertoire, and will need to study daily.
In order to write in Russian like a native speaker, you’ll of course need to learn all of the Cyrillic alphabet by heart, but that’s not all!
In fact, you’ll also need to work on your handwriting so that it reaches a readable standard for a native Russian speaker. Start by downloading a Cyrillic alphabet keyboard for your computer so you’ll be confronted by all of the letters every day.
In order to check your handwriting, it might be a good idea to sign up for a few private tutoring sessions for Russian with a native speaker.
In addition to working on your handwriting, a Russian student will need to work on:
- Russian grammar
- Russian conjugations
- A perfect Russian accent to improve your verbal skills
- Russian spelling
- the phonetic alphabet
- Speaking freely in Russian…
In addition to language classes, it is also possible to learn Russian online thanks to a number of interactive learning sites which often offer a virtual keyboard to work on your writing online.
To your pens!
The different kinds of Russian writing
Learn how to write Russian, but which one??
In order to become truly fluent in Russian, studettes of the language will need to learn how to write Russian in all of its forms.
There are many different styles of writing in the language of Pouchkine:
- Typed writing, used on computers, or visible in scholarly articles.
- Russian cursive, which you’ll see in Russian calligraphy
- Uppercase letters
- lowercase letters
Watch out for the common mistakes!
The lowercase letters of the cyrillic alphabet are not the same as in the latin alphabet. Many Russian students run into a stumbling block here and get confused about the lowercase versions of the new letters they’ve learned.
With regular work, you can become a true polyglot and learn how to write and rewrite texts in Russian just as well as native speakers!
Our advice for reading Russian
Talking to a native speaker about reading in Russian
Taking a free Russian class with a native speaker sounds like a great option, doesn’t it?
Whether you’re trying to work on your Russian reading skills, or to learn some colloquial Russian and a bit more about modern culture, signing up for a pen pal is a great idea. Thanks to a language partner an English speaker can benefit from getting to know a native Russian speaker and their language as they learn.
You can find language partner options that are both electronic, or via the mail. Students can choose the method that works best for them, perhaps based on whether they want to improve their skills reading typed or handwritten Russian.
In order to speak to a Russian native, students can sign up via:
- My Language Exchange
- Global Pen Friends
- Students of the World
- Master Russian
- Pen Pal Party
- Truly Russian
- Conversation Exchange
- A Pen Pals
Having a friend abroad can also be a great help when you start trying to organise a study abroad in the Russian capital to improve your language skills!
Search for "russian classes london" online, and find a native teacher to help you learn Russian.
Learn to read in Russian and have fun at the same time
You don’t need to make yourself miserable in order to become bilingual in Tolstoy’s language!
Many studies have shown that your brain learns best in a laid back fashion - hence why your language teachers in high school were always trying to help you study a language through its culture. By discovering new things about the Slavic culture, games and other ways to have fun during a Russian language course can also help you become more familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet.
If you've decided to move, check out our expat guide to Russia.
And there’s a pretty easy way to start - just put on the subtitles when you’re watching a movie in order to help improve your reading in Russian.
For other fun and easy ways to read in Russian, you could consider:
- Russian films
- Russian tv series
- Russian newspapers
- Phone apps in Russian
- Learning Russian song lyrics
- Russian literature…
Free language classes will also help students to learn new Russian words and memorize idiomatic expressions in Russian.
And now it’s time to dive in!