Guest Post: How to get started on learning Russian

Learning Russian

This guest post is from Natalie who runs a blog called Fluent Historian.

Natalie’s one of the most passionate bloggers I follow – she writes quite prolifically about Russian and Eastern European politics and literature, and is super well-informed about that part of the world.

Today she’s sharing a bit about her experience learning Russian which you might find interesting and helpful.


Whenever I tell people I speak fluent Russian, I usually get a lot of puzzled looks.

“Is your family Russian?” is the usual polite question I get. (My family is from all over, but we’re not Russian.)

I’ve even been asked “Are you a Communist?” (this is a definite no!) or the usual exasperated inquiry of “Why in the world would you study that?” (The answer to that latter question is more complicated than most people imagine.)

In short, it happened like this: I read historical fiction about the Romanovs, the last royal family of Russia when I was young and developed a fascination with Russian history and the language.

When I had the opportunity to study the Russian language after starting my studies at university I jumped on it. Even though Russian class was at nine in the morning every day (earlier than any of my friends’ classes), I loved it and got up every morning excited to go.

I stuck with it and have achieved fluency in the language.


The alphabet

If you are interested in learning the Russian language, the first thing to do to start learning the alphabet.

Russian uses the Cyrillic alphabet which is completely different than the Latin alphabet used in English and many other Indo-European languages.

Other languages that use the Cyrillic alphabet include Ukrainian, Belarusian, Bulgarian, Serbian, and more. (So if you learn Cyrillic, you’ll be able to read words written in these languages as well. Pretty cool, right?)

The Russian variant of the Cyrillic alphabet has thirty-three letters. There are many good resources for learning the alphabet.

I used Master Russian to teach myself during the summer before I started university. The best resources have recordings of what the letters are supposed to sound like. Having recordings by native speakers is very important as there are some sounds in Russian that do not occur in English.

I would recommend spending time working on the alphabet in the beginning.

A strong foundation will serve you well later in your studies. Even though it isn’t too hard to memorize the letters in order, actually being able to fluently read entire words and sentences with them takes some time.

Remember how hard it was learning to read in English (or your native language)? It’s just like that in Russian.

Luckily, learning to read as an adult learner, and therefore as someone who already is literate in another language, is easier than a child learning to read from scratch.


Learning vocabulary and grammar

Once you have the alphabet down, it’s time to start learning some words.

I learned words in my class, but there are lists of common Russian words online. Master Russian has a decent list, as does Russian Pod.

Learning some grammar is also important.

Many people would disagree with me (including this blog’s owner who graciously invited me to post here!) but I firmly believe that the study of grammar is essential for learning any language, even one’s native language. (As an aside, I only became a good writer in English after I had two years of intensive English grammar starting when I was twelve.)

Of course, everyone learns in different ways, but Russian grammar is very complex and the sooner you start learning it and assimilating it, the better.

The good thing is, once you know Russian grammar, it will enable you to speak with a higher degree of accuracy when you encounter unfamiliar words. For example, all verbs in Russian have certain endings, and may follow a certain conjugation pattern, so knowing grammar will enable you to use new verbs correctly.


Focus on your weaknesses

We all have our strengths and weaknesses when it comes to language learning.

Some people speak with beautiful accents almost immediately but struggle with grammar, and others are the opposite.

In my case, I’m really good at grammar. I mastered most of the grammar of the Russian language by the end of first year. However, I had trouble remembering vocabulary and understanding the spoken language.

I set out to correct this.

For the first problem, I started using a spaced repetition system (SRS).

Spaced repetition is a learning technique in which flash cards are reviewed at increasingly large intervals.

The program I use is called Anki. Using Anki completely revolutionized the way I learn vocabulary.

I input sentences I find in native material and periodically review these.

Anki isn’t the only SRS program out there but it’s my personal favorite (and no, I haven’t been paid to say this—I just really love this program!). Anki works on Mac and Windows, but if you don’t like it, there are other programs out there.

To improve my listening comprehension, I started doing just that: listening.

I found radio stations with lots of talking and listened to those all the time. Even when I was doing my homework, I had the Russian radio on in the background.

I didn’t understand anything at first but I kept listening. About a year after I started my daily listening, I found that I understood almost everything.

Ultimately, you need to find what your weakness is and focus on practicing that.

If you can’t remember grammar to save your life, study it until you do. If reading is difficult, read the news in Russian every day. (I still do this because I find it enjoyable.)


A new culture

Ultimately, learning Russian hasn’t just given me some cool language skills (and mad bragging rights for mastering something as complex as Russian grammar).

It has given me an entirely new culture to immerse myself in.

I have read fantastic literature, talked to people who grew up halfway around the world from me, and learned about an entirely different world view.

Sometimes, when people find out that I speak Russian and like foreign cultures and languages, they are puzzled when I say I am not a polyglot, nor do I wish to be one.

I’m fluent in Russian and English, and occasionally somewhat competent in Ukrainian and Belarusian, but I don’t consider myself fluent in the latter two.

The fact is, whenever I attempt to study another language, I always start to miss Russian.

I think of all the Russian words I don’t know right now and how much I enjoy immersing myself in the language.

I have fallen irrevocably in love with the Russian language.

Don’t get me wrong, I respect polyglots greatly.

But for me, Russian is the first and so far only language that I have truly loved.


Want more?

If you’re interested in learning Russian, or already learning and want some help, please don’t hesitate to contact me on on my website or on Twitter.

I’m also considering writing a book for learners of the Russian language.

Interested in this idea? Let me know below in the comments below!


Natalie’s from the United States and she studied history and Russian as an undergraduate, before going to work in finance. In her spare time, she enjoys writing, reading, playing violin, and, of course, speaking Russian.

You can follow her at her blog Fluent Historian.


This was written by Natalie Keating.

Did you find this interesting, useful or encouraging? A quick share on Facebook or Twitter will make my day! Thanks. :)

Comments: If you’ve got something you’d like to add to this or some constructive criticism you can do that at the bottom of this page. Just please be respectful. Any abusive or nonsensical comments will be deleted.

It’s Time To De-Bullshitize What Language Immersion Means

Language Immersion

Okay… so ‘de-bullshitize’ isn’t really a word.

I thought about using ‘clarify’ but it doesn’t have the same effect. :)

I’ve talked quite a bit about how the words fluency and advanced are the most misunderstood and misused words by language learners and blogging “experts”.

Well immersion is another one.

Funnily enough, these words remind me of words like fascism in the media; they get thrown around so much these days that nobody has any idea what they mean anymore.

“Just immerse yourself in the language.”

“I’ve been studying for so long and I still can’t speak properly.”

“You just need to immerse yourself.”

“But I don’t know h—–“

“Hush now. Immerse.”

In the wise words of Inigo Montoya:

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

So then.

Immersion is not


…just being surrounded by the language

Key word: just.

It’s not as simple as just having it all around you like it’s a cologne or an aura.

Being surrounded by the language should in fact be a by-product of language learning – not the goal itself as confusing as that may sound.

Keep reading and I’ll explain why.


…having Michel Thomas croon you to sleep

Damn. I really love the idea of having an old man whisper in my ear while I try to sleep.

Yes, people ask these kinds of questions a lot.

No you can’t learn a language while you’re asleep in the same way you can’t learn to drive while you take a nap. :)

Likewise, TV or radio that you don’t understand playing in the background isn’t going to suddenly start making sense to you.


…setting your computer or gadget’s language to the one you’re learning

While you’re busy trying to decide whether or not that message box on your screen says ‘Are you sure you want to format this drive?’, other people are using their computers for productive things like learning languages and meeting people.

Am I against setting gadgets to other languages?


Am I against time wasting, procrastinating exercises that unnecessarily complicate our lives even more than they already are?

You bet.


…just going to another country

If you think travel to a place = immersion then you’re setting yourself up for a painful arse-landing.

Don’t fall into the silly trap of thinking that travel brings automatic results.

The millions of expats living in places for many years who haven’t learned the local languages are proof of this.

Just being there does not make you immersed.

“Oh well if you just travel to the country…”

“Then what?”

“Live there and immerse yourself.”

“But what abou—“

“Shhh…. immerse.”

These are examples of the most common silly suggestions about language immersion.


So what is language immersion?

And here’s where I tell you something profound and earth-shattering that’ll blow your mind.

Immersion is….


Yes, living. Existing. Being.

It’s you doing all the things you normally do in your own language; living life as you normally do only through another language (not necessarily in another place though of course it’s better to be).

Here in Egypt I rent a dive in the city, I buy food and toilet paper from the shop downstairs, I ride the metro, I workout, I meet friends for coffee…

I do normal, mundane shit every day.

I’m a normal guy doing the same average, routine things I do anywhere else.

Only difference is it’s in Arabic rather than English.

I live a completely ordinary existence except that I sound different when I open my mouth.

By simply living and functioning in the language like this (to the best of your ability), you’re going to be surrounded by it as a result and therefore being surrounded is no longer the goal in and of itself.

Make sense?

What if you don’t live in the country of the language you’re learning?

The same principle applies.

Ask yourself – how can I live and interact with people in my community or online as I normally would in my own language through another language?

I often see people ask the question, “What should I talk to a language exchange partner about?”

Would you ever ask this question if you met somebody in your own language?

“What should I talk to this person about?”

Shit no. (might happen if you’re on a nervous date or standing in a slow elevator with someone you ‘kinda’ know though) :)

Just be yourself and let it be a natural exchange between two people getting to know each other rather than making everything awkward and weird. 


Immersion is a deceptive analogy

Immersion’s a water analogy – being submerged in and covered by it.

But it’s a deceptive analogy in a sense because being surrounded is generally a passive thing. You can surround yourself with something without ever interacting with it.

With language learning this is never the case however!

It depends completely on interaction and language immersion simply isn’t there if it’s not interacted with.

Immersion = living in and engaging/interacting with the world through another language.

It’s doing all of the things you normally do, except that you sound different. That’s all it is.

That’s immersion de-bullshitized.


Just a reminder to those of you interested in the epic Arabic project:

We’re announcing it for ‘early access’ exclusively for mailing list subscribers this Sunday. If you want to be part of it, then sign up at the top of this page.


This was written by .

Did you find this interesting, useful or encouraging? A quick share on Facebook or Twitter will make my day! Thanks. :)

Comments: If you’ve got something you’d like to add to this or some constructive criticism you can do that at the bottom of this page. Just please be respectful. Any abusive or nonsensical comments will be deleted.

Merry Christmas! Here Are Some Last Minute Gift Ideas + 40% Discount On

December 9, 2014 – 12:26 am

Christmas in Russia G’day from sunny Qatar! I’m spending a week here in Doha at the moment for the first time ever and…

Learning To Speak Arabic But Can’t Find Resources? Here’s Your Answer…

November 20, 2014 – 12:23 am

Talk In Arabic As you probably know from following me on this blog, I started learning a spoken dialect of Arabic about 12…

Why languages with different scripts aren’t as scary as you think

November 12, 2014 – 5:49 am

Lindsay Dow Today you get to hear from Lindsay who has an awesome language learning blog called Lindsay Does Languages. Lindsay’s

8 Ways That My Punishing Fitness Regimen Has Enhanced My Learning

November 4, 2014 – 9:12 pm

Language Learning I find that the gym is one of the best places to meet new people and practice the language when…

About The Mezzofanti Guild

Learning another language or want to? This site is aimed at offering you unique foreign language learning tips, travel advice, anecdotes, encouragement and providing another handy place for language learners to connect.

Click here to read more about The Mezzofanti Guild.

Like this blog?