Russian is a difficult language. It’s completely alien from English and most other languages. But you don’t need to make things more difficult than they seem. If you put in the time and effort required, you can get to a decent level of conversational Russian in a relative short time span. I’ve been learning Russian for about 4 to 5 years now, and can speak a word or 2.
I made a lot of mistakes and sidesteps though. And if you can avoid those, you cannot imagine where your Russian skills will be in one, two or even five years from now. I hope you’ll learn something from my mistakes! And thanks Donovan for allowing me to write here :)
1. I would immerse myself in the Russian culture more
Without a reason to learn Russian, it’s going to be difficult to motivate yourself to practice. If you’ve ever thought “Hey, Russian sounds like a cool language… would be cool to speak it,” then you’ve already got the beginning spark of motivation. You need to cultivate this spark, so that it becomes a flame. What I mean is that learning to speak Russian (or any language for that matter) is going to be a long and arduous process. So the more you increase your desire to learn Russian, the better you’ll do in the long run. One of the best ways to become more motivated is to immerse yourself in the Russian language. The more you listen to Russian, the more you will start to ‘feel’ it. And the more time you spend on it, the more you will start to feel motivated. Learning Russian will become a part of your identity, and once that happens, you won’t stop. It’s how Donovan says in his post about learning Arabic:
To the Arabs I became an Arab.
If you’re not living in Russia, or meeting Russian people on a daily basis, it’s going to be difficult to achieve this. That’s why you’d do well to:
- start watching Russian movies
- follow Russian series
- listen to Russian music
- play Russian videogames
Every hour you spend on those activities improves your motivation. At the same time, you also teach your brain and ears to get used to Russian. You’ll better understand where words start and where they end. So you catch 2 birds with one stone. Also, you likely already spend a significant amount of time every single day on the above activities. So why not switch the English content you’re consuming to Russian content. Just be sure to find something that includes English subtitles, so you can still understand the plot.
2. Start learning Russian vocabulary as soon as possible
Russian does not have much in common with any Western language. If you’re learning Spanish, and your native language is English, you’ve got a large amount of cognates (words that are similar in both languages) that give you a huge boost in vocabulary in the beginning. Russian doesn’t work like that. Unless you know another Slavic language, such as Polish or Serbian, you will need to learn common words. Words are the building block of speaking a foreign language, and if you lack vocabulary, you won’t be able to correctly convey what you’re trying to say. Luckily, since you only need about 850-1000 words to speak a language at a conversational level, all you need to get to that level is around 6 months of focused vocabulary learning. If you create the simple habit of learning 6 new words per day, that will teach you 26 x 7 x 6 = 1092 words in half a year. Let’s say you skip one day per week on average, that still gets you to 936 words. The great thing is that if you use an app such as ankidroid or Duolingo for this, that you can learn a couple of new words in just 5 minutes per day. So you’re not even spending a lot of time on learning the basic vocabulary. I only started intentionally learning new words after 1.5 year of learning my first words in Russian. And if I think back:
What if I’d started a simple Ankidroid practice of learning 5 words per day… my Russian would’ve been at a conversational level way earlier.
It’s not that I regret anything how I learned Russian, but if you’re in the beginning stages, it’s a very small effort to start a 5 minutes vocabulary practice, and it will give you humongous benefits. Speaking about learning vocabulary, that brings me to the next point…
3. I’d download a Russian Anki deck instead of create it myself
In April 2016 I’d booked my first flight to Russia. I was flying to Moscow the beginning of June. That’s when things became very close. If you ever need a jolt of motivation, book a flight to Russia. Russians don’t speak English well, and if you don’t know Russian, you’re going to be very limited during your stay. Above is a picture from my trip last year to the lake Baikal (close to Irkutsk). Unfortunately there was a lot of smoke because of the fires in the Siberian forests at the time. But I regress. At that point I had just started listening to RussianPod101, and they had a nice 2000 most common word list. And I’d just learned about the Ankidroid app. For those of you who don’t know Ankidroid. It’s a spaced repetition app where you can add flashcards. Then you get a set amount of new cards and repetitions every day. You can rate how easy/difficult the specific word was, and depending on your rating you basically get the next repetition the following day, or in a month. So what happens if you combine those 2? Exactly. Lots of afternoons staring at my phone screen and sore thumbs. For some reason I’d never heard of the fact that people can share their decks to other people. So you can just go to their language page, and download a deck that seems nice, and has good reviews. This is a good beginner one by the way, as it contains sentences and audio. This is a lot easier. And while there is some benefit to adding words yourself, it’s simpler to just download someone else’s work. Especially since many of the premade decks contain extra information, such as:
- audio so you hear where the stress is supposed to be
- sentences including the word
- extra grammatical info. For example if a verb is perfective or imperfective, or which gender a noun is
Plus it’ll safe you a lot of hours, tired eyes and sore fingers.
4. I’d pick one Russian course at a time and listen to it with focus
I consider myself lucky that in the beginning I only listened to two Russian courses, and that both of them were very effective. The first one was Michel Thomas Russian. I know Donovan is not a fan of Michel Thomas, but I think the languages that feature a native speaker as the main teacher, are better than the ones where Michel Thomas is teaching. After all, he was born in Poland, so when he’s teaching Spanish, it’s not his native language. The Michel Thomas Russian course helped me tremendously in the beginning stages. As it had a perfect cadence of new words, and did a good job at slowly introducing me to the Russian grammar. If I would’ve known in the beginning that Russian had 6 cases, I might’ve given up. But while listening to Michel Thomas I already had some experience, and the cases were introduced one by one. If you’re curious, you can actually listen to the first 8 hours of lessons on YouTube:
If you’re just starting out learning Russian, I highly recommend you take the time to listen to this course. Preferable while being focused. My main problem was that I used to listen to it while biking to university. I was dividing my attention between learning Russian and not getting into an accident. While audio courses are great to listen to when you’re commuting, taking a walk, cleaning or cooking, I’ve found that you take up a lot more information if you intentionally listen to what is being taught. The second course that helped me a lot was RussianPod101. Donovan is also a fan of it, and I completely agree with his review of the course. The lessons only take 10 to 15 minutes each. And in each lesson you learn a good amount of new words, grammar and cultural references. I listened to it from beginning of 2016 to halfway 2017. And I credit most of my Russian progress to it. You can try it out for 7 days here for free if you’d like to try it.
5. I would begin practicing speaking Russian on my own earlier
You can learn all the grammar and words you want, but if you’re not speaking on a regular basis, you are just going to be stumbling for words when you try to have a conversation in Russian. So you need to pay specific attention to speaking. I was lucky to have had several trips to Russia to practice my speaking. But I really noticed my Russian conversation skills take off after I started making YouTube videos where I’m practicing my Russian. It started off as a joke, but soon more and more Russians got interested in the channel. In order to stay relevant on YouTube, you need to put out regular content. That means that I was now at least practicing speaking Russian once every week for 5 to 10 minutes. Often I did (and am still doing) several takes of one video to make it better. Just this simple thing of having a monologue in Russian several times per week has done wonders for my speaking skills. Now, I’m not telling you to start a YouTube channel as well. Although you can surely do that if you’d like ;) But what I mean is that if you start a simple practice of having monologues in Russian, you can also greatly improve your skills. Try your best to make correct sentences, while keeping space to allow your brain to ‘play’ with the language. It also lets you practice without the fear of embarrassment while speaking in front of other people. If you can get into the habit of recording yourself (audio for example), for 2 minutes at the end of the day, your speaking skills are going to skyrocket. Just talk to yourself about how the day went, or about yourself or a hobby. It doesn’t matter what you talk about, as long as you’re speaking. If you’ve got a Russian friend, then you could also send them the recording through WhatsApp for feedback. And they could send something back to practice their English. And while it may sound a little weird and simple to record yourself on your phone speaking Russian, it’s a crazy effective method. Plus it takes only a couple of minutes per day… and it’s free.
6. Not make any big plans
When you hear other people who’ve learned Russian speak Russian at a good level, it can be very motivating. “Wow, I also want to be at that level in [insert X months]” I know I’m guilty of that. “I’m going to be practicing 2 hours every single day for the next half a year, and then my Russian will be at B2!” Every time I’ve said something like that to myself, I couldn’t even follow through on my plans for 3 days. Once you start doing that stuff, you transform a nice interesting hobby into work. And while it may work for some people, I think most people do better to ‘work’ on their Russian according to their motivation levels. Sure, aim to spend at least 10 minutes listening to a course, and 5 minutes of new vocabulary every day. But don’t overextend yourself. It’s better to spend 15 minutes per day for the next 3 years. Then to follow some excruciating schedule of 3 hours per day that you burn out on in 2 weeks, and then lose motivation and stop learning altogether.
Last words on learning Russian
Russian is considered a difficult language. And it’s true, up to a certain point. What many people forget to mention however, is the many faces of Russian that make it an ‘easy-to-speak’ language. No articles. Which makes your speech a lot cleaner, and you need less moving parts to think about. Flexible word order. So you can start speaking before you know exactly how the entire sentence will look like. And then think up the next words, as you go. The fact is that relatively few people learn Russian, so if you show interest in the Russian language, Russians will happily talk to you. So yes, the grammar and vocabulary parts are difficult. But once you get those past hurdles, speaking comes naturally and fast.
Arie Helderman is a Dutch guy who has been learning Russian for over 4 years. He has a YouTube channel in Russian (Ари говорит по русски) where he practices his Russian. You can also find him at Learn the Russian Language, where he and teaches people how to speak Russian.