Essential Guide to Learning Russian: From Newbie to Advanced

A native speaker of Russian, translator and passionate learner of English and Chinese. Always ready to extend a helping hand to those in need of language learning advice.
Galina K.
Latest posts by Galina K. (see all)

Learning Russian: Common Beginner Questions

Like many great ideas, the thought of learning Russian usually takes people by surprise. Perhaps you are inspired by tragic, high-brow Russian literature or interested in Russia’s turbulent past; perhaps you are yearning to try Russian cuisine and drink a toast with your new best friends on a long-distance train; it could be that your homeland has historical ties to Russia, and even if it doesn’t, you are well within your right to dream of coming here to travel, study, or work. 

No matter your reasons for taking up Russian, you may be struggling with some big questions at the beginning of your language learning journey.

St. Isaacs Cathedral, Russia, Saint-Petersburg
Source: Ilia Schelkanov, Unsplash

Is It Difficult to Learn Russian? 

Yes. No. Maybe? Ultimately, the answer to this question comes down to three points:

  • your native language;
  • your experience with second language acquisition;
  • your motivation.

The number of shared traits your mother tongue has with Russian will reflect on your learning process, but don’t get discouraged if your first language doesn’t belong to the same regional subgroup as Russian, Belarusian, and Ukranian. Even coming from one language family can go a long way (evidenced by German speakers, who grasp the Russian noun case system with relative ease), and barring that, there are some similarities that occur randomly, but help learners in huge ways. An example that comes to mind is Chinese r, which sounds similar to Russian ж. Lucky coincidence? Maybe. Useful in overcoming one of the bigger hurdles of Russian phonetics? Yes.

Your experience with second language acquisition can be a double-edged sword:

  • on the one hand, people who only ever learned their own language may lack the humility and discipline necessary for building another language identity from the ground up;
  • this being said, polyglots, for all their experience and time-tried learning habits, are prone to mixing their languages up.

so don’t dwell on the things you never learned in the past, focus on the present and future instead.

Finally, the most important part is motivation, the driving force behind your studies. It doesn’t have to be grand, but it absolutely must get you all fired up. Learning a new language is a daunting, lengthy process, so you should find something that will help you keep going forward.

How Long Does It Take to Learn Russian? 

An old (like, Soviet Union-old) Russian joke comes to mind: 

How long does it take to learn Chinese?

A renowned professor will say, “Oh, it is an impossible task; even if you dedicate your whole life to it, there will always be something new for you to puzzle over.”

A research assistant will say, “About ten years.”

A lecturer will say, “Five years.”

A college student will say, “When do we need to take this exam?”

Questionable comical value aside, this joke does contain a kernel of truth:

it is mostly your goals that determine the length of your study process.

A tourist doesn’t need to be as fluent as a businessman, and an engineer will be forgiven for lacking the knowledge deemed crucial among Liberal Arts majors. 

Find your desired “field of expertise”, be it simple small talk or discussing classical music, and stick to it without trying to compare yourself to others. “We all have the same 24 hours” is a myth designed to shame people for doing things at their own pace; don’t fall for it. 

However, if you belong to the type of people who thrive within competitive and/or meticulously organized environments, you might want to take a look at the official TORFL (Test of Russian as a Foreign Language) standards. If we consider taking a full-time language class as the norm, then Level A1 takes 60 to 80 hours of training to complete, while A2 takes 160 to 200 hours, B1 – 400 to 480 hours, B2 – 560 to 680 hours, C1 – 960 to 1,200 hours and so on. Adjust these numbers according to your schedule and you’re good to go! 

Moscow State University, Moskva, Russia
Source: Alexander Smagin, Unsplash

How to Successfully Learn Russian: Intention, Goals and Motivation 

The key to success lies within clearly defined goals. Many learners fail because their goals are too abstract: no one can track their progress and celebrate small victories when their goalposts are constantly shifting. 

This is exactly why gamified learning apps, LingoDeer included, are so popular – they provide external motivation in the form of pre-made lessons, learning stats, leader boards, small prizes and other exciting features. But no app and no games can replace your internal motivation and the goals you set for yourself, so take some time brainstorm:

  • Your motivation: What makes you want to learn Russian? What will keep you going even when it gets really tough? Will your life change for the better if you learn well? Will your life change for the worse if you don’t?
  • Your goals: What do you want to achieve by mastering Russian? Be specific and pragmatic. Saying “I want to pass TORFL-I and study in Russia” or “I want to surprise my MMORPG party by keeping a simple conversation going in their native language” is better than “I want to really understand this country and its people” (which is a great answer too, if you’re prepared to fail many times before you succeed).
  • Intentions: What are the small stepping stones that will lead you to your goal? How do you plan to hold yourself accountable on this journey? Create a suitable schedule and stick to it. If you find yourself overworked, adjust it as you go.

This soul-searching will get you ready to learn and succeed. But first, let’s look at some common mistakes that hinder other learners’ progress. 

 

DON’Ts in Learning Russian as a Beginner

DON’T Rely on Romanization

One of the easiest aspects of learning Russian is the so-called mechanical reading, or reading focused on identifying and pronouncing different letters with little attention to the meaning – in a word, just what the doctor ordered for beginners. 

Mechanical reading in Russian is a lot more straightforward than in English or French, so mastering it won’t be a huge investment of time, but it will pay off in the long run. 

Romanization, on the other hand, promotes unnatural accents, stunts sound acquisition, and, last but not least, doesn’t look nearly as cool as a full-on Cyrillic script. If you feel intimidated by Russian letters, don’t be! This very article includes a step by step guide to learning the Russian alphabet, which is a nice addition to the “Alphabet” unit of the Russian language course on our app. 

learn Russian alphbet
The beginning and the middle of the LingoDeer Russian Alphabet lesson. Sign in for more! 🙂

DON’T Ignore Russian Terms of Address

Spanish speakers are in luck: Russian is yet another language where the plural you – Вы – can be used as a polite form of address. But even Spanish speakers sometimes struggle with a curious Russian habit of addressing your teachers, superiors, older neighbours and equals you don’t know very well by their given name and patronym, like this:

Full name (surname + given name + patronym) How to address them
Ивано́в Ива́н Ива́нович Здра́вствуйте, Ива́н Ива́нович!
Hello, Ivan Ivanovich!
Петро́ва Мари́я Ива́новна Здра́вствуйте, Мари́я Ива́новна!
Hello, Maria Ivanovna!

Patronym (о́тчество) is one’s father’s given name with a gendered suffix attached (men get –вич, women get –вна), so knowing someone’s full name automatically means you know ⅔ of their dad’s name: 

Surname Given name Patronym
Son Ивано́в Ива́н Ива́нович
Father Ивано́в Ива́н
Surname Given name Patronym
Daughter Петро́ва Мари́я Ива́новна
Father Петро́в Ива́н

Neat, isn’t it? Either way, don’t go around calling people by their given names or surnames unless they took pity on you and gave you specific permission to do so! To make a polite inquiry, say:

Как Вас по о́тчеству? OR Как Вас по ба́тюшке? What is your patronym?

learn Russian: Patronym
Ah, if only matronyms were more common… Source: Julia Kadel, Unsplash

DON’T Try To Learn Everything At Once

As a new learner, you might be tempted to try and learn everything at once. This rarely leads to desired results, especially when it comes to a grammatically complex language like Russian. Don’t burn out too fast; pick a schedule you’ll be able to stick to day after day after day, take your time and don’t rush: as Russians say, ти́ше е́дешь, да́льше бу́дешь – “the slower you go, the further you get”.

DON’T Overthink It

We’ve all had this happen to us (and by we, I mean native speakers of Russian who dabble into teaching Russian as a Second Language, of course): a learner approaches with a theoretical question, the answer to which is way too complex for their understanding yet, and yet they persist in asking for clarification. You give one, to the best of your ability. The learner doesn’t get it. The language acquisition process is stalled, and everyone feels bad about it.

Some Russian grammar is tricky. Some (seems) incomprehensible. Don’t let this stop you. Learn as much as you can and come back to the difficult stuff later, having amassed more background knowledge about the inner workings of the language. Remember, sooner or later, quantity will turn to quality, so don’t chase perfection too early.

 

Getting Started as An Absolute Beginner in Learning Russian

Russian is a language that requires time and patience, but it doesn’t mean you can’t learn some simple stuff first. With that thought in mind, let’s take a look at the Russian azbuka and some common Russian phrases.

Azbuka, the very first step 

The Russian alphabet (also known as алфави́т or а́збука) consists of 33 letters: 21 consonants, 10 vowels, and 2 signs that are not pronounced:

Learning Russian Alphabet
Russian азбука, as you might have seen it in movies. Source: Pinterest

While overwhelming at first glance, the Russian alphabet is not that difficult to learn – especially for English speakers, since there are some similarities between the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. Generally speaking, the Russian letters can be divided into four groups:

  1. SIMILAR to Latin letters in WRITING and PRONUNCIATION [5 in total]
    • А а (a as in ah): ма́ма (mom)
    • К к (k as in kite): ком (lump)
    • М м (m as in mate): там (there)
    • О о (o as in cot): кот (cat)
    • Т т (t as in take): так (so, this way, thus)
  2. SIMILAR to Latin letters in WRITING, but not pronunciation [7 in total]
    • В в (v as in Dave): Ве́ра (faith – also used as a female given name)
    • Е е (e as in yeah): нет (no)
    • Н н (n as in no): он, она́ (he, she)
    • Р р (r as in corrida): метро́ (subway)
    • С с (s as in same): Москва́ (Moscow)
    • У у (u as in boot): су́мка (bag)
    • Х х (kh as in hale, butstronger): хор (choir)
  3. SIMILAR to Latin letters in PRONUNCIATION, but not writing [15 in total]
    • Б б (b as in born): бокс (boxing)
    • Г г (g as in gone): год (year)
    • Д д (d as in done): дом (house)
    • Ё ё (yo as in York): самолёт* (airplane)
    • З з (z as in zoo): Земля́ (the Earth)
    • И и (i as in kit): они́ (they)
    • Й й (short y as in toy): чай (tea)
    • Л л (l as in land): ле́то (summer)
    • П п (p as in park): парк (park)
    • Ф ф (f as in found): ко́фе (coffee), кафе́ (cafe)
    • Ч ч (ch as in charm): чёрт (devil; damn! (as an expletive))
    • Ш ш (sh as in shut): хорошо́ (good, well)
    • Э э (ae as in cat): э́то (this)
    • Ю ю (yu as in Eugene): меню́ (menu)
    • Я я (ya as in yarn): я (I), Росси́я (Russia)
      *Good news! The letter Ё ё is always stressed 😉
  4. UNIQUE letters [6 in total, including two voiceless signs]
    • Ж ж (zh): жизнь (life)
    • Ц ц (ts): центр (center)
    • Щ щ (such): борщ (borsch)
    • Ы ы (y): ты, вы (you, singular and plural/polite)
    • Ъ ъ (hard sign): съел ((male) ate)
    • Ь ь (soft sign): день (day)

With this framework in mind, learning the Russian alphabet will be (almost) as easy as breathing, and the sooner you get on that, the better. 

handshake
Source: Sebastian Herrmann, Unsplash

Basic Russian Phrases 

Even the simplest words can go a long way when you find yourself in a distant land, surrounded by people who either don’t speak English very well, or feel tired of illiterate foreigners. Take a look at the list below: 

  1. да – yes
  2. нет – no
  3. Здра́вствуйте! Приве́т! – Hello! Hi!
  4. До́брое у́тро! – Good morning!
  5. До́брый день! – Good afternoon!
  6. До́брый ве́чер! – Good evening.
  7. Как Вас зову́т? – What is your name? (formal)
  8. Как тебя́ зову́т? – What is your name? (informal)
  9. Меня́ зову́т… – My name is…
  10. Как дела́? – How are you doing?
  11. Как жизнь? – How’s life?
  12. Хорошо́. – Good.
  13. Непло́хо. – Not bad.
  14. Не о́чень. – Not too good.
  15. А у Вас? – And you? (formal)
  16. А у тебя́? – And you? (informal)
  17. До свида́ния! – Goodbye!
  18. Пока́! – Bye-bye!
  19. Пожа́луйста*… – Please…
  20. Скажи́те, пожа́луйста… – Could you tell me…
  21. Извини́те… – Excuse me…
  22. Помоги́те, пожа́луйста. – Help me, please.
  23. Спаси́бо! – Thanks!
  24. Большо́е спаси́бо! – Thank you very much!
  25. Пожа́луйста!* – You’re welcome!
    *You aren’t seeing double; in Russian, “please” and “you’re welcome” are homonyms.
  26. Не́ за что! – It’s no trouble!

Does this seem like an exhaustive list to you? Of course not. Also, you can get a much better learning experience with our Travel Phrasebook, available for free on our LingoDeer app

Russian Travel Phrasebook Screenshot
Lingodeer Russian Travel Phrasebook. Free of charge!

Beware of the Challenges in Learning Russian

Russian is a notoriously difficult language to learn, but no one can tackle a problem they aren’t aware of. As such, future learners of Russian should be prepared to deal with:

Russian alphabet and pronunciation

Wait, you might ask, didn’t you say that mechanical reading is the easiest part of Russian? Didn’t you say that learning the alphabet will be a walk in the park with a piece of cake? Was it all a lie? Do not fret: it wasn’t. 

However, those of you who may still rely on Romanization (i.e., beginners), need to keep these details in mind:

  1. the letters Й й and Ы ы are both transcribed as y
    Does this mean they’re pronounced the same way? Of course not (as you might have guessed from my tone): the letter Й й denotes a short consonant (think toy), while Ы ы denotes a deep vowel that follows a hard consonant and sounds a little bit like getting punched in the throat (for a little less unorthodox approach to phonetic explanation, please refer to How to Pronounce the Russian Vowel Ы – and remember to scroll all the way down).
    Take a look at the following words:
    Большо́й [bolshoy] теа́тр (Bolshoy theater)
    – Жил-был [byl] пёс (Once Upon a Dog, lit. “a dog lived and existed” – a cartoon classic, highly recommend)
    If that seemed complicated, wait till you see the words ending in -ый, transcribed as yy in English! Первый (the first), красный (red) and many more… The only thing you can do is submit, learn azbuka and read without the crutch of Romanization!

    once upon a dog
    Screenshot of “Once Upon a Dog”. Source: YouTube
  2. the P p sound does not have English analogs (so much so that we were forced to use a Spanish word as a pronunciation example)
    The Russian P p is known to be very difficult to master, unless rolling r’s are in vogue in your native language too, and even then it is fairly challenging: the so-called карта́вость inability to roll your r’s is the most common type of speech impediment among native Russian speakers, as widespread as lisping in the English-speaking world, if not more. The correct pronunciation of P p requires a certain amount of tongue strength, which can be obtained with time through rigorous exercises (look here and here for inspiration), so don’t beat yourself up if you don’t get it right on your first try.
  3. the letter Ё ё exists, but is rarely used in writing (and this is the reason why the gap between the English spelling (with an e) and the Russian pronunciation (with an o) of Mr. Gorbachev’s surname exists)
    The letter Е е and Ё ё are not equally favored by Russians: many of us don’t feel like adding the dots for Ё ё in writing or reaching to the top left corner of our keyboard to get it just right, so Е е is used instead. At times, this switch can hinder reading comprehension even for native speakers: for instance, все can be read as все (everyone) and всё (everything) – talk about a pain in the neck! A more serious problem, however, lies with the English transcription: the Russian Е е is automatically turned into the English Е е with no regard to the actual Russian pronunciation; as a result, thousands of men unfortunately called Semyon (written as Семён or Семен in Russian) have the word “Semen” written on the very first page of their international passports.
  4. the voiceless signs Ъ ъ (hard sign) and Ь ь (soft sign) rarely, if ever, make an appearance in Romanization
    Meanwhile, their role in Russian is impossible to overestimate. The soft sign Ь ь palatalizes the preceding consonant, which can play a crucial part in word distinction; compare брат brother and брать to take. On the other hand, the hard sign Ъ ъ hardens the preceding consonant and makes sound division clearer than ever; compare съел ((male) ate, pronounced as sss…yel) and сел ((male) sat down, pronounced as syel). As shown above, Ъ ъ and Ь ь can play a crucial part in word meaning determination, so don’t ignore them (like Romanization tends to do). 

These and many more exciting things await those who decided to take up Russian, so get ready! LingoDeer and our high quality audios will be there for you whenever you feel unsure in regards to the pronunciation of this or that word.

Russian Word Stress

In terms of word stress, Russian is a lawless land: there is very little rhyme and reason as to how certain syllables are emphasized while others are not. In addition to this, every word (except some particles) must have a stressed syllable, but no authentic Russian texts feature stress marks! Many learners decried the Russian word stress – to no avail: it still goes strong in the year 2020 and we have no choice but to memorize the correct pronunciation of words one at a time. 

woman portrait
TFW Russian word stress exists. Sourse: engin akyurt, Unsplash

Fortunately, every word featured in LingoDeer comes with an audio attached, so knowledge of correct pronunciation will come to you as easy as breathing (or close to that, anyway) soon enough!

Russian Noun Cases and Word Order 

You may have heard of Russian sentence word order being all over the place and you may have wondered: how come Russians can ignore the basic SVO structure and still get other people to understand them? The answer is simple: noun cases

Every noun in Russian can change its case depending on its role in the sentence, and after that, it doesn’t really matter where it goes – at the beginning, the middle, or the end. 

Take a look: 

Ма́ша лю́бит Са́шу.
Лю́бит Ма́ша Са́шу.
Са́шу лю́бит Ма́ша.
Ма́ша Са́шу лю́бит.
Са́шу Ма́ша лю́бит.
Лю́бит Са́шу Ма́ша.

These sentences all mean the same thing: Masha loves Sasha. The noun cases (which affect the last letters of nouns) make this unimaginable syntactic freedom possible, but it comes at a horrible price: Russian learners must memorize the system of noun endings. It is a grueling task which may seem impossible to accomplish at first, but, fortunately, here at LingoDeer we prepared a bunch of handy tables that will make all of this information easier to digest. 

Russian Accusative Case
Accusative Case used in the examples above

 

Russian Learning Lifehacks

Learn the practical words first

Busy as you are, try to stick to the words that are most likely to come up in a real life conversation between you, a foreigner dabbling in language learning, and a native speaker. Start out with pronouns and nationalities, then move on to job titles, then daily items… If this list sounds similar to our Russian course plan at LingoDeer, don’t worry, it’s intentional! Our lessons and wordlists are prepared with practicality in mind, so you won’t have to wait years till that knowledge comes in handy.

Look for similarities in vocabulary

The Russian language may seem like an impenetrable wall of East Slavic culture, but in truth, it has always been influenced by the outside world. Germans will immediately recognize such words as рюкза́к, бутербро́д and бухга́лтер, the French won’t have to think twice about the meaning of эта́ж, макия́ж and пальто́, learners from Japan will be happy to find a lot of culturally-specific Japanese terms directly transcribed into Russian (think дзюдо́, икеба́на, минта́й, аниме and манга)… 

pushkin
Pushkin, self-portrait. The great Russian poet, like most nobility of his time, started out speaking French better than Russian. Source: Open Culture

Of course, English speakers take the cake: from job titles like ме́неджер to computer terms like ноутбу́к to colloquialisms like креати́вный, Russian is saturated with English words. Not all Russians are happy about it, of course, but as a learner, you should use this development to your advantage. 

At the same time, be aware of the so-called “translator’s false friends”: words that sound like you know them, but mean something completely different: for instance, магази́н means a store, not a magazine, анекдо́т is a joke, not an anecdote, торт means cake, not tort, and so on.

Get acquainted with the basic meaning of the six noun cases

Weathered learners and newbies alike need to have a clear understanding of the Russian noun case system, so we decided to put one in our Lifehacks section:

Noun Case Basic Meaning Example
NOMINATIVE infinitive form, functions as subject Са́ша (Sasha)
GENITIVE denotes belonging кни́га Са́ши (Sasha’s book)
DATIVE denotes giving something to someone OR going somewhere даю́ кни́гу Са́ше ((I am) giving a book to Sasha)
ACCUSATIVE denotes object of action ви́жу Са́шу ((I) see Sasha)
INSTRUMENTAL denotes instrument needed for certain action горжу́сь Са́шей ((I’m) proud of Sasha)
PREPOSITIONAL denotes location OR someone/something you’re thinking about ду́маю о Са́ше ((I’m) thinking about Sasha)

…as well as in our Russian language course:

Russian Noun Cases
Noun Case tables, our proudest work 🙂

Does it seem easy now or too complicated? Either way, you’re one small step closer to your goal!

 

Improve All Four Areas in Learning Russian As You Advance 

Getting Better At Speaking Russian

  • Imitating native speakers: don’t just concentrate on the sounds, go for the intonations, emphasis, and mood; play with your voice and have fun!
  • Don’t forget to record yourself: not only will those recordings serve as proof of your progress in the future, they can also provide immediate help in correcting mispronunciation. Our app offers a playback function that will let you listen to your recordings against the backdrop of recordings made by native speakers, so if something sounds off, you will be the first to know!
  • Broaden your range: parrot store owners and news anchors, teachers and vendors, YouTube MUAs and pop-singers (singing is especially useful for building the self-confidence necessary to speak Russian with your whole chest). 
  • Make sure to use a text that carries word stress marks, if you decide to practice some mechanical reading. When in doubt, use word stress marking tools available online, such as RussianGram or StressFinder.
Music from the 90-s
What Russians listened to in the 90-s. Choose your fave! Source: Ignat Kushanrev, Unsplash

Getting Better At Listening to Russian

Learning to listen is not something that can be done within one day.

  • Start with clear and slow recordings before gradually moving onto more natural-sounding stuff. Our app offers the speed adjustment function that will leave you in charge of your progress.
  • Make sure to always have something Russian sounding in the background. You don’t have to force yourself to pick out words and phrases – just get used to the speech flow as you go about your day.
  • Start building up vocabulary to talk about the stuff that interests you early on. As your skill develops, you may find yourself gravitating to some particular topics – this is good! Russians don’t really like small talk, but we do appreciate passionate people.
  • Other than that, don’t forget about the abundance of movies, TV shows and cartoons in Russian, both new and old, available online with English subtitles. Usually, a cursory search on YouTube will get you the “[movie title] eng sub” in a matter of seconds, but if you are in a browsing mood, go to SovietMoviesOnline and take your pick.

Getting Better At Reading in Russian

What do you do when azbuka and mechanical reading are no longer an issue? Use reading to expand your vocabulary and strengthen your understanding of grammar, of course! Just don’t try to translate every unfamiliar word you see; the tediousness will turn you away from reading in Russian forever. Instead, let the written word wash over you, and something will inevitably stick. 

Lower your expectations: even if you are a Yale graduate, don’t start your reading practice with “War and Peace”. Pick up a graded reader, some pulp fiction or a flashy magazine and build up your skill slowly. Be wary of children’s books though – many of them contain vocabulary that will only clog your memory and offer no use in real life.

Russian books
The Black Kitten series of YA thrillers. Look into it once you’re tired of graded readers! Source: Pikabu

Getting Better At Writing in Russian 

The only way to get better at writing is… to write, write, write! Write down new words and phrases, grammar notes, famous quotes, song lyrics and the like; some beginners are even brave enough to write diaries in Russian, so you can try that too. If you need to check your writing, you can ask a native speaker for help on Italki and similar platforms.

Writing by hand is great for reinforcing literacy and spelling accuracy, but, living in the modern world, we cannot ignore the necessity to type stuff out. Get a Russian keyboard extension if you haven’t! If nothing else, you can always use it to do writing exercises in our app – we do offer a “Let me type” option for those users who don’t really like the ol’ drag and drop.

 

Best Online Resources for Learning Russian

Start out your language journey with these online resources:

  1. LingoDeer (app and blog): A scientifically structured curriculum + deep insight into language learning 
  2. Master Russian: One of the oldest online resources on the Russian language in English.
  3. Learn Russian: A state-supported language learning platform.
  4. Russian with Dasha: An educational Youtuber, focused on culture and daily life in Russia.
  5. Soviet Movies Online:  A website providing Soviet and Russian movies with subtitles.
  6. Russian Reddit Wiki: A Russian language learning guide on Reddit.
  7. Learn Russian Reddit:A Russian language learning community on Reddit.
  8. Russian Memes Ltd.: A Twitter page that will help you understand Russian humor better. English translations provided!

Уда́чи! Good luck!

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