How To Learn Russian By Yourself (From Beginner To Fluency)
- Mille Larsen •30 mins read
Russian is one of the most important languages in the world.
I know - it's hard to objectively rank languages by importance. But in terms of historical, scientific, and political influence, Russian has been and remains to be a language that you just can't ignore.
Yet, it's not a language that many people study. I find this very odd!
With more than 140 million native speakers and over 27 million Russian migrants all around the world (as well as all of the people who speak Russian as a second language), there are tons of opportunities to use the language.
It can even be a great advantage for traveling, furthering your career, reading literature..
And it's mandatory to speak Russian if you want to become an astronaut! (You might want to consider that last point)
In this article, I'm going to discuss how to learn Russian by yourself, without taking a course, going to Russia, or space.
The best way to learn Russian on your own is to get one or two good beginner's courses, and while progressing through them, gradually start learning grammar and vocabulary through context with a program like Glossika. Branch out to daily reading exercises with instant-lookup tools and, finally, use a personal tutor to get the grasp of writing and speaking.
You can easily learn Russian by yourself. But you need to put in the time and be consistent with your studies. Use the right methods and focus on listening, reading and learning grammar through patterns, and Russian fluency will be within your grasp.
Is Russian a Hard Language to Learn?
A lot of people never get started learning Russian because they're worried about the difficulty of the language.
That's a shame.
While Russian takes longer to learn for an English speaker than, say, French or Swedish, it's not difficult to learn.
No languages are inherently difficult, but they might take some time getting used to. Isn't that the same thing, you might ask?
I don't believe so.
Mastering Russian entails getting used to Russian pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary among other things.
These take time to learn. But Russian children learn them every day.
You've got the advantage of being smarter than most children. (I hope)
Your disadvantage might be that you have a higher level of perfectionism. You also have the luxury of already speaking at least one language (English) which means that learning Russian isn't a life-or-death kind of situation.
Learning Russian is not hard. But staying patient, consistent and motivated is.
What about the Russian language demands extra attention?
The reason that Russian takes longer to learn than other languages closer to English, is that it's quite different.
With Russian, you'll need to get used to grammatical cases.
In English, we use a lot of words to be precise when speaking, but with Russian, small modifications are made to the word instead of adding extra words.
In English, there are fewer cases, but they are used.
For example, the genitive case illustrates possession. Instead of saying "the apple that belongs to Jack" we just say "Jack's apple".
In Russian, the genitive case is used as well. Along with a few others which all serve their functions a little like the genitive case does.
Here's a YouTube video that explains what Russian cases are all about.
Watch it, but don't worry if you don't understand everything.
In my opinion, it's better to get used to cases by seeing them over and over rather than trying to force yourself to learn them by analysis.
Then there are genders. In Russian there are three genders for nouns. This is not a big deal - you just need to learn the gender along with the noun each time to add a new word to your vocabulary.
Genders in Russian are relatively regular and you can almost always figure them out from a few common rules.
And then, obviously there's a lot of foreign vocabulary to master as well as the Cyrillic script.
More on that later
Which attributes make Russian simpler to learn?
Like any language, there are things that demand a little extra attention, but there are also aspects that actually make Russian easier!
Generally, Russian has a consistent grammar.
While all languages have many rules that define its grammar, some have almost as many exceptions as rules.
In Russian, there aren't that many exceptions.
If you've figured out how to correctly use a word in one context, chances are that you can switch things around, and make it work in other situations as well!
Partly due to the system of cases, Russian sentences are short and simple. There aren't a lot of filler-words that you need to figure out.
Grammatical tenses are simpler in Russian too. There is no difference between "was" and "has been" in Russian, for example. They're both just "the past".
And then there's the pronunciation.
I'll get further into pronunciation in a bit, and while Russian has some sounds that you need to get used to, it is extremely consistent.
Russian is pronounced exactly like it's spelled. This means that once you master the Cyrillic alphabet and how each letter is pronounced, you can read and pronounce Russian correctly.
This is so much simpler than a language like English or French, where words are sometimes pronounced completely differently from the way they're written.
But more on that later!
How to learn the Russian (Cyrillic) alphabet
When you learn Russian, you absolutely have to learn the alphabet.
I know that some beginner's courses tend to put this off for later, but it's really much better to get it over with from the start.
The Cyrillic alphabet is not difficult.
A lot of the letters have similar forms to those we find in the Latin alphabet (used for English).
There are 33 letters in the Cyrillic alphabet.
And believe me: This is the easiest part of learning Russian!
I've never understood why some people are intimidated by learning foreign alphabets.
You're about to learn a whole new language complete with thousands of words that you need to remember by heart, and you worry about having to match 33 little symbols with their corresponding sounds?
You can learn any foreign alphabet in a matter of days.
As for the Cyrillic alphabet?
You could learn it in an afternoon.
Here's how I'd go about it.
Watch this video:
Yes, I know it's long, but it's very instructive!
In the above video, you'll get a solid introduction to the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, how it's pronounced and how it's written.
You'll need to learn to read Cyrillic in its printed form, but it's also important to be able to read it in cursive.
All Russians learn to write in cursive in school, so if you're ever faced with Russian handwriting, you absolutely need to learn how to read it.
I also recommend that you learn to write in cursive.
Not only is it an important skill to master when learning Russian, but writing letters, words and phrases by hand is also a much more effective way of learning them than just reading them.
You simply remember them better that way.
So when you've watched the above video (and copied the letters by hand as instructed) I recommend that you have a look at this Russian Cyrillic exercise sheet PDF.
Print it, if possible, and copy out the text by hand on a sheet of paper.
Write the letter neatly and slowly, while pronouncing it out loud. Repeat each letter at least three times. Then write the word example and spell it out loud.
I recommend that you do this exercise at least once per day for a week or so. This way you'll get used to writing Russian cursive in no time.
Getting further into Russian pronunciation
After having worked with the alphabet, you've already touched on pronunciation.
Russian does, however, have some sounds that might demand a little extra attention to some.
If you find that the foreign sounds in Russian are very difficult to pronounce, you'll need to focus a little more on pronunciation in the start.
I recommend having a look at the course Pimsleur Russian.
Pimsleur is an audio based course focused on pronunciation. It's very slow paced, so don't expect it to take you very far.
But it does do a very good job of teaching the basic pronunciation and word-formation of Russian.
I don't recommend that you buy the whole course. Do a few of the introductory lessons until you feel a little more comfortable with the pronunciation.
Then leave Pimsleur Russian behind. Check the different options for Pimsleur Russian on amazon.
Now you've got to move on to a more consistent course.
Get serious with Russian: Pick up a good beginner's course
So after having touched upon pronunciation and the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, you need to start doing daily lessons in a good Russian textbook.
My favorite self-study course for Russian has to be Assimil. (Scroll down for a link)
Assimil Russian in a dialogue-based course that gradually introduces you to more and more advanced content, lesson after lesson.
It comes with great quality audio, either on CD's or as MP3's and is generally very enjoyable to work with.
Something that Assimil is known for, is its intuitive approach. The name "Assimil" hints that the course is made to make you "assimilate" the language.
In other words: You learn the grammatical patterns, the vocabulary and linguistic features by seeing them in context rather than "dissecting" and analyzing the text.
This, in my opinion, is a much better approach than trying to memorize conjugation tables and rules.
Assimil Russian will start by introducing the Russian Cyrillic alphabet all over again.
I recommend that you don't skip this even though you've already spent time learning the alphabet.
Working through the alphabet once again will help you consolidate your knowledge of the alphabet, and you'll remember things better.
This is how I recommend that you study with Assimil:
- First, read the English translation of the lesson to get an idea about what's going on.
- Then play the audio while following along in the Russian text.
- Next, read the first Russian sentence out loud, using the Cyrillic alphabet. Then play the audio of that sentence and press pause. Repeat the sentence out loud again, glancing to the translation. Work your way through each sentence this way. Try to pronounce as clearly as possible, mimicking the melody and tone of the Russian speaker.
- After working your way through the whole dialogue, read the notes and explanations of the text.
I recommend that you do one lesson in your Assimil Russian course like this each day.
For each new lesson I do in Assimil, I also like to review the previous 5-10 lessons that I've already done. Just play the audio and repeat after each sentence.
I recommend that you do one Assimil lesson per day. Find a good time slot during your daily routine, where it fits in. I like studying early in the morning.
If you don't remember what the Russian sentence translates to in English, glance to the translation while reviewing.
Check out Assimil Russian on amazon.
Why it's important to attack Russian from multiple fronts in the same time
Whenever I study foreign languages, I always try to keep my approach varied and do more than more course in the same time.
Because seeing language examples that you've only touched on in another context brings it back from memory and creates a feeling of recognition.
This moment of "recognizing" a foreign word or grammatical point from somewhere is extremely important.
It immediately makes your brain focus on the word more.
It's no longer just a random word that you've got from your Russian lessons the other day. Now it's a word that you've studied, then begun using.
And having actually used the word means that your brain realizes that it's a necessary word. So it dedicates more energy to remembering it, and it'll be so much harder to forget.
Recognizing a word is a positive experience. As a language student, you'll notice this yourself: When you realize that you know this word, it feel's like you're actually making progress.
What happens in the brain is, that it'll attach this positive emotion to that word.
Instead of being a neutral, gray word with a boring label on it, like "Russian word for X", it'll be a word that you've got some kind of positive memory of.
There are many ways to work with creating positive associations and memories of words that you're learning. I discuss some of them in my articles about remembering words, and doing multiple courses at once.
But I'll also get into a few more examples later in the article, so keep reading.
Pick a second beginner's course for Russian
So there's no doubt that it can be extremely useful to study Russian with two different beginner's courses in the same time.
It helps you see words and grammar points in another context and makes it much easier to remember this new information.
So which other course should you do side by side with Assimil?
I recommend Colloquial Russian.
Colloquial Russian is a very thorough Russian learning course.
The approach here, is more analytical than that of Assimil, and it can work great in combination.
Colloquial has a heavier focus on grammar than Assimil.
I recommend that you take these grammar lessons as reference.
Don't necessarily consider them as content that you need to master right now, but rather as explanations and a "behind the scenes" view of how Russian works.
And then do your daily lessons with Colloquial Russian as you would with Assimil.
If you decide to study Assimil each morning, why not use Colloquial in the evening?
To have a closer look, go check out Colloquial Russian on amazon.
Work with Russian sentences through Glossika
When you've worked a good chunk into your Assimil and Colloquial courses, it's time to add something extra to the mix.
I'm a great fan of the language learning system Glossika. (You've got to have to wait for the link until I've finished telling you about it).
Glossika is a great language learning program that teaches you grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary through massive sentence input.
There are several thousand of Russian sentences in Glossika's archive. These come with their English counter-parts, their audio recordings and the phonetic pronunciation.
You study them through a simple system, where you listen, repeat and review old sentences.
And you do that a lot - It's that simple.
Or at least it would appear so. Glossika is based on research, and a lot of experience in the field of language learning.
So even though it's simple using it, the way it's laid out is based on some rather complicated theory.
With Glossika you learn Russian in chunks. This means that you learn to recognize patterns in the language from seeing it over and over again.
This is much more effective than the analytic approach, where you focus on learning grammar tables by heart.
It actually resembles the way children learn languages. Only, it's better!
More on that later.
How to study Russian with Glossika
When starting to use Glossika for learning Russian, you'll first be asked to do a placement test.
This test is meant to find the right level for you in order to begin learning Russian with Glossika.
If you feel that you've already made some breakthroughs with Russian through the beginner's courses that you're doing, do this test, and see if the system lets you get ahead.
I usually recommend, however, that you start from scratch.
With Glossika you need to get used to the natural speed in which everyday Russian is spoken, so it's good to start with the easy sentences, even if they're slightly below your level.
When you start studying Russian with Glossika, you study new sentences in batches of 5.
For each new 5 sentences, you'll repeat them 5 times in random order. This means that you will be doing at least 25 repetitions for each 5 new sentences.
This is what the study screen looks like for Glossika Russian
On the Glossika study screen you'll be faced with the sentence in English, the sentence in Russian as well as the pronunciation written out in the phonetic alphabet.
You'll first hear the English sentence spoken. Then a pause, then the Russian sentence two times followed by a pause.
After first hearing the English sentence, try reading the Russian version out loud. You don't have much time, so try to be quick!
Then, after hearing the Russian sentence two times, try repeating.
Do your best to mimic the Russian speaker as precisely as you can. Speak clearly, in the same speed and with the same melody and intonation as the Russian speaker.
At first, this is very difficult! When you've only just seen and heard the sentence once, you'll most likely mumble quite a bit and have a hard time following along in the right speed.
Don't worry about this. You'll get plenty of opportunities to get it right later on.
Do your first few sentences, and if you feel like it, continue on and do another 5-15 sentences.
But don't overdo it. Even if it feels like a relatively easy task to keep doing more and more sentences, you need to be aware that these sentences will all be scheduled for review. Several times!
So doing too much in the beginning will create a mountain of sentences to review later on!
The importance of reps (or repetitions) with Glossika Russian
After finishing your first 5-20 sentences, put Glossika aside and do something else.
After 12-24 hours, your first sentences will be scheduled for review. Review these before adding any new sentences.
Review (or "reps", short for "repetitions") is the cornerstone of Glossika.
Each time you do a new batch of sentences, they'll be scheduled for review. And each time you review a sentence, it'll be rescheduled a little further into the future.
Glossika reschedules these sentences by using an algorithm based on the forgetting curve.
The forgetting curve is a way of estimating how long you will remember a new piece of information before forgetting it.
For each time you're reminded of the word or phrase, you'll remember it a little longer.
So Glossika reschedules reps gradually further and further into the future, but always at a point in time where you shouldn't have forgotten it yet.
The system isn't perfect, of course. It can't predict which sentences you're having a hard time with and which ones are easy.
So that's why Glossika let's you choose for each sentence if you find it easy or difficult, so that the system can use this information for rescheduling the review.
Reps with Glossika are so important that they're used as milestones for measuring your progress in learning Russian.
You're supposed to use the system a lot to get the most out of it. The milestones are 25.000, 50.000 and 75.000 repetitions.
And while it might take many months to reach this number of reps, they're good indications of making progress in Russian.
Learning Russian with Glossika resembles how children learn languages
Many Russian courses will tell you that their approach is special because it's "intuitive" and teaches you Russian "the way children learn Russian".
All of these statements are false, of course. Children learn languages in a very specific way.
They listen to input for several years before they begin blabbering. They're then corrected for several more years until they gradually start to intuitively "feel" the language.
The way children learn languages is not very efficient!
Kids don't have another language to learn through. They don't have the analytic and strategic brain of an adult, and the input they learn from is far from organized.
It's more often than not completely random.
Glossika's method is also an intuitive one. There are no drills, exercises or grammar explanations. Add to that that you're learning the language from hearing correct examples of it again and again. Like children do.
Glossika is structured, however.
Each time you learn a sentence, it'll be rescheduled just before you're about to forget it. Not randomly, which is the case for children, who might not hear an unknown word again for a long time.
The content is also strictly organized and tailored for your learning.
Your fist Russian sentence will be an easy one, that you're helped to understand. And each new sentence will use vocabulary and grammar closely related to what you just learned.
This is much more effective than the complete randomness of children's language learning. You'll be learning Russian intuitively with Glossika, but not like a child.
You'll be learning it like an adult.
If you're interested in reading more about Glossika, you can check out this article that I wrote about it.
Or you might simply go to the Glossika Russian website. (There, finally the link I promised!)
How to learn Russian by reading
At this point, you've finished your Russian beginner's textbooks and you've been using Glossika for some time.
Not it's time to start reading in Russian.
Reading is one of the most effective ways of getting better at Russian. It's a fantastic way of learning new vocabulary and getting used to how the language works.
But how to go about studying Russian through reading?
Most people would naturally assume that they need to get a dictionary, start reading a book, and look up unknown words as they show up.
This is a very bad idea.
Reading a text in Russian while constantly having to rely on a dictionary is extremely tiring and frustrating.
You just won't get the chance to get into the story at all before being interrupted by unknown words.
And for each unknown word, you need to 1. Get the dictionary, 2. Find the right word, 3. Match the right definition to the version of the word in your Russian text, 4. Understand how it's used in the context, and 5. Get back into reading.
And then you'll read for 2 minutes, and another word will need to be looked up.
You'll forget what was going on in the story before even putting down the dictionary. And as soon as you come to the next word you don't understand, you'll have already forgotten the one you just looked up.
If you started reading with a lot of motivation, you can be sure that the motivation you have left will be spread thin at this point.
But if reading with a dictionary is so bad, then how is it even possible to use Reading as a study method for learning Russian?
I'll tell you!
Here's an article I wrote about motivation in language learning.
Read Russian using a pop-up dictionary
A great tool that I like for reading articles online in a foreign language is Google Dictionary.
Google Dictionary is a free browser extension that you can download and install for the Chrome browser. (Alternatives exist for other browsers too).
It allows you to click any word, anywhere on the internet in order to get an instant translation.
Using Google Dictionary to read an article about building your own kayak!
In the above example, I simply searched "how to build a kayak" in Russian on Google.
You can search for anything that you might be interested in and be pretty sure to find something interesting to read in Russian.
If you're not sure how to word your search queries, write them in English and run them through Google Translate.
Reading online articles with Google Dictionary is much easier than having to look up all unknown words in a paper dictionary.
With a pop-up dictionary, you get an instant translation, and you don't have to dwell on it. Instead of being interrupted in your reading for several minutes, you can continue reading immediately.
Don't pick articles on very heavy topics though. You can read most things using Google Dictionary, but it still takes a little extra effort to read texts in a foreign language like Russian than it would in your native language.
That's why I suggest that you keep the themes light. You might be interested in philosophy, and not all philosophy texts use difficult language.
They do, however, speak of difficult concepts. And having to figure these out while reading in a foreign language creates some extra strain on your brain that's simply not necessary.
So as a rule of thumb - you can read anything, but if the theme of what you're reading would be difficult to understand in your native language, you probably shouldn't read it in Russian.
How to use LingQ for learning Russian
LingQ is one of my all-time favorite tools for language learning.
With LingQ, you import Russian texts into their online reader or app and study the text in their interface.
LingQ then analyzes the text and compares it to your known vocabulary. It registers words that you know, words you haven't studied yet, and words you're in the process of learning.
This is what the LingQ app looks like when studying Russian
As a first-time LingQ user, when opening your first text, you'll see a page full of blue words.
Blue words are "unknown" words in LingQ.
Click one, and you'll hear the pronunciation and get a popup with some popular translations as well as a button saying "I know this word" and another one saying "ignore".
If you already know the word, click "I know this word". The blue word will now turn into ordinary text.
I usually click "ignore" for names or things that are not really words to be learned.
If the word is new to you, click the translation you feel fits best. The word will now turn yellow.
Yellow words are called "LingQ's". These are the words you're in the process of learning.
As you see the word again and again in different texts, you can change its category from a word that you slightly recognize to a word you almost know.
And finally, you can mark it as "known" once you've learned it.
LingQ then provides different tools that you can use to review and learn these yellow words. You can do flashcards or get daily reminders in an email among other things.
I find it's most effective, though, to just keep reading and seeing the words in different contexts.
There is something that I recommend that you do to make the Russian words stick, however:
Using hints instead of direct translations with LingQ
Once you've finished going through the text, I recommend that you go and have a look at all of the LingQ's (or yellow words) that you have made.
Some of them seem straight forward - you don't know the word yet, but you're well on your way to learning it.
Leave these as they are. You'll learn them after seeing them in other texts in the future.
But then there are other words that you really have a hard time remembering.
I recommend that you have a look at the translations that you've picked for these words. Can you come up with something better?
If you can think of a synonym in Russian. Or perhaps describe what the word means in a Russian sentence or even English, you've got a much better chance of remembering it.
Words that you've created a personalized hint for, become much easier to remember than words that you've simply picked an instant translation for.
The reason is that you've created a relationship with the word. It's not just any old word, but a word that you've thought of and made decisions about.
If you want to learn more about LingQ, you might want to read my article about it.
Or you could go directly to the LingQ website and have a look.
Parallel reading with Russian and English paper books
If you're not much for reading things off your computer or phone screen, there are other options.
You can get a lot out of reading paper-books, if only you use the right approach. As I mentioned earlier, using paper-dictionaries to look up words is a really bad idea.
So you need another way to make the Russian text "transparent".
A method I've used a lot is parallel reading.
You get a book in Russian and the English translation of the same text and you read the two side by side.
First read a sentence, paragraph or chapter in English, then read the same thing in Russian.
This doesn't instantly teach you all the vocabulary you need to understand a Russian novel. It does, however, enable you to read fluently in Russian and "ignore" the words you don't know without missing out.
Reading the text first in English lets you know what the story is about. It enables you to figure out what's written "between the lines" and what the author is only hinting at.
These are things that can be extremely difficult to pick up on when reading in a foreign language, even if you're looking up words.
There are a ton of great Russian literature out there that you might want to try and read in this way.
The key is to get the Russian and English version of the same book. (And avoid abridged or simplified versions that don't correspond.)
There are many great modern classics in Russian that you can easily find in English translation online.
If you want to read something a little more familiar to begin with, however, have a look at this complete Harry Potter series in Russian on amazon.
Or you can have a look at " The Murder At The Vicarage " by Agatha Christie in Russian, books by Dan Brown or anything you want, really. (Both links to amazon)
Time to start speaking and writing with a tutor
When you're a few thousand reps into Glossika and you've made a solid, daily habit out of reading in Russian, it's time to get serious!
You need to start to speak and write in Russian.
I recommend doing this with a tutor.
Have a look at a site like Italki, and check their list of Russian tutors.
Pick someone that you think you might enjoy working with, and make contact.
You need to discuss how you'd like your tutoring sessions to go. I recommend that you take charge of your learning from the get-go.
You'll want to agree on a subject of discussion before each session. And then spend the time conversing in Russian about that subject.
Ask your tutor to keep corrections, grammar explanations and above all - English - to a minimum. You'll want to keep these tutoring sessions conversational above all.
If your tutor has pointers and corrections that he or she would like you to know about, they can be written in a report that you'll read after the end of the conversation.
You also need to make sure to hear your own voice as much as possible. If you don't speak at least half of the time, you're with your tutor, it won't really be conversation - but plain old audio input. So do speak!
And if things don't work out, don't hesitate to go look for another tutor. You're paying after all!
I recommend that you schedule 2-3 conversations of 30-45 minutes each week.
After the end of each conversation, sit down and write a text in Russian about what you've just discussed. In the beginning, you can make the text short. 100-300 words is OK for a start.
But as you progress, the sky is the limit. Send the text to your tutor and have it corrected. Then make sure to read the corrections and try to understand everything.
But don't worry if you're not able to apply the corrections immediately after. These things take time!
For writing texts in Russian, you've got multiple options. The easiest one is to write on a tablet or a smartphone where you can easily switch the keyboard layout to Russian.
You can do the same on a PC, but you'll need to either put some stickers on the keys or buy a Russian keyboard. You can find a few options on Amazon for that.
And then there's the option of writing your texts by hand.
This might seem a little difficult. Especially when you have to scan the text, email it to your tutor and have it corrected.
But if you can make it work, it's a great way of getting into the habit of writing the Cyrillic alphabet by hand.
Writing things out by hand also helps you remember words much better than writing them on a computer.
Find a Russian language buddy
Hiring a Russian language tutor can be a little costly. This is why many people look for other options.
One such is language exchange.
There are numerous sites online where you can find Russian pen-pals, language buddies or language exchange partners.
The idea is that your partner helps you learn Russian, and that you help your partner witch whichever language he or she is learning.
The advantage of this method is that it's free. It also has the potential of making you new friends from foreign regions of the world.
It also has its drawbacks, however.
You need to find a language buddy who agrees on your method, who's as ambitious as you are, who's a great tutor and who's motivated to teach you Russian.
This is far from always a given, and you have to be in luck to find the right person without a lot of trial and error.
And even when everything works great, you'll need to dedicate a lot of time helping your language pal learning English. (Here's an article I wrote about finding the time to study languages)
But wether you choose language exchange or you opt for hiring a tutor is up to you.
Both approaches will eventually get you to fluency.
And that's it
That's it for my guide to self-studying Russian.
If you follow my advice, and you stick with it, you'll be sure to become fluent in the Russian language.
Learning a foreign language by yourself, is not something you do in a few weeks. It takes time, and you need to keep at it for a long time.
If you're consistent and study every day, if you're patient, and stay motivated, however. You will learn Russian!
This guide took me a long time to write, so I'd be thrilled to hear your opinion in the comment section below!