Though a trip to Russia might not be at the top of your to-do list, its complex native language is well worth learning.
Whether you want to converse with Russian-speaking people, read the news in its original Russian version, or simply challenge your foreign language learning skills, you'll find plenty to keep you busy on your journey towards fluency.
But before you begin, you'll need a crash course in the basics.
A Quick Introduction to the Russian Language and Culture
Like many European language systems, the Russian language relies on different grammatical rules to English, which can initially make it a confusing prospect for English speakers.
For example, just as in the Romance languages, you'll need to gender your nouns. There are neuter, masculine, and feminine nouns, though these are easily identified by the letters used at the end of the word – a system that's only ever deviated from in a few cases as a result of physical gender.
That's right – when speaking Russian, you can drop the 'the'!
How to Start Learning Russian by Yourself
The Russian language is a tricky one, not least because it uses the Cyrillic alphabet rather than our more familiar Latin one.
You'll find plenty of resources online, from free or cheap Russian courses and Russian language ebooks and podcasts, as well as lists of Russian verbs and their conjugations and those all-important feminine and masculine nouns.
To help you learn Russian efficiently and correctly, here are some of our tried-and-tested tips for success.
1. Get used to listening to Russian
The Russian language sounds quite unfamiliar to the American ear because its pronunciation is very different. But actually, once you break its sounds down, it's a lot simpler than English.
Think about English vowels – each of them can make countless different sounds, which native speakers don't stress out about too much, but which certainly make it difficult for language learners to get to grips with our hybrid language.
Russian, on the other hand, has relatively few sound options for each of its letters, and most actually just have one possible sound.
2. Watch Russian TV with subtitles
Our favorite way to kill two birds with one stone, and get used to listening to the Russian language and seeing it written down? Binge-watching some Russian TV shows with the subtitles on.
At first, you'll have to rely pretty heavily on English subtitles, but you'll work towards being able to watch with the help of Russian subtitles.
Oh, and we'd hate to toot our own horn, but if you watch on Lingopie, you can opt to have both sets of subtitles on the go at the same time. And you'll be able to click on unfamiliar words to get a quick definition, too!
3. Write down new Russian vocabulary every day
When you're learning a new language, every day is full of 'eureka' moments – particularly if you're an absolute beginner. That's because the vast majority of the words and phrases you'll stumble upon will be brand new to you.
Make sure to take advantage of these learning opportunities by keeping a notebook full of new vocabulary that you pick up in your studies.
By writing them down, you can revisit them later and ensure they don't just go in one ear and straight back out the other.
4. Learn the Russian Alphabet
One of the primary stumbling blocks that stop people from learning Russian is the alphabet.
Unlike European Romance languages, which use the same Latin alphabet as English, Russian uses the Cyrillic alphabet. So, your first few days of Russian lessons will feel a bit like going back to preschool.
The rest, though, will be best learned in much the same way you learned the alphabet as a child – listen, sound them out, and write them down before progressing to basic words.
Once you've got the alphabet learned, you'll have crossed one of the biggest hurdles of learning Russian, because it's a phonetic language, so everything is spelled exactly as it sounds.
5. Invest in Russian Books for Beginners
Due to its unique alphabet, it's really important that you dedicate plenty of your study time to reading and writing Russian, so you can get used to working with the Cyrillic alphabet and begin to recognize Russian words.
6. Speak Russian out loud when you're alone
Learning to speak a new language is intimidating – we know from experience!
But while a Romance language like French or Spanish might at least sound quite familiar as it rolls off your tongue, Russian is going to sound strange and harsh the first few times you try to speak it.
Our solution? Practice speaking Russian out loud on your own first, so you can get used to the new sounds in your own voice.
This leads us to our next point...
7. Make Friends with Russian Speakers
There's no substitute for a conversation with native speakers when it comes to learning a new language.
Find a language learning partner online or in a local language group, and you'll not only get the chance to practice colloquial Russian in a real-life situation, but you'll also get the chance to learn about Russian culture and its civilians.
8. Don't obsess over Russian Grammar
If you ask any language learner what's most likely to put them off their studies, almost everyone will say the same thing: grammar rules.
Learning Russian grammar rules takes a particularly solid commitment, because Russian, like all Slavic languages, uses strict and complex grammar that won't bear much of a resemblance to what you're used to.
9. Take a vacation to Russia
There's nothing quite like total immersion when it comes to learning a language – particularly when it's a language like Russian, which is so different from English.
10. Learn Russian with Lingopie
Of course, it's not always possible to travel to Russia, and there are only so many grammar lessons and Russian courses you can take before you simply need to test your listening and speaking skills in the wild.
One great way to do that is by streaming Russian movies and TV shows. We've got loads to choose from on Lingopie. Here are some of our favorites to get you started.
Russian Movies & TV Shows on Lingopie
What do you do when you're in your thirties, single, and starting to feel a bit desperate? Resort to magic, of course.
Return to Yourself
After suffering a sexual assault, Lena's life changes – and the hunt for her attacker gets increasingly complex.
A conscripted soldier returns home to avenge his family's death after a tragic plan accident – but when he falls in love, his plans for revenge become a little more complicated.
The Russian Language: Key Traits and Characteristics
The first time you hear the Russian language spoken, you might be taken aback by how harsh it can sound when it's not your native language.
That's because it doesn't have the same Latin roots as many of the European languages we're used to hearing, and is made up of very distinct sounds for each letter of its alphabet.
When spoken, it uses a monosyllabic emphasis to set the tone of the sentence, which can sound quite forceful to an untrained ear.
But with time and practice, Russian will sound familiar, friendly – and totally comprehensible.
Why You Should Learn Russian
Need some incentive to study Russian? We'll let the country speak for itself.
Russia is a beautiful country worth visiting
Though the perception of Russia is often marred by its modern politics, it's a beautiful country that's well worth visiting in peaceful times.
Capital city Moscow is the largest in Europe, with an expansive mixture of modern architecture and beautiful historical buildings such as St Basil's Cathedral.
Saint Petersburg, Russia's second-largest city, is considered its cultural capital – and it's a real treasure trove for history buffs.
The center of the city has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and its pastel palaces, cathedrals, and residences are strikingly juxtaposed with remnants of Soviet influence.
Of course, it's not all about the cities – Russia is the world's largest country, spanning 6,601,668 square miles and two continents.
While Moscow and St. Petersburg are in the European part of Russia, which is where the vast majority of the population lives, Russia spans the breadth of Central Asia and is home to dramatic vistas, with mountains, steppes, plains, volcanos, and the oldest lake in the world.
Russian is spoken by hundreds of millions of people
As the eighth most-spoken language in the world, making the effort to learn Russian is time well spent.
You'll find yourself with 258 million potential new conversation partners. It's the official language of Russia, of course, but also Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, among a host of other Russian-speaking countries that don't necessarily consider it an official language.
Because it was the de facto official language of the Soviet Union, most residents of former Soviet countries can speak Russian with some degree of proficiency, which further widens the scope of its use.
Speaking Russian will enable you to learn other languages
Russian is one of three East Slavic languages still in common use today, and that means that learning it is a useful gateway to being able to speak and understand the other Slavic languages, Ukrainian and Belarusian, too – a skill that's more useful than ever.
Russian culture is fascinating
There's rich evidence of East Slavic civilizations dating back to the third century AD, and ever since then, Russia – and the civilizations that became it – has amassed a particularly fascinating cultural identity.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Tsardom of Russia saw an immense period of territorial growth but also suffered through major famine and civil war.
After becoming an empire in 1721, Russia became one of the world's greatest superpowers, and from 1762, Catherine the Great's rule saw the country enter into its Age of Enlightenment, which had one of the greatest impacts on arts, science, and culture.
This gilded age for the upper classes began to come to an unsteady end in the 19th century when the Napoleonic Wars brought liberalism to Russia.
Though Russia defeated Napoleon's army, it was the catalyst for the end of the empire and a fight for democracy and workers' rights that would ultimately lay the groundwork for Russia's political path throughout the last century.
These days, Russia's identity continues to shift and its internal fight for civilian rights is far from over. The country is something of a monument to its complex history, with ornate palaces juxtaposed by brutalist Soviet architecture.
Of course, Russia's cultural exports have also been significant, with classic Russian literature such as that by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky heralded as some of the world's greatest books, and playwrights such as Chekhov filling theatres around the world.
Their works – and the many modern adaptations of them – are a great starting point to help you understand Russia. (Even if you need to reach for the English translation!)
Useful Russian words and phrases
Learning the complexities of Russian history is fascinating and, some might argue, necessary – but it won't help you order a meal in Moscow or find the nearest train station. For that, you need practical vocabulary.
Here are a few words and phrases you'll need to know to get around a Russian speaking country:
- Hello (formal) – Здравствуйте (ZDRAstvuyte)
- My name is... – Меня зовут... (meNYA zoVUT...)
- Please – Пожалуйста (poZHAlusta)
- Thank you – Спасибо (spaSIbo)
- Where is the bathroom? – Где туалет? (gde tuaLET?)
- Do you speak English? – вы говорите по-Английски? (vi govoRIte po angLIYski?)
- I don’t understand. – Я не понимаю. (YA ne poniMAyu)
- Where is the metro? – Где метро? (gde meTRO?)
- Could I have the menu, please? – Можно меню, пожалуйста? (MOzhno meNU poZHAlusta?)
- Goodbye. – До свидания. (do sviDAniya)
FAQs relating to how to learn Russian by yourself
Before you start relearning the alphabet, you've probably got a few burning questions about how to learn Russian.
We've collected and answered some of the most common to help get you on your way.
Is Russian an easy language to learn?
Russian, like any Slavic language, is widely considered one of the hardest spoken languages to learn – but that certainly doesn't mean it's impossible.
Often, people are put off by the fact it doesn't use the English alphabet, but if you're happy to commit to picking up the Cyrillic alphabet, you'll be off to a flying start in your language learning journey.
Like all other languages, learning Russian is all about keeping an open mind, immersing yourself in the language, and practicing with native Russian speakers whenever possible. You might be surprised at how quickly you pick it up.
You can always start learning the language on YouTube and working on your confidence to finally overcome shyness when learning a new language.
How long does it take to learn Russian by yourself?
Dedicate ten hours of study to the Cyrillic alphabet alone – yes, really! After that, though, your journey towards fluency depends on a few factors.
By putting aside half an hour every day to practice Russian – whether that's reading, writing, listening to a podcast, or watching a Russian TV show – you can be speaking and understanding simple Russian sentences in just a few months.
Of course, total fluency – that is, speaking at a native level – will take considerably longer.
That's a language learning journey of a decade, but you'll be able to make yourself understood in Russian-speaking countries much sooner than that.
What should I learn first when learning Russian?
Before you do anything else, you'll need to master the Cyrillic alphabet. This doesn't need to be intimidating – in fact, it can be done in a matter of a few hours.
Try Lingopie's handy video series, which will help you pick up the new letters and a few common Russian words.
How many months does it take to learn Russian?
How long is a piece of string? Your language learning process isn't on a set timeline, and the amount of time you want to dedicate to learning Russian will depend on what you want to achieve.
If you want to speak like a native, it'll take years to master Russian at this highest level. However, if you simply want to be able to travel to a Russian-speaking country without constantly pulling out a translation app, you could get there in a matter of months.
Particularly, if you take the time to identify your unique learning style.
Can I learn Russian in 6 months?
While total fluency will take years of practicing Russian and will likely require you to spend time in a Russian-speaking country, it's absolutely possible to learn the Cyrillic alphabet, plenty of Russian words, and the basics of Russian grammar in six months.
That'll be enough to hold basic conversations with complete sentences and read and write at a beginner level.
Is learning Russian useless or useful?
With nearly 300 million Russian speakers worldwide and many more who speak similar Slavic languages, it's very useful to learn Russian. And even more so in our current global political climate.
Understanding Russian will help you understand Russia because you'll be able to comprehend news and media from Eastern Europe.
Summing up: How to Learn Russian by Yourself
While the Russian language is undoubtedly a tricky one, there's no reason why you can't learn to speak Russian reasonably competently in just a few months.
To get you started on the right track, why not dive into Lingopie's stocked archive of Russian movies and TV shows?
Sign up for a free trial today and learn Russian now!
And if you're still unsure, why not do some more reading? Here's an article on The Best Way To Learn Russian On Your Own to help you decide.