Today’s guest post is from Jesse who runs the site Livefluent.com. He is native English speaker from the USA. He helps run several language learning blogs and studies foreign languages himself. His language learning journey started with the Spanish language. Currently he is studying Russian and hopes to use the language as he travels the world.
Russian is known for being one of the harder foreign languages to learn for native English speakers. This fact alone discourages many from even trying to start learning it. But don’t let all the negative press discourage you. Yes Russian can be difficult, but some of its negative fanfare simply isn’t deserved.
Here are 5 practical tips you can use to help you learn the Russian language, and overcome some of the common obstacles that beginners face.
1) Start with the Cyrillic alphabet
One of the more intimidating features of the Russian language is that it uses the Cyrillic alphabet rather than a Latin based one. At first glance the new letters and symbols can seem overwhelming. However this aspect of the language really isn’t as difficult as may seem.
There are some sounds that will be completely new to you as a native English speaker (most notably the ы sound). However there are also a lot of sounds in the language that are at least somewhat comparable to English. There are even a few that aren’t different at all.
If you’re serious about learning Russian, spend the first week simply learning the alphabet. You’ll be glad you did. You can divide the letters into three groups: letters that sound the same in English, letters that sound similar to English, and letters that are completely different from English.
After you can read and recognize individual letters, practice reading and pronouncing whole words. You don’t necessarily have to know what the words mean at this point. You’re simply trying to become familiar with the letters and their sounds.
When you’re comfortable with the Cyrillic alphabet it will be easier for you to learn and remember Russian words.
2) Break up Difficult pronunciation
Russian pronunciation can be a beast. Russian words often stack consonants together in groups of three or four in ways that just don’t happen in English. My first conversation with a native Russian speaker was rough. The words sounded more like noises to me because I simply wasn’t use to the language’s sound system.
Learning to read the Russian alphabet is important, but you’ll benefit even more if you practice correct pronunciation along side it. As you learn to read and recognize the sounds of Russian letters, spend some time trying to pronounce them correctly.
Set aside 10-15 minutes a day practicing the pronunciation of difficult words. Think of this time as gymnastics for your mouth. The more you practice a correct accent the more natural it will feel. Your mouth and tongue literally have to get used to making Russian vowels and consonants.
The more comfortable you are with pronouncing the language, the easier it will be for you to remember and understand it when it’s spoken.
3) Break down grammatical cases
If you have little to no experience with languages which use grammatical cases, then Russian grammar is likely to be a shock for you. It’s one thing to have Russian verbs which change form (also called conjugation) like verbs do in a Romance language such as Spanish or Italian. It’s a whole other ballgame when Russian nouns start changing too.
Russian nouns will take on a different form (called cases) based on their function within a sentence. There are a total of six different grammatical cases in Russian, which is a lot to keep track off. Instead of diving in head first and trying to juggle all six cases at one time, try focusing on one at a time.
Once you’re familiar with a case move onto the next one, and continue the process until you are comfortable with all six. It might take you longer to make basic sentences this way, but when you’re finished you have a solid foundation in the Russian case system, which will carry you through the upper levels of the language.
4) Learn words in context
It’s important to learn words in context no matter which language you’re learning, but it’s especially helpful if you’re learning Russian. When you learn a word in isolation your brain simply doesn’t have that much information to grab onto. Inevitably in your you’ll translate a single Russian in English.
You’re not so much thinking for the meaning of the Russian word, so much as your thinking of the English meaning of the Russian word. This makes it harder for you to remember and use what you learn in a real conversation.
On the other hand, if you learn a word in the context of a full sentence (even if it’s a simple one), you pick up clues from the words you already know and in a way you can infer what the meaning is. It’s certainly okay to translate the word if you’re unsure or get stuck. This process will help you see how and when words are used, which is great for learning and reviewing those pesky grammatical cases!
Learn With Oliver is a great tool to use for sort of contextual learning. This is because they let you choose the difficult of the full sentences you use, meaning that your studies can grow with your ability.
5) Practice with Native speakers
Practicing your Russian with native speakers is where the rubber really meets the road. This is where you get a chance to take everything you’ve learned thus far and put it into practice. It’s one thing to remember a word on a flashcard or in an online exercise. It’s a whole deal altogether to correctly use that new word in a conversation.
Odds are your fist conversations in Russian won’t be pretty. Keep your head up. It’s not important that you speak perfectly. It’s important that when you make mistakes you receive quick and accurate feedback from a native speaker.
This process of making mistakes and being corrected is what will propel your speaking skills to the next level. Try finding a local language learning exchange or club in your city. If you can’t find native speakers locally, check online. There are a plenty of free language exchanges on the web.
Learning Russian isn’t always going to be a walk in the park, but with the right tools and approach it’s far from a hopeless endeavor. Use these tips to help you learn the language as efficiently as possible. Most of all don’t forget that in the midst of all its difficult grammar, odd pronunciation, and foreign alphabet, Russian really is an amazing language. Enjoy the process of learning it!
I completely agree with Jesse that practicing with native speakers is one of the best ways to get better. You’ve got to do your homework of course, but the conversations with others will show you where you need to improve, and you learn a lot of contextual vocabulary.