How I learned Russian

bucky

Ostrich
I’m an American who became conversational in Russian after a few years living in the FSU. A few forum members have asked me for advice on learning Russian, so here’s a somewhat edited version of a post I did a few years ago that didn’t survive the transition to the new RVF for whatever reason.

In the broadest sense, the most important thing I did was commit to at least two hours of studying or practicing Russian every day, no exceptions, no matter how much I didn’t feel like it on any given day. I’d often do as much as four hours or even more of studying and conversation practice. I mixed this up between the following:

1) Vocabulary
2) Reading aloud for pronunciation
3) Directly studying grammar
4) Reading for comprehension

5) Talking to native speakers (and listening to mistakes they make when speaking English)

Before getting into details on these, let me say that three months before arriving in the FSU, I worked through all three levels of the Pimsleur Russian program. Pimsleur is an amazing way to get started in Russian and if you follow the program it works. The main thing is not to skip a day ever, for any reason. I was able to communicate with native speakers in Russian on a very basic level on my first day in the FSU.

So, high level, my advice would be:

1) Start with Pimsleur. Spend three months doing all three levels of Pimsleur Russian without skipping a day for any reason.

2) Study for at least two hours a day, no skipping days. After you’ve finished Pimsleur and acquired basic conversational skills, study or practice Russian for two to four hours a day until you’re highly conversational. After about a year, I could carry on a conversation fairly easily with educated native speakers speaking grammatically correct Russian who wanted me to understand them (i.e. little to no slang). The time frame will obviously vary for different people.

Now let me briefly break down each of the five points I mentioned above:

1) Vocabulary

Obviously, make your own flash cards for important words you struggle to remember. However, be sure to also pick up:
Memorize your flash cards and everything in the book. To be honest, I consider “Roots of the Russian Language” to have been my secret weapon in cracking Russian. I found vocabulary the hardest thing in learning the language. For example, the word for independence in Spanish is “independencia” but in Russian it’s “nezavisimost.” ROTRL teaches you the simple roots used to make up long, complex Russian words and you memorize groups of words based on one root. For example “vod” is the root that means water, so you learn “vodavorot” (waterfall) and “navodneniya” (flood) and “vodapad” (water fall) all together. After a while the way Russian words are formed just starts to make sense and you can often guess at the meaning of long words you haven’t seen before. This book is essential. I can’t recommend it enough.

2) Reading aloud for pronunciation

This helps with any language, but it’s tough in Russian because Russian words have accents and if you accent the wrong syllable native speakers will often be unable to understand you AND the accents are never written, except in textbooks for foreigners. To whit, this book is great because it contains Russian stories in the original Russian with accents on the words, as well as an English translation on the facing page:

Russian Stories: A Dual-Language Book (English and Russian Edition) (https://www.amazon.com/Russian-Stor...id=1508627659&sr=8-1&keywords=russian+stories)

After a while (a long while) you start to get a general feel for how the accents work and you don’t need to see them written out most of the time to pronounce the word correctly.

Note that Russian pronunciation is hard for native English speakers. In my first year in the FSU I often knew how to say something correctly, I just couldn’t pronounce it so that native speakers could understand me. It can be very frustrating and it’s going to take a lot of time to get it down. I remember that I could never really pronounce the word for “furniture” correctly or hear the difference when people corrected me.

3) Directly studying grammar

Grammar is hard in Russian. I had an advantage because I’d already studied German and Latin, languages that share some grammatical features with Russian that don’t exist in English or most Romance languages. You can try to figure the grammar out with a text book on your own, but if you don’t have experience with another Slavic language or an ancient Indo-European language like Latin, I’d recommend getting a professional tutor. I use this site for conversation practice, but you should be able to find a tutor who speaks good English and can help you figure out the grammar here too:

https://preply.com/

The prices have gone up a bit since when I signed up a few years ago, but it looks like there are still plenty of tutors available who charge less than $10 an hour.

4) Reading for comprehension

I don’t have a lot of specific advice here. Maybe start with illustrated children’s stories or comics first. Reading Russian is hard when you’re a beginner. If there’s a Russian classic you’ve read in English you might try tackling it in Russian once you’ve made it up to the intermediate level. I read Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” in translation as a teenager and it made quite an impression on me, so I was able to read it in Russian with about a year or so of studying the language. My memories of the plot and characters helped me to follow along (although it still took something like a year for me to finish it).

5) Talking to native speakers

Always the most important thing in learning a language. You can have the grammar rules down pat, but if you’re too shy to step out of your comfort zone and actually talk to Ukrainians and Russians in their language, you won’t become conversational. If you happen to be over in the former USSR a girlfriend who doesn’t speak English is pretty much the greatest way to learn. Think twice before marrying her though (topic for another post). If you’re not over there and you don’t know any native speakers, you could try using Preply (https://preply.com/) for conversation practice, but since it’s gotten a little more expensive in the last few years, you might want to look for some kind of “language exchange” online. At least I’ve heard that such things exist, where you practice conversation with a native speaker of the language you want to learn, then help him or her out with English. Maybe someone who’s used one could comment about it below.

Another thing, and this applies to any language, if you do know native speakers who speak English, listen to mistakes they make or quirky things they say that don’t sound just right. That will often give you clues as to how to say things more naturally in Russian. For example, I once assigned an essay on the topic of fast food to my students in the school where I taught. I noticed that almost all of them wrote that fast food is not “useful.” Hence I learned that the common way to say that food is healthy in Russian is to use the Russian word for “useful” (polyezny).

Basically, as with most things of value in life, it’s just going to take a lot of time and hard work and there’s no way around that. Hopefully what I’ve written will give some of you ideas on how to go about it. Remember, commit to at least two hours a day if you’re serious about learning this language. It’s a lot, but it will probably be one of your proudest accomplishments if you manage to learn it. I know it is for me.

Any questions, just ask.
 

Coja Petrus Uscan

Hummingbird
Gold Member
Thanks. I will pick up at least that book that shows groups of words by root; good idea.

I would recommend using Italki over Preply as the fees are lower and Preply shanked me for $200. But I have just taken one teacher off the platform and pay them by Payoneer.

For language practice, try Interpals. Its meant to be for language practice and pen pals, but it seems its mainly used as a low key international dating site ;) .

There are a few others.
 

bucky

Ostrich
Thanks. I will pick up at least that book that shows groups of words by root; good idea.

I would recommend using Italki over Preply as the fees are lower and Preply shanked me for $200. But I have just taken one teacher off the platform and pay them by Payoneer.

For language practice, try Interpals. Its meant to be for language practice and pen pals, but it seems its mainly used as a low key international dating site ;) .

There are a few others.

Yes, definitely get Roots of the Russian Language. I can't recommend it enough. Last time I made this post on the old forum, someone criticized it because it's very old. It was written in the 1930s if I remember correctly, but it's not like the core vocabulary of the language has changed much, if at all, and I've never seen another book that breaks down how those long, complicated words like глубокоуважаемый (common greeting for a formal business letter, eight syllables) or сосредоточиваться (to focus, seven syllables) are actually made of short, simple roots and aren't nearly as complicated as they seem.

How did you lose so much money on Preply? I had a tutor quit on me once, but I was able to transfer my prepaid hours to another tutor. Regardless, guys looking to learn should probably check out Italki and comparison shop. Everything I mentioned here is just what I used and what worked for me, there are surely other good options out there.
 
Thank you for sharing your advice and experience! I've always wanted to learn Russian but never knew how to get started. I'll definitely take your advice and get serious in learning!
 

bucky

Ostrich
If there was a way to rep you I’d do that right now

Thanks, and I'm happy to help. I wanted to give specifics as to what I did to learn the language because it's obvious that you have to study, but not always obvious how to go about it. It's good to see other forum members mentioning specific resources they used too.
 

Mike_Key

Woodpecker
Learning Russian, that's awesome.

Since late 2016, I've been looking into Farsi. I became curious and interested due to meeting, as acquaintances, a good number of Iranians and also, running across The Shahs of Sunset, TV Show. Also, in coaching men, I learned to share with them and others that if they've had trauma or PTSD - learning a language is a great way to occupy your mind, it comes down to neuroplasticity. I'm bilingual already so I could clearly understand the amazing suggestion and tactic.

I don't believe I could reply in Farsi to anyone as I don't know any Farsi speakers on that level. There is no one with which to practice. I know the alphabet, some grammar, some vocabulary and while listening to songs I'm able to pull out many words and some meaning. Too, I've gotten rather fast at transliteration of lengthy and even poetic songs.

They say if you study 300 hours then you are on to something. I may or may not have those numbers, I simply use the language practice as a way of breaking up tedious work projects and the like.

But too, I like how you laid out the study guide. It's always great to have practical solutions.
 

Coja Petrus Uscan

Hummingbird
Gold Member
I'm using DuoLingo again.

It appears when using the app that there are no grammar notes. So I stopped using it before as I didn't understand the grammar. Their grammar notes are short and easy to take in. And the lessons disperse general vocab. with core grammar so as to not be too heavy wity the later. It has speaking, reading and writing in both RU and EN, so it gets hammered in. I find it's best to then take out their sentences and rewrite them.
 

LeBeau

Ostrich
Gold Member
Great data sheet Bucky.

If it helps, you can also use free flash card services online like Anki. These allow for more efficient studying based on weak spots.

You can also search for entire decks of flash cards that others have created for certain languages or study subjects.
 

bucky

Ostrich
Learning Russian, that's awesome.

Since late 2016, I've been looking into Farsi. I became curious and interested due to meeting, as acquaintances, a good number of Iranians and also, running across The Shahs of Sunset, TV Show. Also, in coaching men, I learned to share with them and others that if they've had trauma or PTSD - learning a language is a great way to occupy your mind, it comes down to neuroplasticity. I'm bilingual already so I could clearly understand the amazing suggestion and tactic.

I don't believe I could reply in Farsi to anyone as I don't know any Farsi speakers on that level. There is no one with which to practice. I know the alphabet, some grammar, some vocabulary and while listening to songs I'm able to pull out many words and some meaning. Too, I've gotten rather fast at transliteration of lengthy and even poetic songs.

They say if you study 300 hours then you are on to something. I may or may not have those numbers, I simply use the language practice as a way of breaking up tedious work projects and the like.

But too, I like how you laid out the study guide. It's always great to have practical solutions.

Yes, I think my original post would probably be useful as an outline for learning any language, although you'd probably have to adjust a few things. I imagine learning the alphabet is harder in Farsi, for example. I didn't even mention learning the Russian alphabet, because it's really not that difficult. Maybe the pronunciation is easier in some other languages than it is in Russian also, for example, or you're learning a Chinese language and have to deal with tones.

Regardless, the main thing is to study daily and to talk to native speakers.
 

wojak

Pigeon
Seconding the Pimsleur recommendation. The lessons are strictly listening and speaking (with reading material available as a supplement), and helped me to get my Spanish back after years of not using it.
 

Coja Petrus Uscan

Hummingbird
Gold Member
@bucky, @Enigma, @J.E. - Do you have any specific tips or projected timeline for developing a listening ability?

I can read words I know in an approaching fluent fashion, but if the same words are spoken to me at normal pace my mind typically looses the ability to process them after 4-5 words. I might be able to process 2-3 sentences, but typically not comprehending some words. Paragraphs turn to mush.
 

J.E.

Robin
@bucky, @Enigma, @J.E. - Do you have any specific tips or projected timeline for developing a listening ability?

I can read words I know in an approaching fluent fashion, but if the same words are spoken to me at normal pace my mind typically looses the ability to process them after 4-5 words. I might be able to process 2-3 sentences, but typically not comprehending some words. Paragraphs turn to mush.
From my learning experience it is listening to anything that interests me. It is hard in the beginning but with daily listening to documentaries, shows and podcasts you will get the hang of it. But before you start that I do advise you to watch anything with subtitles. I advise to watch and listen to things that are not specifically learning material but shows and programs that use colloquial vocabulary because this is the everyday lanaguage you will listen to and probably use yourself.

When I was younger and was still playing video games I changed my consoles to English and over a couple of months my English skills improved a lot. I watched lots of shows sponsored by the Hollyjew with and later without subtitles which contributed more than my formal education. The big plus was that I gained listening comprehension in accents like New Jersian Italo accent through The Sopranos or the Indian accent from The Big Gay Theory (Rajesh Koothrapali). At one point my general comprehension became so good that I started reading novels in English which was the cherry on top. At this point I reached a level higher than your average native speaker because I learned sentence structures and flow from novels of old that are lost to Jewish media in modern times.

As mentioned before, it will be hard in the beginning because it is not specific learning material but your success will be greater long term. I'd say to overcome the initial hurdle to give it three or so weeks and you will be set. Hardest part (but shouldn't be an issue for you) is to force yourself even if you don't want to.

EDIT: I cannot stress conversations in real time enough, be it face-to-face or over the internet, as long as you have an hour long conversation with somebody once a week you increase not only your passive abilities, but more so your active abilities likes thinking in Russian and forming sentences spontaneously.
 

stugatz

Pelican
I’m an American who became conversational in Russian after a few years living in the FSU. A few forum members have asked me for advice on learning Russian, so here’s a somewhat edited version of a post I did a few years ago that didn’t survive the transition to the new RVF for whatever reason.

In the broadest sense, the most important thing I did was commit to at least two hours of studying or practicing Russian every day, no exceptions, no matter how much I didn’t feel like it on any given day. I’d often do as much as four hours or even more of studying and conversation practice. I mixed this up between the following:

1) Vocabulary
2) Reading aloud for pronunciation
3) Directly studying grammar
4) Reading for comprehension

5) Talking to native speakers (and listening to mistakes they make when speaking English)

Before getting into details on these, let me say that three months before arriving in the FSU, I worked through all three levels of the Pimsleur Russian program. Pimsleur is an amazing way to get started in Russian and if you follow the program it works. The main thing is not to skip a day ever, for any reason. I was able to communicate with native speakers in Russian on a very basic level on my first day in the FSU.

So, high level, my advice would be:

1) Start with Pimsleur. Spend three months doing all three levels of Pimsleur Russian without skipping a day for any reason.

2) Study for at least two hours a day, no skipping days. After you’ve finished Pimsleur and acquired basic conversational skills, study or practice Russian for two to four hours a day until you’re highly conversational. After about a year, I could carry on a conversation fairly easily with educated native speakers speaking grammatically correct Russian who wanted me to understand them (i.e. little to no slang). The time frame will obviously vary for different people.

Now let me briefly break down each of the five points I mentioned above:

1) Vocabulary

Obviously, make your own flash cards for important words you struggle to remember. However, be sure to also pick up:
Memorize your flash cards and everything in the book. To be honest, I consider “Roots of the Russian Language” to have been my secret weapon in cracking Russian. I found vocabulary the hardest thing in learning the language. For example, the word for independence in Spanish is “independencia” but in Russian it’s “nezavisimost.” ROTRL teaches you the simple roots used to make up long, complex Russian words and you memorize groups of words based on one root. For example “vod” is the root that means water, so you learn “vodavorot” (waterfall) and “navodneniya” (flood) and “vodapad” (water fall) all together. After a while the way Russian words are formed just starts to make sense and you can often guess at the meaning of long words you haven’t seen before. This book is essential. I can’t recommend it enough.

2) Reading aloud for pronunciation

This helps with any language, but it’s tough in Russian because Russian words have accents and if you accent the wrong syllable native speakers will often be unable to understand you AND the accents are never written, except in textbooks for foreigners. To whit, this book is great because it contains Russian stories in the original Russian with accents on the words, as well as an English translation on the facing page:

Russian Stories: A Dual-Language Book (English and Russian Edition) (https://www.amazon.com/Russian-Stor...id=1508627659&sr=8-1&keywords=russian+stories)

After a while (a long while) you start to get a general feel for how the accents work and you don’t need to see them written out most of the time to pronounce the word correctly.

Note that Russian pronunciation is hard for native English speakers. In my first year in the FSU I often knew how to say something correctly, I just couldn’t pronounce it so that native speakers could understand me. It can be very frustrating and it’s going to take a lot of time to get it down. I remember that I could never really pronounce the word for “furniture” correctly or hear the difference when people corrected me.

3) Directly studying grammar

Grammar is hard in Russian. I had an advantage because I’d already studied German and Latin, languages that share some grammatical features with Russian that don’t exist in English or most Romance languages. You can try to figure the grammar out with a text book on your own, but if you don’t have experience with another Slavic language or an ancient Indo-European language like Latin, I’d recommend getting a professional tutor. I use this site for conversation practice, but you should be able to find a tutor who speaks good English and can help you figure out the grammar here too:

https://preply.com/

The prices have gone up a bit since when I signed up a few years ago, but it looks like there are still plenty of tutors available who charge less than $10 an hour.

4) Reading for comprehension

I don’t have a lot of specific advice here. Maybe start with illustrated children’s stories or comics first. Reading Russian is hard when you’re a beginner. If there’s a Russian classic you’ve read in English you might try tackling it in Russian once you’ve made it up to the intermediate level. I read Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” in translation as a teenager and it made quite an impression on me, so I was able to read it in Russian with about a year or so of studying the language. My memories of the plot and characters helped me to follow along (although it still took something like a year for me to finish it).

5) Talking to native speakers

Always the most important thing in learning a language. You can have the grammar rules down pat, but if you’re too shy to step out of your comfort zone and actually talk to Ukrainians and Russians in their language, you won’t become conversational. If you happen to be over in the former USSR a girlfriend who doesn’t speak English is pretty much the greatest way to learn. Think twice before marrying her though (topic for another post). If you’re not over there and you don’t know any native speakers, you could try using Preply (https://preply.com/) for conversation practice, but since it’s gotten a little more expensive in the last few years, you might want to look for some kind of “language exchange” online. At least I’ve heard that such things exist, where you practice conversation with a native speaker of the language you want to learn, then help him or her out with English. Maybe someone who’s used one could comment about it below.

Another thing, and this applies to any language, if you do know native speakers who speak English, listen to mistakes they make or quirky things they say that don’t sound just right. That will often give you clues as to how to say things more naturally in Russian. For example, I once assigned an essay on the topic of fast food to my students in the school where I taught. I noticed that almost all of them wrote that fast food is not “useful.” Hence I learned that the common way to say that food is healthy in Russian is to use the Russian word for “useful” (polyezny).

Basically, as with most things of value in life, it’s just going to take a lot of time and hard work and there’s no way around that. Hopefully what I’ve written will give some of you ideas on how to go about it. Remember, commit to at least two hours a day if you’re serious about learning this language. It’s a lot, but it will probably be one of your proudest accomplishments if you manage to learn it. I know it is for me.

Any questions, just ask.
I have levels 1-4 of Pimsleur for Spanish. (It's my father's, and sat collecting dust for years.) How effective is it would you say?

I'm waiting until I get a new computer with a CD drive so I can rip all of the files. (I'd rather not deal with the physical CDs.)
 

bucky

Ostrich
I have levels 1-4 of Pimsleur for Spanish. (It's my father's, and sat collecting dust for years.) How effective is it would you say?

I'm waiting until I get a new computer with a CD drive so I can rip all of the files. (I'd rather not deal with the physical CDs.)
I can't praise Pimsleur enough. Never done any languages other than Russian, but I'd imagine their other programs are just as good.

That said, most people I've talked to who've tried it hate it and say it didn't work at all. When pressed almost all of them have admitted that they did not follow the instructions, especially the part about doing it every day without skipping days. I did that, didn't miss a day for three months and did it twice a day most days, and I could communicate with Russians on a very basic level in Russian on my first day in Russia.
 

bucky

Ostrich
@bucky, @Enigma, @J.E. - Do you have any specific tips or projected timeline for developing a listening ability?

I can read words I know in an approaching fluent fashion, but if the same words are spoken to me at normal pace my mind typically looses the ability to process them after 4-5 words. I might be able to process 2-3 sentences, but typically not comprehending some words. Paragraphs turn to mush.
Not really, but it took me about a year in country and speaking Russian every day before I felt really comfortable speaking the language. That was with studying every day for two to four hours too. For me the hardest part was pronunciation. That is, in my first year I often knew how to say something correctly, but I couldn't pronounce it so that people could understand me.

Who are you talking to? Most of the time I was talking to educated Russian and Ukrainian coworkers who were speaking grammatically correct Russian and wanted me to understand them. That's much easier. If you're just talking to people on the street who are using a lot of slang and don't particularly care about speaking "textbook" Russian or if you understand them or not, that could be why you're struggling to understand.
 

kel

Ostrich
Working listening ability is all about listening, naturally. What that means depends on your current level:

- find kids shows or kids songs to learn. A song is a great way of internalizing something thanks to the rhythm. Doesn't matter that it's silly stuff about a tiger stealing peanut butter or whatever.
- a bit further up the ladder, you can watch short bits of media targeted at adults. To be honest, start with trash. Those rinky-dinky ukulele videos about making sourdough bread or whatever are fine - level-appropriate and a small thing you can watch, rewatch, internalize, master.
- eventually you can find podcasts or something to work casual speech at a fast pace

Ideally you can find something subtitled (or with transcripts - national "public broadcasting" stuff is often good about this) in the native language but NO SUBTITLES THE FIRST TIME. I feel very strongly about this, it will make you lazy (or, say, "greedy" to understand everything immediately) and turn it into a reading exercise rather than a listening exercise. Watch a scene all the way through with no subtitles first, get as much as you can from it, and then go back and watch it again with subtitles to find what you missed. This can be very frustrating, sometimes you'll only get a few words here or there, but stick with it. Celebrate what you caught and learn what you didn't. If it really is so excruciating, then perhaps you're aiming at something too far above your current level and need to take one step back in order to later take two steps forward.

If you use Anki, consider adding sound files. It's a bit of work, but take the above and when you find a turn of phrase that's interesting or useful, extract it out (with Audacity or something) and add it to your flashcards. When you get to that one, repeat the phrase aloud exactly as the speaker does. Imitate their accent, rhythm, everything. Turn that little phrase into a unit you can pull out of your toolbox just like that, don't worry about breaking it down to its component parts just yet, start with it as a fixed expression you just accept as it is. This is more of a speaking thing, but still, something I encourage and have used to great effect myself.
 
Top