How to learn Russian – with Eugenia


Russian is often seen as a tough language to get started with. Its totally different alphabet and array of unusual sounds can be challenging to speakers of Romance languages.

We turned to Eugenia Vlasova, a Russian teacher and blogger based in Canada, to get some tips. It turns out that Eugenia doesn’t think that Russian is that hard to learn! She believes in the importance of speaking the language first, and has some great ideas for how to get your head around the Cyrillic alphabet. Here she tells us:

  1. Why I love the Russian language
  2. My top tips for learning Russian
  3. My top tips for learning the Cyrillic alphabet

Why I love the Russian language

What I really love about the Russian language is all those little words such as “ну”, “даже”, “-ка”, “вот” that allow a speaker not only to express an idea, but also to convey what the speaker thinks of the subject, of the audience and of the situation as a whole. Along with intonations, they form a rich realm of communication. They are used for expressing a whole range of emotions and tasks from missed expectations to excitement, to rebukes. It’s like a common protocol that communicates different things beyond the plain meaning of the words being spoken.

My top tips for learning Russian?

Don’t over-worry the grammar

Don’t let the complex grammar concepts scare or discourage you: If you want to speak Russian, you don’t have to learn all of this grammar. Grammar focused learning is fine and of course necessary to achieve proficiency, but it doesn’t lead to fluency. You will never start speaking if you learn grammar and don’t learn how to speak a language.

Find meaningful Projects

Be pragmatic. If you want to speak Russian, incorporate it into your daily routine. Come up with meaningful, practical language goals. “One hour of Russian daily” is not a goal. It won’t work. Pretty soon you’ll find that you have thousands of other, more urgent things to do. “Read this book in Russian” is better. “White a CV in Russian” is even better, because it gives you a sense of purpose and focuses on active use of the language. Meaningful projects are crucial for language acquisition.

Make mistakes

My learners are mostly adults. They are academics, professionals, and businessmen – all sorts of high achievers. The hardest thing for them is to acknowledge that they have the right to make mistakes. Making mistakes is necessary for language learning. The only way to start speaking a new language is to start speaking badly. Allowing yourself to sound childish is the first step to language proficiency.

Read contemporary literature

Russian movies and literature come in handy when I teach my students how Russians really talk to each other. My favourite writers, to name a few, are Vladimir Sorokin, Sergey Dovlatov, Victor Pelevin, Vladimir Voinivich… I like the brothers Strugatsky…  My students though prefer Russian classics, and are usually unfamiliar with contemporary Russian literature. I often tell them that in Russia, literature substitutes philosophy, psychology, sociology and journalism, and if they want to understand modern Russia, they should read contemporary writers.

How I teach the Cyrillic alphabet

I suggest breaking the alphabet down to a few groups: the letters that look AND sound similar to their English counterparts (A, E, K, M, O, T), the letters that look like English letters, but represent different sounds (В, Д, С, Н, Р, У, Х), the letters that look different, but represent familiar sounds (Б, Г, З, И, Й, Л, П, Ф), and lastly, the group of letters that look and sound completely strange to English speakers (Ё, Ж, Ц, Ч, Ш, Щ, Ы, Э, Ю, Я), along with the two letters that represent no sound at all (Ъ, Ь). This is a good starting point.

I play guessing games with my students – I show them celebrity names written in Russian, brand names, geographical names, and they should “guess” what it is. If you want to get a similar experience, open an article about a celebrity of your choice in Wikipedia and then switch language to Russian. It is fun!

I have also started using a method I found on one of the Russian blogs I read. It involves replacing English letters with the corresponding Russian letters, one at a time. For example, з = [z], i.e. vocalized [z] for s and z like in eaзy or зoo iз Russian з. It iз eaзier than it seems. Your eyeз will get accustomed soon. You still can read all theзe wordз. And your mind memoriзes what sound this letter repreзents. Add another лetter – л=L. Stiлл readabлe, iзn’t it? Start with the most frequent лetterз and proceed with the лess frequent oneз. You get the idea. Briллiant, iзn’t it?

Are you looking forward to the World Cup?

Not really. Politics spoils everything, including important sporting events. Terry Pratchett in his Discworld books depicted sport as a substitute for actual wars – a peaceful and fair way to establish dominance among different groups of people. I wish we all lived in that magical ideal world…

Eugenia Vlasova has a masters in linguistics and now lives in Canada where she maintains a blog about the Russian language and teaches Russian online. Thank you Eugenia for sharing some really great ideas with us! We hope that politics will not get in the way of you enjoying a great world cup 2018.

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About the Author Simon Goodall

Language learner, teacher and contributing author to the Rosetta Stone magazine

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