How to learn Russian in the best of all possible scenarios.
June 28, 2010 1:05 PM   Subscribe

LanguageFilter: I have resources coming out my ears (not literally) and need help to come up with a plan for actually learning Russian. I've never tried to learn a language outside a school setting before, and am not quite sure how to begin.

I am trying to learn to speak Russian. I started this project a while back, learned enough of the alphabet and phonetics to sound out written material, and then got stuck. I need some sort of plan or self-imposed curriculum for learning - I know if I try to blaze through my textbook too quickly I won't retain any of it. I have at my disposal 1) this book, 2) a "Dictionary of Spoken Russian" put together by the US War Dept. in the 70s that has really solid examples of how words are actually used in sentences, and 3) a native-speaker boyfriend. Surely I should be able to marshal these into a clear language-learning strategy, but where do I begin? Grammar? Massive memorization of vocabulary? Scripted conversations about the weather? How do I pace myself and actually retain what I learn?
posted by josyphine to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
the obvious
posted by timsteil at 1:11 PM on June 28, 2010

My college major was Russian.

You really need at least a tutor to get by. Russian is complicated as a language and while a native speaking boyfriend is great, he speaks Russian like you speak English. By which I mean, you likely make common grammatical mistakes in English. He does in Russian, guaranteed. Sure, these are fine colloquially, but it can greatly affect your understanding of proper Russian grammar, which really should be learned correctly.

So, yeah, try to find someone who has taught non-native speakers before. Try a slavic grad student if there's an MA or PhD program at a university in your area.
posted by zizzle at 1:15 PM on June 28, 2010

Pick one or two books (the one you linked looks like a good start) and start reading that. Cover-to-cover, not as a reference guide. Do all of the exercises, talk along with all of their tapes, the whole shebang... and do this regularly, not in one go, so shoot for one or two chapters a week. Repeat the chapter until you can understand what is being taught without referring to the English translation. Use the "Dictionary of Spoken Russian" as a reference guide if your book isn't clear on anything.

I find language-learning books to be very topical--after you finish, you tend to be okay at conversing in those specific subjects, but you can't quite carry on a conversation. So supplement that with media in the language of your choice. Once you've gotten past a few chapters and get the basic sentence structure / have some minor grasp of the vocabulary, start listening to radio programmes or watching TV, or get your boyfriend to say simple every-day phrases with you. When you're out and about, try to remember what the Russian equivalents of everyday items are.

The main thing is really to train your brain to start thinking in that new language, so you're trying to get your brain to practice as much as you can. Good luck.
posted by Phire at 1:16 PM on June 28, 2010

I know nothing about learning languages beyond using Rosetta Stone (which really is awesome software, btw), but here are ideas I've seen elsewhere:
  • Read children's books in the target language.
  • Watch TV/movies in the target language.
  • Ask your boyfriend to ignore you unless you communicate in Russian for an entire day every week.
Good luck!
posted by goblinbox at 1:19 PM on June 28, 2010

When one of my friends was learning Russian from his native-speaker boyfriend, he had the boyfriend stick Post-It notes to everything in the apartment with the Russian word for that thing on them (bed, table, washing machine, etc). It seemed like a fun way to increase one's vocabulary!
posted by Pallas Athena at 1:40 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think it depends on what you're trying do!

Once Upon A time, my dad learned Slovak off of a set of cassette tapes, and while his grammar was atrocious he was perfectly comfortable speaking because that was how he had learned everything. The ability to communication won out over correctness.

I studied Russian for two years in college and can decline and conjugate with the best of them, but my speaking skills are terrible. I get caught up in this-and-that rule and even if I have the words they don't come out very well.

I think a tutor is a great idea, and make sure you're getting a healthy dose of speaking instead of just doing workbook exercises. Knowing how the language works grammatically is good, but putting it into practice (even if poorly) is better!
posted by soma lkzx at 1:49 PM on June 28, 2010

Why not just enroll in a class somewhere? It's your very best bet.
posted by amtho at 1:50 PM on June 28, 2010

Supplement other methods with watching films/news/whatever in Russian
posted by Idcoytco at 2:03 PM on June 28, 2010

soma lkzx makes a great point: why are you trying to learn Russian? is it just to speak to your boyfriend? His family? A trip to Russia that's planned for the future?

If you don't have a specific purpose I'd suggest that you get one - trying to doing something as huge as learn a new language without any purpose is not likely to be great motivation when the going gets tough (as you may have already noticed).


1. Define the purpose behind learning Russian for yourself.
2. Identify key sources of information that relate specifically to that purpose (so, if your purpose is to be able to enjoy Russian cinema, get some Russian textbooks on film, and your dictionary). For most purposes it won't be quite that simple, but it's a worthwhile exercise to go through and should help you substantially.
3. As also suggested above, consider separating your learning of grammar (through books probably) and more idiomatic, communication skills (your boyfriend, comic books) from one another.
4. Find an environment to immerse yourself in the language where you can make as many mistakes in as short an amount of time as possible.

Another thing that helps is to learn the 100 (or 250 etc) most common words in written/spoken Russian. It always amazes me how being able to say things like "but", "and", "maybe", "well" and "so" (for example) in a foreign language with all the appropriate inflections enables me to communicate with people effectively.

Good luck.
posted by HopStopDon'tShop at 2:14 PM on June 28, 2010

Best answer: Dedicate a lot of your time to memorizing vocabulary. Lack of vocabulary is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to actually using a language, which is the only way you'll really learn it. If your course book doesn't contain much vocabulary, supplement it. Make sure you're learning at least ten new words a day.

I find Anki to be really useful for memorizing vocabulary. It's a flash card program that helps you focus on the vocabulary you haven't mastered yet.

The main thing is, be consistent. Practice every day if you can. It's better to spend twenty minutes every day than three hours on the weekend. Use the language as much as you can. Make up homework assignments for yourself, like composing short letters or dialogs and--importantly--practicing your speaking! Read out loud, like you're in kindergarten. Make embarrassing mistakes at your boyfriend!

Keep a memo pad with you so you can write down new vocabulary that comes up in conversation with your boyfriend or when you're just out and about. You're at the grocery store and realize you don't know the Russian word for lettuce? Write it down so you can look it up at home. For bonuses, keep your shopping lists in Russian. Extra incentive to remember!

Russian specific advice:

- Oxford's "Russian Grammar and Verbs" is a compact summary of Russian grammar. Not a textbook, but a reference for if you need a second explanation or have forgotten something.

- "501 Russian Verbs." You should learn the verb conjugation patterns, which your course book hopefully covers, but this is a good way to check your work. The verbs are probably the most daunting aspect of learning Russian, so you can expect to have to look up the proper conjugation for a while.

- "Using Russian" by Offord. Covers topics that are often left out of textbooks. You might not need the material in here until you're more advanced, but it's a great reference if you want to know about naming patterns or politeness levels in more detail.

- Children's books can actually be *more* difficult in Russian due to wordplay and what not. There are publishers, like Slavica, that focus on putting out reading material in Russian for Russian language learners (i.e. coming with footnotes and glossary). You may want to check them out to see what they have available.

- Memorize the noun declensions and their basic uses. This, in addition to basic vocubulary, will take you far and give you a needed foundation for reading, writing, and speaking practice. I personally think Russian textbooks introduce them much too slowly, meaning that you're effectively cut out from understanding/using simple sentence structures for much too long. You don't need to learn them all at once, but as soon as you've memorized, say, the endings for the accusative, move on to the genitive. Tackle them as soon as you can without overwhelming yourself.

- There are a lot ofresources for Russian out there on the internets. One site that has a lot of good basic reference pages/introductions is But, if you have a question about something--Google it! There's a good chance you'll find an answer.

(Personally, I disagree with assuming you'll need a tutor. A tutor is a good idea if you're confused by the material or if you need some extra motivation, but that might not be you. You can probably wait and see.)
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 2:22 PM on June 28, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for all the answers so far. I guess my goal is less to have all the grammar down pat and more to be competent at speaking and listening - it would be nice if I knew enough that my boyfriend didn't have to take notes on the jokes/anecdotes at family gatherings conducted in Russian and explain them to me later (nice as it is of him to do so). I'm not really looking to get a tutor or shell out a lot of money, but I like the suggestions about how to integrate the language-learning into my daily life outside of textbook exercises - all the ideas about vocabulary flash cards scattered around the house and rudimentary conversations seem like they'll be really useful, and fun to boot. :)
posted by josyphine at 2:43 PM on June 28, 2010

Best answer: There's lots of good Russian music out there. Find some that you like. Listen to it and sing along - afterwards try to find the lyrics and decipher what they mean, but get the sounds into your head and onto your tongue.

Try to watch a film a week in Russian. The complicated stuff will go over your head but the stock phrases that characters use to talk to each other will stick and the meaning is obvious from context. It doesn't have to be a Russian film.

Make a huge point about learning where the stress goes in words: the stress pattern's different from English so you'll natUrally stress the wrong syllAble and sound forEIGN.

Your boyfriend probably isn't going to be able to discuss the ins and outs of Russian grammar with you - the grammar he learned in school isn't the grammar you're interested in, and the grammar you're interested in he knows instinctively rather than explicitly. You can use him as a sounding board: "what sounds better, *this* or *that*?", rather than "What cases do I use in this construction?". Also, if you want to know how to pronounce a word, put it in context (a sentence) rather than asking "how do you say this?" in isolation - it's hard to pronounce words naturally in isolation.

A day a week of Russian only sounds a little traumatic to me - how about agreeing a time of day when you both just switch to Russian for an hour or two?

If you're exposing yourself on a regular basis to spoken Russian, you will automatically pick up common words and expressions, and the grammar you learn will find a context. If you want more structure than that, pick some situations (meeting someone, arranging a date on the telephone, discussing a film, buying clothes) and try to find out what to say and how to say it.

Also, Russian grammar is superficially quite hard, but it's not impossible. Memorise the different forms of pronouns, nouns, verbs, and adjectives so that you can recognise them quickly and practise saying them for any new words you learn. You don't need to understand it to memorise it, but when you do learn the meaning, you won't be stuck trying to remember the form. You don't need to swallow the whole case system in one go, but knowing all the forms is a good milestone to aim for as a medium goal.

This is turning into an essay, so only one other thing. Talk to yourself in Russian. Remind yourself of the names of things (and make a note of what things you can't name yet so you can find out), rehearse what you're going to tell your boyfriend about your day, talk nonsense in the shower.

Good luck.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 3:25 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

> you likely make common grammatical mistakes in English. He does in Russian, guaranteed. Sure, these are fine colloquially, but it can greatly affect your understanding of proper Russian grammar, which really should be learned correctly.

I disagree. The only reason to be able to follow the often antiquated and irrelevant "rules" of "proper Russian grammar" (which are just as silly as the corresponding English "rules") is to do well in Russian class or be treated with respect by the Russian equivalents of William F. Buckley. Since neither is your goal, you'll be very well off if you learn to speak the way your boyfriend does (assuming he's not a gangster), and you're in luck having a live-in tutor! I agree with Wrinkled Stumpskin about using Russian for an hour or two each day, learning the stress patterns really well (getting those wrong instantly marks you as foreign), and talking to yourself—describing to yourself what you're doing as you go about your daily activities is a great way to notice gaps in your vocabulary. And read as much as you can. Good luck!
posted by languagehat at 3:38 PM on June 28, 2010

you'll be very well off if you learn to speak the way your boyfriend does

Also, you can't assume that speaking colloquially means that you can't also speak more formally. The boyfriend may be able to help her with everyday Russian and more formal Russian. If you ever expect to have to use "formal" Russian, like in business communication or something, then it's worth mentioning to him that you want to know what's appropriate and when. And the difference between casual Russian and formal Russian is not as great as in a language like Japanese, besides.

The real problem is that people often don't understand the rules of their native language in a way that makes communicating them possible. But that's where a textbook, aimed at learners, comes in. The boyfriend can offer corrections and then you can look up why he corrected you in the book.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 5:30 PM on June 28, 2010

Seconding languagehat. I learned my Russian on the streets of Kiev,* and it's my experience that native speakers never mess up the stuff that matters.

I find talking to myself much easier if I imagine I'm explaining it to a visitor, playing tour-guide as it were.

*Admittedly, based on a previous knowledge of Ukrainian, in which I did have some formal instruction and sufficient examples of literary usage. But still. Learned it orally. The oral language is broader than the literary one, which doesn't make it wrong, it makes it the one that people actually know.
posted by eritain at 5:34 PM on June 28, 2010

Seconding Wrinkled Stumpskin who suggested music. Folk songs, pop songs, children's songs -- when I was learning Russian, songs were really helpful. And of what I remember, music is a big part.
posted by statolith at 7:15 PM on June 28, 2010

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