The ultimate guide to learning Russian

learning russian

Maybe you've flirted with the idea of Russian before, or maybe you're rediscovering it.
Whatever your situation, the England-Moscow guide to speaking Russian like a boss should help you out.

Just to show you that I do in fact speak Russian and I'm not just some homeless vagrant blogger with an alter ego and access to an internet cafe, you can listen to what I sound like speaking Russian.

This is an excerpt of me doing a live radio interview in Russian, talking about football hooliganism (I actually know next to nothing about this topic, but they needed a Brit with Russian, so I agreed to lend them some silk voice action).

I actually made a few mistakes, but when you're speaking under pressure, it's hard to stop yourself.  Now, on to the guide.
learning russian
The psychological side - before you start learning

But I suck at languages

Some people think they are naturally bad language learners and this usually comes from a negative language learning experience at school. But that's rubbish. Anyone can learn a language if they put in the hours and reps. Sure, they might have an accent, but who cares. Don't allow thoughts like this into your brain. There's poisonous and won't get you anywhere. Time and practise gets you fluency and that's all there is to it.

Forget your ego
When you start learning a language  or taking on any new skill, there is a pain period. All your previous achievements will mean nothing and you will be on the level of Borat for quite some time. Embrace the Borat.
This is frustrating, but you have to plough through it and forget the ego. Your goal is to suck a little less with each passing year. 

Set your goal and set your expectations 
What will you spend your time doing with this language? The answer will determine where a lot of your effort goes.

It's important to have at least a vague idea of what you want to get out of learning Russian. Do you want native-level fluency? Do you just want to learn enough to impress a Russian girl you know (don't even think this will get you out of the friend zone) or do you just need enough to get by on the mean streets of Russia?

learning russian
                                                                                these mean streets

The size of the ambition will determine how long things will take. If you decide you want to be totally fluent, understand 100 percent of everything you hear from gopniks to Pushkin, don't expect it to be quick.

If your expectations are out of whack, you'll end up feeling discouraged, disappointed and will probably quit. So be realistic about how long it will take you to get where you want to be. Don't beat yourself up.
Plan your study time 
I'll go into study structure below, but before you get there, you need to have your time planned.
Something around an hour a day would be good. An hour a week won't cut it.
If you have a hectic schedule, you'll  have to make some sacrifices and make time.

Don't skip your learning and don't make excuses for why you didn't get the job done. I've dealt with plenty of students that were specialists at this. If they spent half as much time learning as they did dreaming up excuses, they'd have been fluent a long time ago. You tell me you don't have at least 30 minutes a day, I call bullshit.
learning russian
The practical side - Dominating the learning process

Pick your grammar materials and dictionary
All your hard work will be for nothing if your materials are bad.
As Tim Ferris says:
"If you select the wrong material, it does not matter how you study or if you study – practical fluency is impossible without the proper tools (material). Teachers are subordinate to materials, just as cooks are subordinate to recipes."

This is crucial. Your learning will be broken into reading, writing, grammar and listening. They are all flexible, apart from grammar. You'll need a solid foundation here and some good teaching, otherwise, you'll get confused and discouraged. Trust me, Russian grammar can be a real ass-kicker. 
learning russian
                                                                             Let the pain begin

If you have to use only one book, use The New Penguin Russian Course. This book is dryer than a nun's snizz, but by god it get's the job done. For a full guide on the books I used and highly recommended, head on over and check out The best books for learning Russian.

For decent online dictionaries, I'd go with Lingvo or Multitran. Also, to check professional terms, give Pro Z a shot

Pick your reading materials 
This may sound obvious, but don't pick things you're not interested in. A lot of this comes back to your goal in learning Russian. If you are learning to practice law in Russian, give priority focus to legal texts once your basics are up to snuff.

If you are passionate about politics and Putin's manliness, read political texts from newspapers. Work on the tools that will help you communicate efficiently in the spheres you want to communicate in. It will make learning more effective and enjoyable.
learning russian
                                   Well, how else are your supposed to say Batmobile in Russian? 

Break down your sessions 
Plan your learning blocks to include reading, reviewing, listening and grammar learning. Save writing perhaps for the weekend since it's more time-consuming. You could do an even split, or do grammar and reading one day, reviewing and listening another day. You could also tailor this around any weak spots you might have.

The best way to start learning vocab
Along with the words you get from your grammar reference and other sources, start working your way through the most common 100 words, then 200, 300 moving on to 1000. It will give you the quickest ROI by far.

Here's a list of the 100 most common words in Russian
and here's a list that goes from 50 up to 1000
Also, I've recently seen a monster book on Amazon called Russian Learners' Dictionary: 10,000 Russian Words in Frequency Order, if you have the cash to spare, it might be worth looking into.

Don't go balls out and try and learn 500 at once with no context or anything silly, but try 3 new words a day or as much as you feel like. (I used to have little flash cards with me that I'd take to work and look at when bored etc).
learning russian
                                              Everything is fine until you need to say 5 spoons

You could also set yourself a deadline for learning X amount of words. To make things real, perhaps give a friend $100 and tell him to only give it back if you get all the words correct.

Humans are proven to be more loss averse than incentive motivated so something like this can be excellent for keeping yourself in check and working 110%.

Alos, take in this advice from Tim Ferris: (yes, I am a big Ferris fan)

To understand 95% of a language and become conversational fluent may require 3 months of applied learning; to reach the 98% threshold could require 10 years. There is a point of diminishing returns where, for most people, it makes more sense to acquire more languages (or other skills) vs. add a 1% improvement per 5 years.

Review your words
You have to be periodically re-exposed to the words you learned, otherwise they'll hover around in your short term memory and then disappear forever.
This phased approach is something Pimsleur does well, although I'd only recommend it as a supplementary tool.

You can review words in a number of ways: flash cards, word lists and so on. The method depends on what works for you personally.

H.K from the England-Moscow facebook group also recommends some free software called memorize. I haven't tried it, but in his words " has been ridiculously helpful for learning vocabulary in my various languages of choice (it's free)".

What I always did was the following: I'd highlight all the new words from a text (I used to print materials and read them), then I would write them up on paper, then I'd translate them (still on paper) then finally I would type them up in two column documents.

Why not just type them up right away? Because for me, the extra repetition really helped. 

After a while, I had built a stack of word lists. I would divide them up, and review 5 pages every day, different word sheets each day.

I still have all the copies too, although I don't actively work with them anymore, take a look:
How to learn Russian
                                                         It's not so intimidating when you break it down.

I still do it to this day, here's my budding list from Turgenev.
How to learn Russian

For other words I stumble upon, I keep them in an Evernote document which I can take a look at when I'm board, on the bus or in a poorly formed line of some kind:

How to learn Russian
                                                     bib, heart failure and long tail keywords - a fine selection

Fortunately these days life is a lot easier. Back in the day, I had to order VHS tapes of Russian movies from America. Now, if you want to watch Russian movies, you can do it online. 
You can either stream them or torrent them.

If you don't know where to start, have a look at the IMDb list of best Russian movies.

The best Russian torrent site is Rutracker (they also have some hard to find English torrents).
(If you don't know what torrents are or how to download them, here's a guide).

People always say 'Oh, but I won't understand anything'. Well, it doesn't matter. Just sit there and watch and let your brain get used to the rhythm of the language. Add subs if you can. 

The goal is to watch and listen, that's it. Make your brain work. You'll start understanding more as you keep progressing with grammar and vocab. Try to watch a movie every week and try to listen to Russian every day. If you can, watch your favourite series in Russian, an episode a day. Like Arnie says about all his life success, reps, reps, reps.

I've lost track of the amount of Swedish and Dutch people that I've met that just learned amazing English from watching Cartoon Network or something. 
How to learn Russian

You can also watch Western movies in Russian. A lot of the dubbing is a lot better now and the movies are quite watchable.

To find them online, just Google the following: смотреть film name онлайн. The sites are pretty spammy looking, but they get the job done.

For music, just set yourself up a profile on and listen to as many Russian or Western songs as you like for free. It's piracy heaven. 

Also, consider radio for your daily listening, Moskva FM has all the main stations and it's great listening practice. 

Speaking and writing  
I never really had anyone to speak to when I was learning, so I had to basically wait until I came to Russia for that, but you don't have to worry about that in 2013. Hop on Skype and you're good to go.

How to learn Russian

For writing, find a pen pal and start E-mailing letters in Russian, with the English below. Have the penpal correct your horrible Russian and you can then blast their horrible English! Everybody wins, kind of.
You can also find people for language exchanges via Skype.

None of this should cost a penny. Just find other learners (there's plenty of them), and help each other out in one huge bi-cultural lovefest.

When you get decent enough at Russian to hold some conversations, start seeking out people to chat to online. I used to use ICQ, I'd just randomly add Russian girls and say 'hey, wanna chat?'. Despite sounding like something out of the stalker's manifesto, it worked. 
These days, I'd just use VK, find some people you like the look of and shoot them a message.
Try a teacher if you can afford it

I'd recommend an hour or so lesson per week to keep you accountable, Skype or in person, although I think in person is more fun and personal. If you do get a teacher, don't use it as an excuse not to keep hammering away daily. Most of the work will need to come from you alone, but teachers can be good for making light of tough grammar problems like the genitive plural.

Try some apps!

So first up, you should be on DuoLingo, it's the king of language apps for good reason! It's free and Russian is on there, albeit in Beta at the time of this writing. Go download right away!

LinguaLift - This is a paid language platform specially developed for Russian and Japanese learners. They leverage a scientifically proven spaced repetition algorithm used by doctors in training at Harvard Medical School to optimize your language acquisition. There's a free trial so give it a whirl.

BONUS FUN - Even Russians can get confused by the gen. plural. To see this in action, ask a Russian what the genitive plural of udders (вымя) or томада is. 

How to learn Russian
Visit Russia 
Pay a visit for a week or two and stay in a hostel. Meet people, experience the angry babushka and put your knowledge to the test. Maybe come and study for a year. 

Have a goal in mind and set your schedule. On a daily basis, try to read (things you actually want to read), listen and learn grammar. Try to watch a movie every week and practice your written Russian by writing to penpals or using IM. Keep growing your vocab and keep working through the list of most common words. You'll get when you need to be eventually.

The only thing between you and fluency is your mind - if you can stay consistent you will reach a level of fluency in the end.

List of resources:
General forums - The best community on the web for learning Russian, you need to be on here.
Tim Ferris on how to master a language - He is a ninja when it comes to getting shit done -  Russia's version of Facebook and great place for free music, movies, and victims to practice your Russian on!
The best books to help you learn Russian

Dictionaries and books
Pro Z 
The best books for learning Russian

100 most common Russian words
1000 most common Russian words
Online flashcard maker
Memrise - A fun and scientific way to learn words via internet mems

Movies and music
Moscow FM - your guide to Russian radio stations 
RuTracker - The best Russian torrent site, plenty of eng-only torrents too
100 best Russian movies

I started Russian about ten years ago and these were the kind of sites available.
Take a look and tell me that is no the most intimidating resource in the world! I almost got nostalgic looking at it before the HTML started making my eyes water.

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Laura on November 10, 2013 at 1:18 AM said...

"Or in a poorly formed line of some kind" -- hahaha now I KNOW you're in Russia!!!

Unknown on November 11, 2013 at 2:44 PM said...

For the most popular soviet era movies you can visit official Youtube Mosfilm channel:
Lots of them in HD and have english subtitles.

Lt. Columbo on January 23, 2014 at 12:48 PM said...

Thanks Evgeny

Unknown on February 10, 2017 at 7:06 AM said...

Some useful resources to learn Russian:

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