It should be a surprise to absolutely no one when I say that Americans aren’t particularly known for their skills in foreign languages. Unlike those Europeans, it seems like we can barely agree to speak English, let alone anything else. Even if more schools are starting to teach Chinese and Spanish to children earlier, it’s still a while to go before we can all be bilingual in another language.

Want to go against the flow and learn Spanish, German or maybe even Russian?

Here’re all of our tips to teach yourself Russian!

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The importance of knowing your own level

Before stocking up on books and throwing yourself into learning Russian, it is essential to determine what level you’re starting from, and what your objectives are. Here are a few questions to ask yourself in order to determine your level and get an idea of the effort you’ll need to put in to learn Russian on your own:

  • Did you do Russian in high school? Are you just trying to jog ancient knowledge buried in your memory?
  • Are you starting from scratch?
  • Have you already mastered another foreign language? Studies have shown that a person who has already become fluent in one foreign language will find it much easier to learn another one,
  • How much time do you have to devote to foreign language study?
  • Are you someone who gets discouraged quickly?
  • Do you have a habit of self-study?

According to how you answered the previous questions, you should already have a good understanding of your overall level and the effort it will take in order for you to achieve your goals. But what are your goals?

If your goal is to become bilingual, it’s going to take a lot of effort! If, on the other hand, you are simply trying to learn enough Russian before heading to study abroad in a few weeks, things will be a bit easier ?

It’s possible to work a bit every day

There’s no secret recipe for learning a language! You need to block out time to study in your schedule.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way!” If you’re willing to work hard, nothing is impossible! The most important thing is that you hit the books regularly.

Memory works in a relatively simple process that takes three steps:

  1. Registering: the ability to acquire and process new information through our five senses,
  2. Storage: information is stored in our memory by our brain and memorized,
  3. And the remembering: the capacity to be able to recall a piece of information that you learned previously.

The only problem with memory is that we tend to lose it! If information is not recalled or tested regularly, our brain clears out the mental space like on a hard drive and erases it.

This is why it’s important to study a little bit every day and really fix the information in your brain.

Why not learn 10 Russian words per day for example (adjective, pronoun, etc.)?

Learning more vocabulary allows you to be more precise in conversations and avoid vagueness or going round in circles when you speak to native Russians.

For the exercise to be useful, it is essential to write them in a notebook and study them every two to three days so that they are well-fixed in your long-term memory.

Of course, this exercise is more effective if you’ve chosen the words well and they’re ones you can use!

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Teach yourself Russian using textbooks

When you’re starting from scratch to learn Russian, it’s a good idea to invest in a textbook or two. Here are some of our favorite books!

The New Penguin Complete Russian Course for Beginners

The last edition of this classic textbook is from 1996, but it’s still a classic for students of Russian and a best seller on Amazon. With a discounted price of just $17, this book has everything you need to start learning the language of the former Soviet Union.

The book is designed for students learning on their own or as a supplement to coursework and includes 30 lessons with intermittent review exercises. The book focuses on functional conversation above all else, with an emphasis on useful vocabulary and essential grammar.

We like:

  • The price,
  • The well-structured lessons with regular points to review and check your comprehension.

We don’t like: 

  • The lack of audio: it’s difficult to be sure that you’re doing ok with your pronunciation and Russian accent without examples!
Find websites where you can learn the Cyrillic alphabet online!

Russian for dummies

This classic series also covers several languages, and the language books are generally a surprisingly good resource! Written by several different authors, this book is a great place to start for anyone learning Russian. The second edition was recently revised ahead of the 2018 World Cup and is available for less than $19 on Amazon. The book contains a full list of essential vocabulary, basic grammar, an overview of Russian culture, and a CD to work on your listening and pronunciation.

We love: 

  • The packed content
  • The cultural lessons, always key when you’re learning a new language,
  • The audio content (even if the idea of a CD can seem a bit retro)
  • The fun and amusing style.

Not so big a fan of:

  • The packed content! Ok, so it makes it a bit hard to follow the lessons sometimes! We’d recommend to maybe use this as a secondary textbook once you’ve already learned some of the basics.

Assimil – Learn Russian for English speakers

Assimil is a tried and tested method for learning foreign languages! The various authors working at Assimil have packed all their Russian knowledge into one book that will carry you from the start all the way to the advanced intermediate (European B2) level.

Once you’ve finished with the ‘With Ease’ series, you can also move on to the “Perfection’ series which focuses on advanced knowledge, idiosyncrasies, and Russian idioms.

You can get the book only version for less than $40 but it’s worth paying a bit extra to get the 4 audio CDs as well (currently on sale on Amazon for $85). If you prefer learning at your computer, you can also buy an e-version of the learning program for about $75.

We love: 

  • The well-researched teaching methods,
  • The idea of spaced repetition in the lessons,
  • For us personally, it’s definitely one of the most efficient methods for learning on your own! Almost just as efficient as a Russian class!

We like less: 

  • The price of course, but you get what you pay for!

Find a Russian pen pal

Learning to speak Russian is easy with a native!

Learning a language means learning to communicate with others! Even if you’ve decided to learn on your own, sometimes you need others in order to improve!

Have you considered finding yourself a pen pal who has Russian as their mother tongue?

Just finding someone who is bilingual English-Russian can be a good idea to start so that they can correct you and explain your mistakes.

There are many different online platforms that will help you to get in touch with natives of a country to interact with them. With the internet and the rise of social networks, I challenge you to not find a Russian who will correspond with you! Whether on forums or via Facebook groups, I'm sure you will find someone to help!

I’ve been talking about a pen pal, and obviously practicing your writing is great, but working on your spoken Russian is even better! Languages are living, spoken things, so working on your speaking and listening skills is key!

If your language partner is in Russia, Skype is a very useful tool to hear each other in real time! You can also help teach them English. It's a win-win language exchange!

Try to set up weekly meetings so you can practice and improve constantly, and keep in regular contact with your new friend ?

Learning Russian for free is totally possible with a few tips.

The internet is your friend!

On a computer, tablet or smartphone, the internet is available everywhere you go! Take advantage of this tool to help you deepen your knowledge of Russian!

From the Cyrillic alphabet to pronunciation, to written and spoken comprehension, absolutely everything you need to know is out there, whether you are a beginner or advanced. Learning Russian online is child's play!

First of all, forget the sites that advertise attractive slogans like "speak fluent Russian in ten lessons". A foreign language takes time, practice and motivation. No matter how good the teaching methods are, learning a language fluently will still take years!

The Everyday Russian Language website, as its name implies, helps you practice Russian every day through bite-size lessons, exercises, translations and other fun activities to make learning Russian easier.

Although the site no longer publishes lessons every day, the principle remains the same.

Write down all your new words as a good way to keep track of your new vocabulary!

There are many different sites that exist online and many offer free Russian lessons. However, it will take a bit of research to take advantage of all the available tools: movies, radio, music, YouTube channels, websites, and apps.

Babbel is definitely one of the best applications out there today, especially as they offer so many different languages. However, their free version doesn’t let you get very far. The paid version isn’t prohibitively expensive though and can be a good investment as long as you use it regularly (prices range from $5 to $9.99 per month depending on the duration of your contract, with prices decreasing over longer periods).

Travel to Russia!

If you have a little money set aside and extra vacation days to take, the best way to improve your Russian fast is to visit the country itself!

The red square, the Red Army Choir, St. Basil's Cathedral, the Kremlin and the Hermitage Museum, there is plenty of things to do and sights to see in Moscow or St. Petersburg!

And why not attend a Bolshoi ballet or read Russian literature in their country of origin?

Plus, if you can meet locals, talk and drink with them, it's like free language practice! Za zdorobie!

Remember to watch films in Russian (with subtitles, of course!) to help you soak up the culture and language.

In Summary:

  • Teach yourself Russian - with plenty of motivation and taking advantage of the many tools available, it's perfectly feasible to get yourself to a good level of the language.
  • Before starting, it is important to know your level and set goals. This will help you stay motivated and give you a framework to learn more effectively.
  • There are many books out there to help you, as well as the Internet and its many resources (YouTube, websites, movies, radios ...).
  • But the best way to learn a language is still to speak it! Find a Russian pen pal or language partner to improve even faster!

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As an Englishman in Paris, I enjoy growing my knowledge of other languages and cultures. I'm interested in History, Economics, and Sociology and believe in the importance of continuous learning.