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Is Russian Hard to Learn?

It's a question I get asked all the time: "Is Russian hard to learn?"


The answer? "It can be, if you do it the wrong way."


The good news is, learning Russian can be effortless is you approach it the right way. If you've read some of the other articles on this site, then you know the approach that super-learners (as they're called) use to learn languages fast:


* they learn all words from context alone


* they learn grammar by searching patterns (not by memorizing rules)


* and they always, always, ALWAYS dig down to get the true, root meaning of a word. What some people called the SLT or Super Literal Translation.


* to develop fluency, they constantly turn phrases into constructions


* As often as possible, review vocabulary not by repeating old phrases verbatim, but by creating novel phrases. (That is, new sentences you've never said before.)


If you're new to Russian and want to listen to a great podcast that applies all these modern language learning principles, then click here to get it in i-Tunes.


If you use these five main principles as you learn Russian, you'll discover that you learn with minimal effort. As I said, learning Russian can be easy if you do it the right way.


By way of contrast, let's look at the wrong way to do it. We'll call our hapless student Ralph. So...


Ralph goes online and searches "learn Russian for free." He visits a bunch of sites that show him word lists. From one he jots down: TO LOVE =lubit, HAMMER = molotok, BROWN = korichnivy, TO TRAVEL = putishestvovat and so on. Endless lists of words.  Ralph does his best to memorize these words, but starts to feel anxious. All this effort, but he can't form a single useful sentence, except possibly: "The brown hammer loves to travel."


Ralph then switches his approach and looks for language forums.  His favorite questions are, "Is Russian hard to learn?" and "Best free sites to learn Russian?"  He is directed to other sites with even longer word lists. Someone convinces Ralph that he needs to take private lessons with a native speaker. So he finds one and, as you can imagine, she gives him a list of words to memorize. She also spends the bulk of his first few lessons trying to perfect his pronounciation of word like здравствуйте and нравится. Ralph finds these words difficult to pronounce and his confidence dwindles with every passing comment from his "teacher."


Eventually, Ralph's interest in Russian fades and he quits altogether.


And that's sad.  Because it's not his fault. He simply took the wrong approach. We don't learn languages from word lists. And native speakers -- while experts at speaking the language -- are horendous when it comes to teaching.


Russian is easy to learn, but you need to do it the right way. Throw away those word lists, and cancel your next lesson with your private tutor. Instead, go download this podcast for learning Russian for free and see for yourself how easy Russian is to learn.

Last Updated ( Sunday, 15 February 2015 10:56 )

Russian for Beginners

In this article, I'll be giving tips for those who are just beginning to learn Russian. What to do, what not to do, and how to get started. Depending on your mood, you might want to dive right into speaking Russian, or you might prefer to tackle the Russian alphabet (called Cyrillic) first. Both approaches are valid. If you prefer to speak right from the get-go, that's awesome. And don't let any anonymous know-it-all on some language forum convince you that you have to learn to read Cyrillic first. You don't. You can....but it's not a must.  After all, you'd been speaking English for years before you ever learned to read so much as a single letter in English.


Let's say you prefer speaking first. Okay, to go about it? Private lessons? A course at a local community college? Buy one of the big name language programs? Perhaps. But each of those is a big investment. Better to find something cheaper -- even free -- to get started and build your confidence. For speaking, there's no better podcast out there right now than Russian Made Easy. You can get it from the Russian Made Easy site directly. Or on iTunes.


Why that particular podcast? Because they do everything correctly. They use multiple native speakers, so you can hear the slight variations in how male and female native speakers pronounce things.  They let you aborb the meaning of words naturally, from context. There's no need for memorizing at all. You'll simply learn, as easily as you learned English. Best of all is how they let you discover the patterns behind Russian grammar.  That's all grammar is, after all, is patterns. No rules to learn, no charts to memorize. They help you uncover the patterns and youll soon find yourself creating your own, grammatically correct Russian phrases.  It's a really effective podcast.


And for those who prefer to learn to read the Cyrillic alphabet first? Again, you'll want someone who show's you things in context...a program that lets you discover on your own how each Russian letter is pronounced.  And for that, I have another free recommendation. This one is called, aptly enough, Russian Alphabet Mastery (Learn Cyrillic in 3 hours).


The great thing about the app is that, right from the start, you're sounding out actual Russian signs. Street signs, posters, billboards, menus, and so on. With each new letter you learn, a whole new set of signs are shown that you can sound out and make sense of. It's fun and extremely encouraging, knowing that you're reading things right there on the streets of Moscow. As you go through the app, be sure to keep paper and pencil handy and jot the letter s down as you learn each one. Try to play with them, using them to sound out English words and names. The more you play with them, the more comfortable you'll become.


So go download one of these programs and start learning Russian. You'll be amazed how easy it really is.

Last Updated ( Sunday, 15 February 2015 11:13 )

Learn Russian During Your Gap Year

Imagine spending your gap year in Russia.

Think of the exotic places you could visit, the lasting relationships you could build, and the valuable skill you could learn...that is, learning to speak Russian. After all, for more and more students, the gap year is becoming less of an extended vacation and more of an opportunity to boost one's resume. And few things look better on a resume than one of the prized foreign languages. I can't help you much with Chinese, Japanese or Arabic, but I can help you with Russian.

And so I repeat: Imagine spending your gap year in Russia...or in Ukraine, for that matter. (Russian is one of the two native languages in Ukraine.) In fact, Ukraine is often preferable because for visits of less than three months, no visa is required. Compare that with the decidedly tedious visa process for going to Russia, and Ukraine looks better and better. But in either case, you'll benefit a whole lot more if you lay a solid groundwork for the language before going there.

With some of the new language learning techniques out there now, you can quickly learn the Russian alphabet (using these videos). I mean, literally, you can be reading Russian in a weekend. And you can learn to speak your first few hundred words or so in a month, in your spare time. With a strong foundation in the language set down ahead of time, your valuable time in country can then be spent practicing the language in real situations. Here's a great podcast for learning Russian to get you started.

What kinds of situations, exactly? How about interning at one of the international newspapers or TV studios in Moscow? How about working at one of the five star corporate hotels in Kiev? (As a native speaker of English, your addition to the staff will be very welcome.) Russia is the largest country on earth with massive oil reserves, so how about interning at one of the giant petrol companies operating in Siberia and elsewhere? (Such work might not enrich your soul, but it can certainly enrich your bank account.)

You could work at a summer camp in Ukraine's popular Crimean peninsula, teaching kids to swim in the pristine Black Sea. You could volunteer to work at one of the numerous orphanages in Russia or Ukraine. I've even known students who've gone to Moscow to manage one of the many western fast food chains. The opportunities are endless, really. But again, it will make your time there infinitely more rewarding if you learn just a little Russian before you go. Of course in this day and age you can learn Russian online from the comfort of your own home.

Last Updated ( Saturday, 17 August 2013 03:54 )

Two Tips for Speaking Russian

So you want to speak Russian. Here are some tips before you start your adventure into learning to speak Russian:

If you're going to Russia on vacation, you really need to spend your time learning some survival kinds of phrases. My top ten list would include, "Where is the bathroom?", along with the ubiquitous Yes, no, please and thank you. It's beyond the scope of this article to thoroughly teach you those phrases, but I wanted to emphasize that you should practice saying them often, and jot them onto flashcards. Carry those flashcards with you and read straight from them if you need to, when you're in Russia. (Or at least take a quick peek just before speaking.)

But if you're wanting to learn Russian for more than just a few travel phrases -- if you really want to speak Russian and understand it -- then there are two main steps you need to take:

1. You need to find the best Russian course for you. This will take some time, though not necessarily money. You could start by going to your local library to see what courses they have sitting around their shelves. The library is a good place to start because you can try a variety of courses for free. Unfortunately, most of the courses that libraries have are literally decades old and are in pretty bad condition. But still, it's a starting point.

If you're willing to trade money to save time, you might consider purchasing a course online. For an in-depth look at Russian courses take a look at my review of the best Russian courses available for purchase online.

So, finding the right course, or courses is the first step to truly speaking Russian. And our second step?

2. You need to make a commitment to put in the time. A common mistake is that beginners get gung-ho and make promises to themselves that they'll study every day...for two or three hours. Then, when they miss a day or two, they quit altogether. The issue was, they made too big of a commitment to start with. Instead, tell yourself you'll study 30 minutes every other day, or even three days a week. You don't want guilt coming in if you don't study every day. As you learn and progress, okay...then your commitment can increase as well, to five days each week, maybe forty minute per session. But stick to it and give it time. Russian honestly is no harder than any other language (to speak, at least) but it does require an investment of time.

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Last Updated ( Tuesday, 28 May 2013 11:13 )

Russian Learning Q & A

I've gotten a lot of emails recently asking about specific tips and strategies related to learning Russian. So, allow me to take the time here and answer a few. (Apologies to those who I've yet to address.)

Q: Should I learn to read Russian (Cyrillic) before learning to speak it?

A: Not necessarily. Think of it this way: Did you learn to read your native language (Let's assume, English) before you learned to speak it? Of course not. You learned to read years later, after you could speak the language very well. And that made reading a whole lot easier. Now, that being said, you could make the argument that nevertheless it's helpful to learn to read as you learn to speak. It's certainly not nearly as daunting as it first appears. Maybe take a week to try saying a few words and phrases, make sure the course you're using is effective, and then try your hand at learning to read. (That's what I did.) Coming in with that bit of confidence behind you really makes a difference.

Q: What is a soft consonant? I read about them everywhere in my searches about Russian.

A: I can give you the technical definition, but it won't help much. To be honest with you, I hate the term. It's so if everyone (or rather anyone) knows what a soft consonant is. I think one textbook long ago used that phrase, and then a second waves of books were published that then referenced that first book. All future courses quoted these earlier ones...but no one ever bothered to explain it. There was simply the assumption that people know what in heck a soft consonant is. It's not even something that can be explained in text. It's something you need to listen to. And I wouldn't even worry about it until you've studied Russian for a while and have the sounds in your ear. Then you'll start to see which words have the soft versions of certain consonants in them.

Q: How much Russian can I reasonable expect to learn in, say, three or four months?

A: A lot! If you can find about one hour of study time a day, five days a week, you can make amazing progress. You should concentrate on learning no more than 700 to 800 words, and get as fluent as possible with them. (This, as opposed to trying to learn 2000 words, only to struggle to recall or pronounce them.) Go for a small vocabulary, and really try to master it. Make up new phrases all the time. Play with new vocab words. Work them into older phrases you're comfortable with. And practice your own back and forth conversations with the main constructions you're learning. Do that, and you can make amazing progress in Russian in just a few months!

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Last Updated ( Monday, 12 November 2012 10:09 )
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