5 Shortcuts to Start Speaking Russian
This is a guest post from Live Fluent.
Knowing even a little Russian can go a long way when traveling in Ukraine. A few key words and phrases might mean the difference between missing a train or getting lost in Kiev; while being able to have basic conversations can help you connect with Ukrainians and discover people and experiences that the typical English-only foreigner is likely to miss out on.
Still learning a foreign language is no small feat, especially if that language is Russian. Speaking Russian is markedly different from English and you will have to face its complex grammar, Cyrillic alphabet, and new pronunciation. That being said you don’t have to learn the language perfectly to start having conversations.
Here are 5 practical tips to help you start speaking the language as quickly as possible.
1) Find a language partner
Practicing Russian with a native speaker is hands down the quickest and most effective way to learn the language. At its core language learning is a lot like learning to ride a bike or drive a car. At first it feels new, scary, and complicated, but the more you practice the more comfortable it becomes.
So why not find a native Russian speaker who is learning English and practice with them? If you’re in country it shouldn’t be hard to find someone fluent in Russian who is learning English. Check and see if the city you’re in has any language clubs, universities, or language exchanges. Most large cities (and even many smaller ones) in Ukraine will have some community of language learners. Link up with them and develop your skills.
If you’re not living in Ukraine or another Russian speaking country then check out one of the many international language exchanges online. Sharedlingo and Wespeke are both free to use and have a number of Russian speakers looking to connect with native English speakers.
2) Use a Spaced Repetition System to Review Vocabulary
Spaced repetition systems are typically sites or apps that work as digital flashcard decks that use a special algorithm to calculate which card to show you next (think of the old 3×5 cards you used to review in middle school but now they’re on your phone).
They allow you to make “flashcards” using text, photos, images, and sound files. Anytime you learn a new Russian word or phrase you can easily make a flashcard for it using whatever media you think will help you remember it. The most popular ones for language learning are Memrise and Anki. Both have mobile apps that allow you to review and practice cards anywhere you have your smart phone.
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Ease of use and portability are great, but the real power of apps like Memrise and Anki are their spaced repetition systems. Spaced repetition works by showing you old flashcards based on the last time you saw them and whether or not you remembered them. A word you forgot yesterday will show up today while a word you remembered won’t show up for a few days or even weeks.
The algorithm behind the system works so that you see old words right at the time you would normally forget them. This makes spaced repetition one of the most efficient ways to review and remember Russian vocabulary.
3) Find as many Cognates as you can
Cognates are words that sound similar in two languages and have the same meaning. When learning a language it’s important to remember that no language exists in isolation. Throughout history languages have mixed and matched words with one another, and often there’s some crossover between them.
English and Russian are no exception. Words like number, airport, idea, and passport all sound very similar in both languages. Learning cognates takes very little effort and you should try to find as many as you can. Think of them as free bonuses for your Russian vocabulary. You can find premade Russian cognates decks on Memrise.
4) Learn frequent words
Some Russian words are used more than others. Did you know that if you learned the 1,000 most commonly used Russian words you’d be able to understand around 75% of what you read? The Russian language is estimated to have anywhere from 130,000 to 150,000 words. That means that knowing less than 1 % of all Russian words will help you understand the majority of words you’ll find a newspaper or book!
Most courses and grammar books don’t follow this principle because it’s a lot easier to design lessons and curriculum around themes like work and family. They’re not really interested in helping you learn the language faster so much as they are in creating a course that’s easy to produce.
But the undeniable truth is that not all words are used equally. There are some you’ll need more than others. Going back to the theme of family, did you know that you’re 79% more likely to use the word “mother” than “niece”? Why not spend your precious time learning words like “mother” instead of wearing yourself out trying to remember the word for “niece”? Use a Russian frequency list or dictionary to see which words you’ll get the most mileage out of.
5) Focus on the words and phrases you need most
This brings us to our next tip: learn the words you need to know. You’re probably not going to need to know the Russian word for “astrophysicist” unless you actually work as one. That’s an extreme example but it illustrates an important point.
If you learn Russian in a textbook or a classroom you’re likely to learn a lot of phrases like “the boy sits”, “the dog runs”, etc. This isn’t necessarily bad, but if you’re trying to learn Russian fast it’s best to focus on phrases and words you’re likely to use. Impractical vocabulary is my main complaint with many language learning courses.
If you’re traveling through Ukraine for a short time then you’ll probably want to focus on words and phrases related to transportation (trains, cabs, planes), reserving a room, dinning out, and making a purchase. Practicing with a Russian phrase book is a good place to start.
If you’re learning Russian to make friends or date then you’ll want to learn questions and answers like “What do you do?”, “What are your hobbies?”, “Where are you from?”. You should be able to reasonably predict which phrases will help you get by in a given situation.
Try writing out a simple mock conversation in English that you’re likely to have in Ukraine. Then do your best to translate it or ask a native speaker to help you (Lang-8 is a great free site that lets you upload posts in a foreign language to be corrected by native speakers and is perfect for this kind of thing). Then use the translation of the conversation as a sort of “cheat sheet” when you practice speaking with a friend or language partner.
This practical approach to learning Russian will help you become conversational in the specific areas that you need most. This way you don’t have to get bogged down in grammar or declension charts. You can get straight to speaking the language.
Speaking Russian in Ukraine: Conclusion
While speaking Russian isn’t exactly a walk in a park, it is an immensely rewarding experience (especially if you plan on going to Ukraine). These tips will help you build up your conversational skills and get the most out of your travel experience.
Just like a trip to Ukraine, learning a foreign language can be an adventure.
Don’t forget to enjoy the journey and have fun speaking Russian!