I started to learn Russian in January 2016, because I met a great Russian girl in my university.
In this post I want to document all the mistakes I've made, lessons I've learned, and things that I would tell anyone who wants to learn Russian.
It's a post I wish I had when I started to learn Russian. It would've saved me a lot of time, energy, and struggle.
I hope you'll find a couple of useful things in here.
Here's a video of me speaking Russian after around 5 years of learning Russian. by the way:
1) Russian cases are difficult, but you shouldn't worry about them in the beginning anyway
It took me 2 months before I figured out that Russian had cases. I had just learned the phrase: Я хочу пиво (I want a beer). So naturally after that I said: Я хочу водка! (I want vodka). Turns out that was wrong. Because vodka is the direct object in the sentence, the correct way to say this is: Я хочу водку (I want vodka).
Having cases means that each word changes its ending according to its function in the sentence.
That was a big blow to my self esteem. I thought I was doing well with my Russian, but then it turned out I opened the Pandora's box of Russian cases. After looking them up online I got a demotivated. After all, the Russian cases sytem means that you need to learn:
- 6 different endings for 4 types of nouns (masculine, feminine, neuter and plural)
- and the adjective that coresponds to each of those nouns for each case
That's a lot of endings you need to remember. Luckily a lot of them are overlapping (for example the genitive, prepositional, instrumental, and dative adjectives for the feminine noun are the same), so it's a bit easier.
But wait. Did I already lose you? Exactly. That's the problem with cases. They're so overwhelming once you just get to know them. And you also need to understand when to use them.
What I wished I knew then, was that cases are probably the hardest part of learning Russian. And that it's okay to make mistakes. Russians will understand you anyways.
Example: you want to say "I bought a present FOR my mom". And you said "Я купил подарок мамы" (I bought a present OF my mom". That's the wrong case. You should've said "Я купил подарок маме" (I bought a present FOR my mom). Even though it's incorrect, 98% of native Russian speakers will understand what you mean.
How to learn Russian cases?
Make sure to learn once case at a time. This ensures that you can easily take up all the knowledge. Also be sure to practice cases while speaking, so you remember them better. In the end, mastery of cases comes with time and practice, so accept that you'll make plenty of mistakes while learning them.
2) The cyrillic alphabet is easy, so you should learn it in the first 2 weeks
In the beginning when learning, I sometimes looked at English spellings of Russian words.
This is fine if you just want to learn a couple of phrases to say as a tourist. But when you want to seriously learn Russian, you must learn the Cyrillic alphabet as soon as possible.
There are many reasons why it's good to learn the Cyrillic alphabet, but the main ones are that:
- You need to learn it anyway
- It makes it much easier to correctly pronounce the words
- It helps you look for content in Russian (searching for a song on YouTube for example,)
Contrary to what people think, the Russian alphabet is quite easy to learn. There are only 33 letters (compare that to the thousands of characters in Chinese). And among these letters you have:
- Basically the same as in English: к о т а м
- A little different: д б
- Familiar sound, different letter: й е н г з х ю и с ф в п р л э у
- New letters: ц ш щ ъ ж ь ч я ы ё
So while it may take an hour or 2 to get the basics down, this is time well invested.
How to learn the Cyrillic alphabet?
Once you're sure you want to learn the Russian language, look the Cyrillic alphabet up online. Make sure you find a page with sound, and examples of each letter in a real word. Systematically go through the letters, write them down, and say them out loud. Alternatively you can download any common language learning app such as Duolingo or Memrise to learn Russian for free.
3) Russian cursive is beautiful, but not worth spending time on
Russian cursive looks beautiful doesn't it. But can you read it?
After a couple of years of learning, I can now read Russian cursive. That may sound long, but I never focused on it. You can learn it quite quickly if you focus on it.
However, I cannot write it at all. And to be honest: In the 5 years I've been learning Russian now, I've needed to write something in Russian by hand maybe 5 or 10 times.
Virtually all communication is online nowadays anyways. So don't feel like it's something you must learn when learning Russian. Only do it if you find it interesting yourself. Otherwise you're better off spending your time learning Russian vocabulary, or practicing speaking.
Should you learn Russian cursive?
If you want to learn to write Russian cursive, go for it. But remember that it's not required at all, and most people would be better off spending that time learning more useful things such as Russia vocabulary.
4) When in doubt, be polite (say Вы instead of ты)
In English, you can say 'you' to anyone. No one will get offended if you address them like that.
But in Russian there are 2 forms to address someone:
- Вы - you formal
- Ты - you informal
As a rule of thumb, you should always start with the polite form Вы. Only after the other person has started addressing you with the informal ты, is it okay to switch to informal as well. This means that you've made a good connection.
You'll hear: Давайте перейдём на ты - let's switch to 'ты'.
Situations where you would say Вы are:
- Giving your passport to customs
- Ordering something in the restaurant
- Meeting someone for the first time
- Talking to someone obviously older than you
Now, as a foreigner learning Russian, you can likely get away with using ты, when most Russians would've say Вы. You're learning after all, and you cannot expect a beginner to master social etiquette from the start.
However, not everyone will know that you're learning. Especially if your accent is good, people might mistake you for a native Russian speaker. And then when you address someone with ты, they could get offended.
In general, try to use ты only when addressing children or teenagers.
Should you say Вы or ты?
When meeting someone for the first time, play it safe and say Вы. This will show the other person respect. Let the Russians take the initiative of switching to ты, and only after that start addressing them informally as well.
5) When learning a new verb, learn its perfective/imperfective partner at the same time
Almost every Russian verb has a twin brother. It's almost the same, but a little different. Those are the perfective and imperfective pairs.
An easy example:
- Делаю домашние задания - I am doing my homework
- Сделаю домашние задания - I will do my homework
One form means the present tense, and the other the future perfective tense.
If you're just starting to learn, you don't need to pay attention to this. But if you're already learning for a while, and you know the general difference between the perfective and imperfective, it's not a bad idea to learn each pair together.
Every time you learn a new verb conjugation, take 30 seconds to 1 minute to figure out what its 'twin brother' is. This costs you a little extra time in the moment, but your Russian will be a lot better for it.
It's one of the little things that foreigners tend to struggle with. So if you can make sure you say it correct most of the time, your Russian will stand out.
Russian perfective or imperfective?
Most native Russian speakers will understand you perfectly well if you make mistakes here, but it takes a small effort to remember the verbs in pairs, and your Russian will be a lot better for it.
6) Russian numbers are weird, so prepare to make much mistakes
In English counting things is easy:
- One cat
- Two cats
- Three cats
- Four cats
- Five cats
- Ten cats
- Twenty cats
- Twenty three cats
- Fifty cats
- Fifty one cats
Here are the Russian cats:
- Один кот
- Два кота
- Три кота
- Четыре кота
- Пять котов
- Десять котов
- Двадцать котов
- Двадцать три кота
- Пятьдесят котов
- Пятьдесят один кот
So, the noun changes according to the amount of numbers. If a number is singular, you use the nominative case. If a number is from 2-4, you say the genitive case singular. And if the number is more than 5, you say the genitive plural case.
But if a number is 51, you say the noun, as if it would be just 1. Confusing? I also though so when I started learning Russian.
It took me quite some time to say the Russian numbers corrent on a consistent basis. But that's okay. Even if you make a mistake here, it's nothing earth shattering. Russians will understand you perfectly well if you say 'пять кот' (correct: пять котов).
How to learn Russian numbers?
The most effective way to learn the Russian numbers is to use a form of flash cards (most apps will do). Then make sure to use them often in your speech. Don't worry about saying numbers correctly, untill you've learned the genitive case.
7) The gerund isn't important untill you're an advanced speaker
After about half a year to a year of learning, I started to understand most Russian grammar concepts on an okay level. If I focused well, I could say them correctly while having a conversation.
That's when the Russian course I was listening to started teaching me the 'gerund' grammatical concept.
For those who don't know (I sure didn't know back then!), the gerund is when you turn a verb into a noun or adjective.
It's when you get nice words such as 'защищающихся', from the verb 'защищать'.
While it's important to understand those words when you encounter them, you don't need to worry about saying them correctly. Even Russians barely use these words in speech. It's mainly a word for written Russian.
Russian gerund tip
Instead of saying the gerund, you can simply say any form of 'который'. Человек, написавший книгу -> Человек, который написал книгу. (The man who wrote the book). It's completely grammatically correct. If you listen clostely to Russian speech, you'll hear that Russians also tend to do this.
8) If you make mistakes with the verbs of motion, Russians will understand you anyway
After I booked plane tickets to go to Moscow to first time, I enthousiastically told my girlfriend: Я иду в Москву!
If you're not a complete beginner, you know that this implicates that 'I'm going to Moscow (on foot)'.
So my girlfriend laughed and said 'Ты правда идёшь в Москву - пешком?' I got it and replied: 'А, я еду в Москву!'.
It's a little thing that tends to drive foreigners learning Russian crazy. There are multiple forms of the word 'to go':
- идти - to go (on foot - one direction)
- ходить to go (on foot - multiple directions)
- ехать - to go (by transport - one direction)
- ездить - to go (by transport - multiple directions)
Their meanings are similar, but each has its own specific meaning. This is important to learn well at a certain point, but you don't need to overemphasize it.
Like with my example, it was obvious I was going to Moscow NOT on foot. So try to say it correctly while speaking, but if you're having a nice conversations, don't worry if you say it incorrectly. Everyone will understand what you're saying.
Russian verbs of motion
Understanding the Russian verbs of motion and correctly saying them is something that takes time. So by all means don't forget about them. But don't feel like you must say them correctly in order ot be understood.
9) Russian has virtually no words in common with English, so you must actively focus on learning new words all the time
If you know English, and you're learning a language such as German, Dutch, French, or even Spanish, you're lucky.
Why? Because those languages have so much words in common.
Unfortunately, Russian does NOT share many words with other common languages.
When learning any foreign language, you always need to learn new vocabulary. But for Russian it's even more important than with the other popular languages (except for Asian languages, which have even less words in common).
That's why I wish I would've started earlier to learn new words. Without knowing enough words, it's difficult to have conversations.
So for some other languages it might be fine to just follow a course and that in itself teaches you enough words to have conversations. But for Russian you must separately install an app, use flash cards, or in any way focus on improving your Russian vocabulary. Otherwise it will be difficult to have good conversations.
Learn Russian words
A good way to learn Russian words quickly is to install a popular app such as Duolingo. Or follow a course such as Glossika or Pimsleur. You can also create your own manual system for learning new words in a notebook or on flashcards.
10) It's better to have too low expectations, than to have too high expectations
Which promise sounds better?
- Follow this course and learn Russian in 30 days
- Follow this course and learn Russian in 3 years
The first one, right?
We all want good things, fast. The reality is that learning a difficult skill, such as Russian, will take time.
The reality is probably, that becoming 'fluent' in Russian takes you closer to 3 years, than 30 days.
But you can still learn a lot in 30 days. Basic conversations would be possible.
The problem with a lot of courses, and language learning gurus online is that they tend to create overly optimistic promises.
Take Benny Lewis' 'Fluent in 3 Months' website. It's a great resource. With plenty of good strategies.
But becoming fluent in 3 single months? In the Russian language? Forget it.
Maybe if you're Benny. And have learned several similar languages before. And spend 4 hours completely focused practising every single day for those 3 months. And move to a country where they speak the Russian language.
For normal people this is not an option. The problem comes if you spend some time on the side practicing Russian, and STILL expect the same results after 3 months.
You might be making great progress. But if you only have basic conversations after 2 months (which is a great achievement), you might still feel demotivated.
That can make you quit practicing, even though you were doing well.
The point I want to make is that it's better to have too little expectations, than too much. We already live in a stressfull world, and adding more stress doesn't work for most people.
Take it easy, and spend the first 2 months trying out different courses, methods, and apps to learn Russian. Then once you've done that you'll have a much better idea of how you like to learn, and that foundation will set you up for success.
Have less expectations
In the beginning, don't set difficult goals. You won't lose your job if you don't learn Russian in 30 days. It's a hobby for most. And even if it isn't, you don't want to risk burning out. Take it easy in the beginning, and explore different ways of practicing to learn how you can practise in a sustainable, effective, and fun way.
11) When struggling with motivation, find out why you actually want to learn Russian
The people that have the most chance of learning Russian well are the ones with an interest in the Russian language and culture. That's obvious.
But just interest doesn't guarantee much. It's better to have more reasons to learn Russian.
Maybe your girlfriend is from a Russian speaking country. Or maybe one of your grandparents is from Russia. Or maybe you would love to read the classic literature from Dostoyevski and Tolstoy in their native language.
If you're reading this article, you likely are interested in the Russian language and culture.
Now ask yourself what other reasons you have to learn Russian?
Here's my list:
- My girlfriend is Russian (and her parents don't speak English, so I need it to communicate to them)
- Many Dutch people know 1 or 2 foreign languages, but almost none know Russian, so it makes me stand out in the Netherlands.
- It's a good practice for my memory and brain
- I can read Russian literature in original now
- It sounds cool
Learning Russian started as a small interest, but as my list of motivations grew longer, I also started spending more time on it. And that helped me speak how I speak now.
Have good reasons to learn Russian
Learning Russian is difficult. Motivation is fleeting. You need to have strong reasons to continue if you're going through a low-motivation phase. Otherwise your chances of quitting learning altogether are much higher.
12) The best thing you can do to improve your discipline and speaking ability is to plan a trip to Russia
When I started learning Russian in the beginning of 2016, it was just for fun and my approach wasn't serious at all.
I learned some Russian words, and said them to my girlfriend, or to classmates in university.
But after a couple of months, things suddenly became serious.
In May 2016, I booked a trip to Moscow to see my girlfriend's parents in June.
They didn't speak English, so I knew I HAD TO improve my Russian level to be at least at a basic conversational level. Enough to introduce myself, talk about my hobbies, where I'm from and my plans for the future.
Before I booked the tickets I was sporadically listening to some podcasts in Russian, or learning some new words.
Now I had to quickly improve my Russian, and I started spending around an hour per day of concentrated practice.
And the best thing was that now practicing didn't require any discipline (or at least a lot less than before).
If a couple months earlier I would've told myself to spend an hour per day, I likely would not have followed through.
In total I've been to Russia now for about 10 times, and every single time the month before a trip I automatically spend 3x more time practicing than usual.
Knowing that there's a trip coming up, and that barely anyone in Russia speaks English well, kickstarts your motivation enormously.
Book a trip to Russia
There's nothing better for motivation than putting your money where your mouth is. Book a trip to Russian (or any Russian speaking country), and watch how your motivation skyrockets.
13) If you delay speaking Russian, you might never catch up
In Dutch high schools everyone is required to take 2 to 3 years of French classes. You would expect Dutch people to speak reasonable French, right?
Wrong. Almost no one speaks it. One friend of mine choose French as a specialisation and after 6 years, even he could barely have conversations. He was able to understand French speakers, and could read texts in French.
The problem in school was that 95% of time and effort was put on learning Russian grammar and vocabulary. Those are important, but you also must practice speaking often.
When I started learning Russian, I remembered this friend from high school, and made a decision to practice speaking as much as any other thing.
What I quickly found out is that - even though I made plenty of mistakes - native Russian speakers still understood me.
It's logical to feel like 'you need to learn a bit more grammar and Russian vocabulary before you start speaking'. But this is a trap, and you will feel like that forever.
It will always be scary to speak a new language. Even now after 5 years of learning I still sometimes get the nerves before speaking with native Russian speakers I've never met before, or don't see often.
So the best thing you can do here, is to accept that you're going to make mistakes. And just plow through this awkward beginning phase. The more mistakes you make, the better your Russian will become. So make a lot of them!
Speak from day 1
Make sure you have someone to practice with. Whether that's a Russian colleague, partner, family member, or someone through an online Russian language exchange. The best thing is if this is on a consistent basis. So you can practice the Russian grammar and vocabulary you learned since the last time you spoke with them.
14) Russian is actually quite easy to speak if you try
For English speakers, Russian is more difficult to learn than Germanic (Dutch, German), or Romanic (French, Italian, Spanish) languages. But when it comes to speaking well, Russian has a couple of tricks that make it easier to speak:
For example, there's a fluent word order in Russian. So you can basically mix all the words in the sentence. You can start a sentence wherever you want.
I go to work - я иду на работу.
That's correct in both Russian and English.
Go to work I - иду на работу я.
I to work go - я на работу иду.
In English, the last 2 sentences sound off. They're not correct. In Russian the sentences are perfectly fine. Even though the first variant may be the most common, you can mix up almost any sentence order, and still keep a good sentence.
This is great for non-native speakers, as it reduces the frequency of mistakes you can make.
It also gives you more time to think what you're going to say next while speaking. In strict word order languages, you must first completely think up the sentence, before starting to speak, otherwise you risk messing up the sentence structure.
With Russian, you can just start speaking with the first word that comes to mind, and then add more words on top. This frees up RAM in your brain, and helps make your speech more dynamic and fast paced.
Russian sentence structure
Because Russian nouns use cases to signal the function in the sentence, it doesn't really matter where the word is located. This will help you learn Russian at a good pace. You can add words after eachother while speaking, instead of thinking up the entire sentence before speaking.
15) Start talking to yourself in Russian out loud, even if it feels weird
My Russian wasn't bad after 3 years of practicing. But then I stumbled upon a method that suddenly made my Russian speaking skills improve very quickly.
What did I do?
I started a YouTube channel and making weekly videos.
Before I had only practiced speaking with other people. Logically, right? But the fact that now I was practicing a monologue in in Russian in front of the camera, made me so much more aware. I started paying more attentions to the cases, to how fast I was saying things. And of course I now needed to make sure I was making a coherent point, to make sure viewers understood me (this failed quite often though 🙂 )
The point I want to make is NOT that you should start a YouTube channel. It's quite stressfull, and you need to always come up with new creative ideas, which take away from the practice Russian part.
What I want you to consider is to also start a private speaking practice. Record yourself on your phone once a while and have a monologue. Make sure to focus on speaking slow and correct Russian, and to make a good point.
You can talk about whatever. No one will hear this anyway.
Possibly the coolest thing about this is that it allows you to track your progress. If you feel like you're not progressing, you can just compare a recording of 3 months ago with how you speak now. This will likely shock you.
I regret not having recordings or videos from 2016 - 2019 of my Russian.
Record yourself speaking
Try recording yourself speaking. It will make it clear what you struggle with, and offers a simple way to improve your Russian. It's a bit scary or weird to hear yourself speaking, but that's exactly how others hear you speak.
16) Your success or failure in learning Russian doesn't matter, so take it easy
After 1 year of learning Russian, I set goals in the beginning of 2017 to be at the C1 level before January 1st, 2018. I made an elaborate plan of spending around 1 hour per day learning.
How long do you think I followed this plan?
Around 3 days.
Before I would enjoy practicing. Now there was pressure. I didn't look forward to listening to my audio course or doing flashcards at all.
I quickly dropped the plan and started doing simpler things. I would just listen to audio courses while commuting to my internship and play a video game called The Witcher in Russian.
Those things were fun to do, and soon I regained my motivation to learn more.
What I want to say here is that there's no need to put too much pressure on yourself. For most people learning Russian it's a hobby. You won't lose your job if you don't make progress fast enough. You won't get kicked out of your house. Your friends won't stop speaking to you.
Actually, for many people, learning Russian is quite a useless hobby. It won't make you more healthy, it won't make teach you to make more money, It won't help you find the love of your live.
Though, maybe the last one it can help with 😉
Recently I had a client ask for a refund for my course. He told me that he was currently studying hard to get a specific programming job, and that learning Russian was his way of procrastinating. Getting a job is more important than learning Russian.
Making progress fast is nice. But it doesn't matter how fast you learn, if you cannot keep it up for a long period of time.
So focus on making a little bit of progress every single day without much pressure. That way you will enjoy the journey a lot more, and in the end still make faster progress. Be the tortoise, not the hare.
Don't pressure yourself
We don't need more stress in our lives. Take a relaxed approach to learning Russian that you enjoy, and focus on improving a little bit every day. Pressure just leads to burnout, and your Russian will never be good if you quit after 3 weeks.
17) Russians are grateful that you want to learn Russian
I lived in Spain for 1 year. During that time I learned some basic Spanish. But whenever I tried to practice a litte in a cafe or store with the staff, the staff wouldn't be too happy.
It felt as if I was taking up their time and using them to practice Spanish.
In Russia, I've never had that experience.
Everywhere I've been, native Russian speakers have shown patience and gratitude whenever I'd speak Russian to them.
Even when I had just started learning, and my Russian was super broken.
I'm not sure why exactly Russians are so happy when foreigners learn the Russian language. It might be because relatively few people learn Russian. Or because the general level of English isn't too high in Russia.
But this is an enormous advantage you have, compared to learning other languages.
One complaint of foreigners here in the Netherlands is that Dutch people always switch to Engiish when they start in Dutch. The moment a foreigner speaks slowly in Dutch with a foreign accent, we quickly switch to English. It's just faster, more convenient, and easier to communicate.
But it's horrible for foreigners that want to improve their Dutch skills.
In Russia it's the opposite. People will show you respect, and most are incredibly patient when you speak Russian. That also makes it easier to spend a lot of time practicing. And in the end, the more time you spend speaking Russian, the better your Russian will be.
Note: this is my experience as a guy from western Europe learning Russian. If you are from (or maybe even only look like you're from) a country where many people want to learn Russian, this effect will be less. I'm talking about some former USSR states, where now many people migrate to Russia to find a better future, or work as guest workers. Countries such as Uzbekistan, Tadjikistan or maybe even countries like Armenia, or Azerbaidjan. If this is you, don't worry. The main thing is to show respect and have an authentic desire to learn Russian well.
Russians are happy you're learning
Because few people are learning Russian, and the general level of English is low in Russia, people will be very happy if you're learning Russian. Even if you've just started learning, and just speak a couple of phrases, they'll applaud you and say Молодец! (good job!).
18) It's actually better to practice 10 minutes every day than once a week for 2 hours
If someone would ask me what the 'secret' is how I have been able to learn Russian well, I would answer the following:
If you can find a way to make a little bit of progress every single day, you cannot even imagine how well you will be speaking.
There's something magical in doing something consistently on a daily basis. Even if it's just a couple of minutes.
The fact that you're getting up and taking action every day, installs a habit in you.
Before you know it, it will feel weird when you don't practice.
Your identity will also slowly change to someone who's learning - and later, speaking - Russian.
On a more practical level:
Spending some time every day improving your Russian, helps you make a little bit of progress every day. While you sleep, you store the things you've learned into your long term memory. The next day, you add a little bit more knowledge, and store it again for later use while sleeping.
This ensures you remember most of the stuff you learn.
If you were to spend 2 hours on a Saturday afternoon practicing, you likely forget half of it even the next day.
That's why it's important to learn a little bit, every single day.
A little bit every single day
Practicing a little bit every single day will make learning Russian a habit. If will soon feel weird not to practice. You also remember information a lot better, if you take it up in small pieces. So try to spend at least 10 minutes every day practicing.
19) Swearing and using slang is not cool if you're a foreigner
I went on a fishing trip with my girlfriend's dad and his friends in Norway in spring 2018.
Everyone came by plane except for 2 guys, who drove a car from Moscow there.
When everyone arrived, one of the older guys asked the 2 guys who drove there:
Сколько километров вы охуехали сюда? (untranslatable - but something along the lines of: "how many fucking kilometers did you drive here?")
He added the word хуй (dick) into the word ехать (drive), and created one single word.
I found that incredibly creative. And to this day, I think the Russians have the most poetic form of swearing.
Americans just say 'fuck' a lot. Dutch people swear with diseases. But Russians write poetry when they swear.
Russians swearing is called 'мат'.
Of course, many Russians are guilty of abusing a couple of words, such as сука блядь (literal translation: female dog, whore), and removing the power those words have.
But in essence Russian slang and swearing is incredibly creative and adds a way of expressions, that would otherwise be difficult to achieve.
Unfortunately for us foreigners, we only should enjoy listening to it.
Trying to say slang is one of the quickest ways to make yourself into a laughing stock. You won't sound cool, by adding блядь into your speech, or saying 'Я Америкос', instead of 'Я американец'.
You'll sound like the Red haired kid with glasses in high school who tried to act cool, but wasn't.
It's much better to stay away from all those words, and keep to normal Russian.
At some point Russians will ask you if you know any 'bad words', or if you can repeat a specific word. In those cases, it's of course fine to say or repeat them.
But just the fact that you as a foreigner want to learn Russian is already impressive enough on its own. No need to dress it up by swearing or using slang.
Don't swear in Russian
As a foreigner, it's almost impossible to authentically say Russian slang or swearing words without looking like a fool. Your Russian must be at a very high level for you to understand the nuances of those words. It's much better to keep your speech clean. That's already impressive enough for someone learning the Russian language.
20) Your accent will improve with time, even if you don't focus on it
In the Netherlands, we have hundreds of regional accents. And it's always interesting to see what happens after someone goes away to study in another city.
Especially if they join a fraternity, their accent usually changes to a more posh version of how they used to speak before.
It happened to me.
Being constantly exposed to a specific type of accent, can slowly change your own accent - if you let it.
The same principle works with learning Russian.
I've never specifically worked on improving my accent. Many people say that my Russian is among the 'least accented' of most foreigners they've heard speak Russian.
So how is that possible?
When I started I had quite a thick Dutch accent. Dutch language originates in the throat, and Russian comes more from the front of the mouth.
This made my Russian sound harsh.
I'll probably make a video about this in the future, as it's interesting to hear.
I made a specific effort to continuously expose my brain to correct Russian.
- Real life conversations
- TV Series
- Video games
If you spend a bit of time hearing correct Russian every day, your accent will also improve.
And contrary to what many people say, your goal doesn't need to be to 'speak like native Russian speakers'.
It's actually cool to have a bit of an accent. It shows your bi- or trilingual. It adds some flair to your speech.
So I wouldn't spend too much time on trying to get rid of your accent.
The caveat here is, that people should understand you. If your accent is so thick that Russians have to ask you every 2 sentences to repeat yourself, then you better work on improving it.
Improve your Russian accent
Input = output. Make sure you listen often to correct Russian, and your accent will improve over time. Later you can always do exercises to help with specific letters or constructions to finetune your speech.
21) Time will pass anyway, so it doesn't matter how long it takes you
If you watch a video of me speaking Russian, you might think "I would like to speak Russian like he does."
Remember: it took me 5+ years to get to this level.
That's a long time. So you may be unsure whether it would be worth it to spend so long to learn Russian.
But to me, it felt like yesterday when I started to learn Russian words.
Time just went by so quickly.
And because learning Russian was (and is) just a hobby, I never felt much pressure. I would focus on living my life, and spend 30 minutes to an hour doing something Russian related. It never felt I needed to sacrifice something.
The point I want to make is this:
In a couple of years, you can either speak Russian. Or you can still dream about wanting to learn Russian.
Time will pass anyway.
So you might as well just start, and improve a little bit every day.
And by the way: you'll be able to have normal conversations in Russian way before the 5 year mark. If you focus well, and have a good approach you can have simple conversations after a month or 2, and normal conversations after 6 months to 1 year 😉
Time passes anyway
6 months may seem like a long time. But if you start consistently practicing and enjoy the process, time will fly. And before you know it, you will look back and be surprised how good your Russian has become.
22) Plateus do not exist, so stop worrying about them
Before corona, we would travel to Russia about 2 times per year. One time in summer, and one time in winter.
And almost every time in between those trips I would feel that my Russian was stagnating. I was practicing every day, learning Russian words and immersing myself in Russian movies and TV series.
However, it would feel that it was all wasted effort. Some days I would even feel as if my Russian was actually getting worse...
However, when we would then travel to Russian, I quickly found out that my Russian had gotten a lot better since the last trip.
It's difficult to notive progress if you're doing something day in day out. How well you speak, also depends on:
- how well you slept last night
- background stress
- how much you've listened to Russian the days before
And a lot of other factors.
So if you ever find yourself practicing daily, but still feeling like you're not making progress, maybe you just need to go out and try to have normal conversations.
You can book a trip to Russia. But that's often not a decision you can quickly make on the fly.
Another solution to getting out of this 'plateau feeling' is to get a drink with a Russian friend of colleague.
In the long-term alcohol is bad for language learning, as it hinders memory formation. But in the short term a couple of drinks do wonders to get you to loosen up, stop overthinking and see what you're really capable of.
Plateus don't exist
When you feel like you're no longer progressing, you're likely paying too much attention to the details. If you're learning new things and practicing speaking on a daily basis, there's no way you cannot be making progress. All you need to do is get out there, let go and test your Russian. Then you'll see that you actually made a lot of progress.
23) Learn just one language at a time, and forget the 'polyglot dream'
Since starting the site and youtube channel, I've gotten countless emails like this:
Now, it's great that this person has the desire to learn several languages.
However, in real life, this almost never works out.
It's like wanting to become a pro wrestler and pro soccer player.
You can become proficient at both, but getting good at both at the same time won't work.
This is the problem that many YouTube polyglots have created. You've probably seen videos of Wouter Corduwer, Steve Kaufmann, Ikenna or Olly Richards. The videos have titles such as "Polyglots speaks 13 languages".
It's cool that they such a dedication to language learning. It's a cool partytrick. Most of them know maybe 2 foreign languages at a relatively good level, 2 more at an okay-ish level, and the rest they know the absolute basics.
This is still a great achievement. But for most of them, language learning has now become their job. So they have plenty of time to put into it.
Learning your 7th language will also be a lot faster than your 1st foreign language.
The problem comes when you watch these videos and get inspired to also become a polyglot. Or at least become inspired to learn more than 1 language. You become the kid at the candy shop, and you start thinking about all the cool languages you can speak.
Now you're super motivated to learn Russian and Korean and Japanese and French and Spanish.
That is not realistic for 99.9% of people.
Learning Russian to a good level (working proficiency) takes a couple of years at best. If you're unfocused and dont practice consistently, you can spend 10 years and still not speak at a desirable level.
If you start playing around with 2 or more different foreign languages at the same time, you will drastically decrease your chances of ever becoming good in 1 of them.
You'll become the person who at parties can impress people with the languages he can speak. But put this person in a foreign country on their own, and they'll do a little better than the average tourist.
The reasons why learning several languages doesn't work are because:
- You'll confuse them, and start saying words from one language when you speak the other.
- You don't have enough time in a day to make meaningful progress in both of them.
- You cannot immerse yourself in more than one language at a time.
Now that my Russian is good, people sometimes ask me: "So what language are you going to learn next?"
My reply is usually that I'm not planning on learning another language. My Russian is good, but it's far from perfect. I still have a lot to learn. I would rather spend another 5 years on perfecting my Russian (and even then it won't be perfect), than start the entire process all over again. I find the idea of speaking one language incredibly well, a lot more appealing than speaking 2 foreign languages at a good level.
If this didn't convince you, and you still want to learn multiple languages: at leastmake sure you only start the second language once you're at an intermediate level in the first. This will decrease the chances of you mixing languages up, as you already have a solid base in one language.
Don't become a polyglot
If you want to speak multiple languages at a mediocre level, then being a polyglot is for you. Unless you're naturally gifted or have too much free time, it's better to stick to the Russian language and learn it well. The end goal of language learning is meaningful communication with natives, and this can only be achieved with focus and dedication to one language.
24) Real life Russian lessons are not necessary for everyone, so try learning on your own first
My girlfriend took Dutch classes here in the Netherlands. In class she was paired with a Polish girl who probably was forced to go there by her employer.
The end result was that this Polish girl dragged the entire class down, and when she was doing one-on-one practicing with my girlfriend, she didn't put any effort and spoke mostly English.
Another friend of mine here has a Russian wife, and he went to Russian classes. During the first class the teacher spoke about how incredibly difficult the Russian grammar is because they have 6 cases. She also emphasized perfect pronunciation of each word, before learning the next one.
This friend got demotivated because there was a lot of pressure, and it was difficult. He quit after several weeks, even though he's a smart guy working in IT.
Now, my girlfriend and this friend got unlucky with their choice of classes.
But this shows the main problem with classes: most people go to classes to transfer responsibility of learning away from themselves.
This is fine, as not everyone is self disciplined enough to learn Russian on their own.
But putting responsibility in the hands of your teacher, is a gamble:
- The teacher can use the wrong methods
- There can be a couple of lazy people in the class who drag the speed of learning down to their level
- The focus can be on Russian grammar instead of speaking
And much more.
If you have a little bit of self discipline, and are motivated to learn Russian, you're probably better of learning on your own. You can pic the resources that work best for you. You can spend time learning when you schedule permits is. And you can progress so much faster than if you were to follow classes.
If you're on this site and reading this, chances are high you're more motived and disciplined than the average person into language learning. So give it a shot.
Maybe classes aren't for you
There is more than one way to learn Russian. Classes are one of them. If you've tried going to them before, and it didn't work out. No problem. Try a different approach.
In this section you'll find things I've learned about different resources to help you learn Russian. There are many different apps, courses, sites, and more available to learn Russian for free. Some of them are great. Others aren't. Here is what' I've learned over the years about them:
25) Watch tv series to improve your understanding of spoken Russian
In order to speak and understand Russian well, you mustl isten to a large amount of Russian.
You need to give yourself the right amount of input. Otherwise it will be difficult to understand what Russians say.
A simple method that's also fun, is to watch TV series in Russian.
They are set up to be easily watchable and you can easily spend an evening going through several episodes.
They're also available in every genre, with easy language or difficult language.
That means that for every person at every level there are good TV series to watch.
And since the Russian language is widely spoken, we can also find series with English subtitles. This is necessary for beginners.
Some people on the internet recommend you just start watching in Russian, without Enligh subtitles. But that will only confuse you, and very quickly tire you. Thats not a fun method.
Instead you just pick a serie with a genre you like. If you're a beginner, look for series with English subtitles. If y ou're more advanced, you can try with just Russian subtitles. Or no subtitles at all.
Here's an overview of good Russian TV series to watch for beginners.
How to watch Russian TV series?
If you're a beginner, watch series with English subtitles. If you're more advanced, watch with Russian subtitles or none at all. Try to watch at least 1 episode of 20 minutes per day for consistent progress.
26) Read bilingual language books, so you can read at an early stage
When I was 20, I read Crime and Punishment in English. It's one of the most well-know Russian literature books. Back then, I didn't know any Russian. I wasn't even learning Russian. It would be 2 more years before I would start.
6 years later, I was able to read it in Russian.
The reason that it took so long, is that Russian literature (and books in general) are difficult. You need to know a lot of Russian and grammatical knowledge for the book to make sense.
If you only know 200 Russian words, you can have simple conversations.
If you only know 200 Russian words, you cannot read books at all.
Sure, you could try reading childrens books. Or dumbed down versions of bigger books. Which are both good methods by the way. It's just that most kids books aren't that interesting. And there are only a few dumbed down books available unfortunately.
A good thing to do here is to read bilingual Russian language books.
Bilingual Russian language books allow you to read Russian books at almost any level. It's like a puzzle. You see the Russian text on the left, and the English text on the right.
You can first read the Russian sentence. See how much you understand. And then check yourself by reading the English sentence next to it.
This has the benefit of teaching you a lot of new words. And you can read books that you would otherwise need much better Russian for.
Read bilingual language books
Bilingual Russian language books (or dual language books) are a great way to start reading difficult Russian books. They teach you Russian vocabulary and grammar. They're also a fun way to spend more time practicing.
P.S. If you want to improve your Russian on 'autopilot', my best recommendation is to just listen to 1 single Russianpod101 podcast per day (about 15 minutes). Ideally you do this when commuting to work to create a lasting habit. You can also take a daily walk. I did this for about 6 months, and it's the reason my Russian improved so quickly. There's a free 7 day trial with just an email address, so you're not risking anything. Give it a try and see how fast your Russian skills improve.