How to Learn Russian for Beginners in 7 Steps

By Ari Helderman
May 2, 2022

If you’re a beginner Russian learner, you probably dream of being able to speak Russian well. Maybe you want to travel through Russia, read the Russian literature classics, or maybe you just want to speak because your partner speaks Russian.

The Russian language may seem incredibly difficult, right?

But if you take a step by step approach, you will be able to speak it well.

In this article you find the basic steps I would tell a person who’s just start with the Russian language. I’ve been learning Russian sincec 2016, and have been helping other foreigners learn the language since 2018.

So if you are also a beginner Russian learner, you might find some helpful things in here.

7 Steps to learn Russian for beginners

Okay, here’s the deal:

Your first couple of hours of learning Russian are the most important.

If you feel ‘successful’ after 20 hours of learning, you will continue learning.

If you feel overwhelmed and as if you will never be able to speak Russian, you will stop learning the language.

So that’s why it’s important to focus on early successes.

Early success can be defined as follows:

  • You understand the Russian alphabet. Maybe reading it doesn’t go as fast as you like, but that’s okay. You will pick up reading speed with time and practice.
  • You have learned a couple of Russian words, and have been able to form basic sentences. Again, speed and correctness doesn’t matter. As long as you have some confidence in your ability to create a simple sentence.
  • You understand basic parts of Russian grammar. Such as the present tense conjugation and the nominative/accusative case.
  • You have listened to Russian speech, and enjoyed listening to it. This can be real life conversations, audio lessons or even watching a Russian series.
  • You have spoken Russian to a native speaker, and gotten positive feedback. Don’t try to act cool, just explain that you’re learning the language. Virtually all native speakers will react positively to this.

There are no hard goals here. The main importance is that you feel good about learning Russian. If you feel good, you will continue learning. And that’s the main goal of the beginning stages.

So keep those in mind as you go spend your first hours learning the Russian language.

Let’s get started:

Watch this video where I tell you in Russian (with English subtitles) 9 reasons why Russian is actually easy to learn.

1) Learn basic vocabulary

The first thing you should learn is basic Russian vocabulary.

The reason for that is because words are the fundamental blocks in the Russian language.

If you would know nothing else except for the 1000 most common words, you would be able to communicate.

Knowing grammar is nice, but if you don’t know words, you cannot apply it to anything.

So how do you learn words?

There are plenty of possibilities, but some of the easiest ways to learn vocabulary is to use Russian language learning apps.

The reason apps work so well is because they have a solid progression in the beginning. You start with the easiest words, and with time you progress to more difficult words.

In between you also practice those words by trying to create sentences.

Most apps that focus on new vocabulary are also free by the way.

Some good options for to learn vocabulary in the beginning are:

  • Duolingo. A popular language learning app that teaches you vocabulary, the alphabet and basic grammar. Works good for the first 2 to 3 weeks, then becomes obsolete.
  • Memrise. An alternative to Duolingo. Focuses more on words and phrases than other things. Also teaches the alphabet. Again, works great for the first several weeks, then can only be used as an additional way to learn a couple of words per day.
  • Ankidroid. By far the best app to learn Russian words. It lacks the gamification aspects of Duolingo and Memrise, but is much more effective at later stages. It is less intuitive in the first couple of weeks, but once you know the most common 100 Russian words, you must switch to this app.

2) Learn the Cyrillic alphabet

You also must learn the Russian alphabet. In case you are wondering, this is the same as the Cyrillic alphabet. Those are 2 different names for the same thing. We’ll use the Cyrillic name, as it’s the official one.

The Cyrillic alphabet looks very scary.

But it’s like a card trick. In reality it is much easier than it looks.

All the 33 Russian letters can be divided into 4 groups:

  • Same as in the Latin alphabet: А К М О Т
  • Look similar to the Latin alphabet, but have a different sound: В Е Н Р С У Х
  • Look different from the Latin alphabet, but have a similar sound: Б Г Д Ё З И Й  Л  П Ф Э Ю Я
  • Look and sound different from the Latin alphabet: Ж Ц Ч Ш Щ Ы Ъ Ь

They still look a bit scary, right? That’s okay. You don’t need to learn all the Cyrillic letters in one go. You can take your time, and learn a couple letters per day. If you learn 5 letters everyday, it will take you less than a week.

After that, you will use them during every single Russian lesson anyways. Everytime you read a Cyrillic letter, it will become reinforced in your memory. So spend an hour or 2 the first week, and then the rest will go on autopilot.

So how do you learn the Cyrillic alphabet?

The exact same as for the new words and phrases. You use the same free apps that we spoke about in the first step.

Because in order to learn vocabulary, you need to know the alphabet. So these apps are also not stupid. And they incorporated the alphabet into the first week of learning. So in the first couple of lessons, you’ll get simple exercises to learn the Cyrillic alphabet.

And you may ask why we didn’t start with the Cyrillic alphabet? The reason for that is because you learn best, if you can apply the knowledge to something right away. If you know a couple of words, you will automatically already learn some letters. If you just start repeating random letters, you have no clue how they actually look like in a written Russian text.

3) Learn how to conjugate verbs in the present tense

Now that you know basic Russian vocabulary and the Cyrillic alphabet, it’s time for the next step.

Just adding words together is good. You’ll be able to communicate on a basic level.

Walk into the the bakery, point at the brown bread and say:

Два. Хлеб. Хотеть.

That means: Two. Bread. To Want.

The baker will completely understand you want to buy two of the breads you’re pointing at.

But to make your speech more eloquent, you need to know how to conjugate verbs.

Verb conjugation is taking the infinitive form of a verb, and changing it so that it fits the person who says it. Here’s an example of how this works in Russian for the verb ‘to want’.

  • Хотеть – to want
  • Я хочу – I want
  • Ты хочешь – you want (informal)
  • Он/она/оно хочет – he/she/it wants
  • Мы хотим – we want
  • Вы хотите – you want (formal/plural)
  • Они хотят – they want

But you basically take a verb, remove the ending. And then add another verb ending depending on who says it.

Now, this is not something most Russian learners will learn in a week. It takes time and practice to consistently say it correctly.

But the most important part is to get a basic grasp of the speaking rules here. I won’t be explaining exactly how to conjugate each word here. Instead I’ll explain to you the easiest ways you can learn them.

  • Apps. The previously mentioned free apps also teach the basic rules of verb conjugation. If you follow the apps in the first couple of weeks, you’ll pick up the basics. The downside is that you can only learn by seeing. And there is little explanation how and why the rules work.
  • Real life classes. A more effective way is to follow offline classes. You simply go to classes, and there they will teach you how the verb conjugation rules work. The explanation and examples of the teacher will make it more clear how and why the rules are applied. If you’re the type of learner who likes offline classes, it’s a good idea to sign up for one.
  • Online courses. If you want to learn the Russian language from home, online courses are a great option. If you go for an audio course, you have the benefits of a teacher and the freedom of following it at your own pacec. I highly recommend the course RussianPod101 if you are interested in following this route.

4) Start to practice speaking

Okay, now it’s time to get serious.

Knowledge of Russian and speaking Russian are actually 2 completely different skills.

You can know thousands of words, and understand all the grammatical concepts.

But if you’ve never tried speaking, you’ll still find it difficult to make coherent sentences.

That’s why you must focus on speaking Russian as well.

Most previous steps could be done online, but for speaking we must go into the real world.

If you are motivated to learn the Russian language, there’s a chance you already know Russian speakers. Maybe you have a Russian friend, a Russian partner or colleague. Maybe it’s exactly because of them that you got interested in the Russian language in the first place.

In that case it’s good to start practicing speaking Russian with them.

Don’t be obnoxious and force them to be your personal private Russian tutor.

Just tell them they inspired you to learn some Russian, and try to say basic phrases whenever you’re around them. Most likely they’ll be happy that you show interest in their native language, and will motivate you to continue. They’ll also give you some tips and will like to practice basic conversations with you.

Please keep the emphasis away from you learning Russian. You’re still friends/partners/colleagues. That’s the main thing that binds you. Not your interest in Russian.

Now what do you do if you do not know anyone to practice with?

  • Language classes. If you’re already going to language classes, you will have plenty of opportunities to practice speaking there. If the class is only focused on grammatical concepts, it’s a bad class/teacher/method and you should tell them you are there to learn to speak Russian. So you should all practice speaking Russian together.
  • Russian supermarket. Chances are you have a Russian supermarket or other place in your city or town where Russians meet. Why not go there and buy some tasty Russian food, and practice Russian at the same time.
  • Online tutors/exchange platforms. There are many online platforms where you can get a teacher or language exchange partner. Here you can set up weekly video meetings and practice Russian.

Don’t worry too much about pronunciation though. That is something that will also get better with time and practice.

5) Learn past and future tense

You’ve already come far. You know basic Russian vocabulary, the Cyrillic alphabet and how to conjugate verbs in the present. You’ve also started practicing speaking, and your Russian is starting to get better everyday.

The next step is to learn the past and future tense verb conjugation. Again, this is not something that can be quickly explained here. Most learners can relatively quickly grasp the main concept though, but then it takes practice to say it correctly.

For the past and future tenses, I highly recommend you keep on following an online course such as RussianPod101, or keep on learning with classes in the real world.

6) Explore the Russian cases

Now comes the part most Russian learners hate the most about the Russian language. The Russian case system.

If you are unfamiliar with cases, it’s when nouns change their ending depending on their function in the sentence.

Here are some examples:

  • Это мой дом – that’s my house
  • Меня нет дома – I’m not at home
  • Я в доме – I’m in the house
  • машина стоит близко к дому – the car stand close to the house
  • я горжусь моим домом – I’m proud of my house

See that the nouns for house all have a different ending. If you look at the translation, you see the word for house has a different function each time.

There are 6 different cases. For masculine, feminine, neuter and plural nouns. And all the adjectives can also change their ending for the 6 cases, and need to change it for masculine, feminine, neuter and plural nouns.

So that’s a total of 48 different endings you must know. (In reality it’s less, as there is some overlap).

And you also must know when and how to apply each different case. That’s another advanced topic.

Is your head spinning?

Good. Because this is difficult. It’s arguably the most advanced part of the Russian language.

That doesn’t mean that you cannot learn it. It just takes time and practice.

In order to learn this well, the 2 best ways are still offline classes, or online courses. So either choose classes, or follow an online course, depending on your preferred style of learning.

7) Listen to correct spoken Russian

You’re learning Russian vocabulary, following classes or courses to learn grammatical concepts. You’re also practicing having conversations in Russian.

What is missing?

You’re missing something to improve your understanding of spoken Russian. You’re missing a fun input.

Good input = good output.

So you also must listen a lot to correct spoken Russian. This will help you improve your listening skills. But it also teaches you which words are common. You also learn fun expressions. And if you listen a lot, you might even notice your accent becoming more and more Russian.

Easy ways to practice your listening skills, and get good input are:

  • Movies and series. If you like to watch movies or series in English, you might as well switch to watching them in Russian with subtitles. Maybe they’re a bit worse than what Hollywood produces, but at least you’re doing something useful while sitting at the couch at night 😉
  • Music. Russian music is great if you’re listening to it. It’s fun and you create an emotional connection to the language. The lyrics also tend to not be high level, so you can test yourself to see which words you can recognize in songs.
  • Video games. The same logic as movies and series applies here. If you enjoy playing video games, why not try some Russian ones. They’re just as fun, and you’re learning something useful instead of wasting time in virtual words.

What’s your next step to learn the Russian language?

The previous steps are not meant to be taken as a real step by step guide. But rather they indicate the process I would recommend someone who is completely new to the Russian language.

Start by learning new vocabulary.

Add a systematic approach to learn verbs and cases.

Practice speaking.

Listen to correct Russian.

Do these things on a consistent basis, and you’ll experience great success.

What should you do next?

Learning Russian does NOT need to be difficult. All you need is a solid plan that helps you improve the following things daily:

  • vocabulary
  • grammar
  • listening skills
  • speaking skills

That's ALL you need. If you can do this for a couple of weeks, you’ll already be making great progress in your Russian skills.

And the best part? If you improve a little bit every day, soon these practices will become daily habits.

And then you will start making progress on autopilot.

This means that learning Russian is now a part of your daily routine. So you won’t even need discipline anymore to get yourself to practice.

If you like the idea of this, but don’t know where to start, go here for more information.

About the Author

My name is Ari Helderman and I help people learn Russian through videos and blog posts where I share my experience.   I have been learning Russian since 2016. I often get mistaken for a native speaker these days, so I've learned a thing or two about what works and what doesn't if you want to speak Russian well.

Ari Helderman